Country footy looks to change in bid to re-energise and preserve the game
Advocates of change say they want to give clubs more games against evenly-matched teams. (ABC Grandstand: Joel Peterson)
For more than a century, geography has been the glue holding together Aussie Rules football competitions across country Victoria.
But population decline in rural areas over several decades has led to widespread mergers and closures of clubs and leagues.
As the eternal struggle for players, volunteers, and money continues, administrators are looking at whether new measures are needed to preserve and re-energise the local game.
A ‘points system’ has been introduced to effectively act as a salary cap, to close the gaps between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and to reduce the risk of clubs overspending while chasing success.
But there are still massive differences in the quality of teams at the top and bottom of some competitions.
Clashes with neighbours, like these two clubs from Corryong in north-east Victoria, are a staple of country football. (ABC National Regional Digital: Marc Eiden)
So in a further attempt to try to level the playing field, some administrators are considering whether broader regional competitions featuring divisions based on ability are the answer.
Such structures are commonplace in suburban Melbourne, but they are largely untested in the regions.
Geelong breaks with tradition
At the end of this season two clubs will be relegated from the Geelong Football League, creating a 10-team premier regional competition.
The relegated sides will join the neighbouring Bellarine league.
From 2019, clubs at this level will be able to chase promotion to the top local tier, or face demotion to the Geelong District league.
But any movement between leagues will be based on criteria such as junior development, netball playing stocks, and financial performance, not just the results of the senior football team.
“There’s a bit of noise being made now around it, but we’re strong in out conviction that is has to happen,” AFL Barwon’s Lee Hartman said.
“We know ourselves that if no change is made some of the clubs, their sustainability is questionable.”
The long term plan for AFL Barwon is four divisions, each made up of 10 clubs.
The AFL Goldfields region, which takes in Ballarat and another 13 local government areas across western and central Victoria, is facing up to questions about its structure.
There has been discussion about its Riddell District league, straddling the peri-urban region of Melbourne’s growing outer north-west and the rural area of the Macedon Ranges, being split into two divisions.
“People interviewed [during 2017] did see the merits of having promotion and relegation, but I suppose when it was all said and done, there was genuine concern about the geographic size of the region,” Rod Ward from AFL Goldfields said.
There are questions about the place of netball in any new league structure. (ABC Grandstand: Joel Peterson)
Is it better for a club to limit travel for members to restrict their costs and time commitments, or to seek more evenly-matched competitors across a broader region to encourage participation?
Distance is already a significant strain for some clubs with clashes between Bairnsdale and Wonthaggi, Mansfield and Echuca, or Hay and Nullawil taking several hundreds of kilometres of driving and significant levels of organisation.
But even if long-distance fixtures are not quite as rare as they once were, travel is far from the only point to consider.
Where does netball, so closely linked to football in country Victoria, fit in any new structure?
And is there appetite for change, given the weight of history and the heartache so many have been through?
Paul Daffey has been writing about local footy for decades and has recently published a history of the Victorian Country Football League.
He is an advocate of the divisional structure.
“Country people have always resisted divisional football — at great lengths and with great fervour — but I think it’s inevitable,” Mr Daffey said.
Mergers and the closures of local leagues have been confronting, although there was an upside for Ouyen United in 2016 when it won the Sunraysia premiership during its first season in the league. (ABC News: Landline)
He said while regional footy had not embraced the system, it had become a great tradition in Melbourne’s amateur league, the VAFA.
“They have divisions of 10 clubs, and every year it’s two up, two down,” he said.
“If you’re seventh you’re fighting for a place in the [finals] and you can be, at the same time, fighting to avoid relegation
“So there is a keenness to the competition in every section that you just don’t see in country footy competitions.”
Mr Daffey believes the country footy culture of local rivalries and friendships remains a significant force in opposition to change.
“For footy to maintain the hold it has is something of a triumph, given the population forces [of] people drifting from the farms and the small towns into the large towns,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be a given that the AFL will always remain the cultural force that it is now. These things can change in a generation or two.”
Mr Hartman acknowledged that many people would be watching just how the system worked in the Geelong region.
“Definitely, the eyes are on us. It will be a bit of a test case,” he said.
“Hopefully once it’s all up an running it can show how successful it can be.”