It’s no secret that Tasmanian footy is battling. Fewer boys are playing the game and clubs are folding. Can the code come back from the brink?
As the women’s game looks set to power on in 2019, many local Tasmanian clubs are struggling. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
When the Burnie Dockers announced their departure from the Tasmanian State League (TSL), a shockwave was sent through the local footy world.
It seemed tough to fathom the famed club, with a 132-year history, was unable to find the numbers to field two teams in the state’s premier competition.
But, since the call was made to drop back to the North West Football League, the sun has broken through the clouds.
A new sense of enthusiasm has swept through the playing group, who have returned to West Park in greater numbers.
“There’s a real spring in the step now,” Dockers coach Brent Plant says.
“Things have changed considerably in relation to attitudes and playing stocks. The playing numbers are now healthy.”
Burnie quit the state league because only 15 players returned to training post-Christmas. At one point, only six were on the training track.
Since the return to regional football, more than 40 players are attending training.
“It was their lack of want to play TSL football,” Plant says.
“They were good sessions, but the lack of numbers made it a drain on those guys and the coaches alike.”
Put simply, state league football isn’t in vogue amongst those on the north-west coast who can play a lower standard, for more money, and less commitment.
Lower level, more money
The same pressure is being felt in the Southern Football League (SFL).
The New Norfolk Eagles are a powerhouse of Tasmanian football and playing numbers have never been an issue. Until recently.
Player drain to lower leagues is hurting.
New Norfolk, and the other seven SFL clubs, abide by a player points system and a salary cap intended to keep the competition balanced.
But these same rules aren’t applied in the nearby Oatlands District and Old Scholars leagues, which means large sums of cash can be offered to players without regulation or consequence.
“In 2016, we lost 28 players to those other two leagues in southern Tasmania because they were paying money we couldn’t afford to pay,” vice-president Chris Lovell says.
“You’ve got a couple of other leagues sitting outside, who don’t develop youth, cherry picking players from the SFL and the TSL clubs.
“They can afford to pay more money than we can because we are subject to a salary cap.”
Lovell believes this wild, uncapped spending is slowly sucking the life from clubs such as his, as players are drawn away by the lure of more money and less commitment.
“We were told when the TSL started, we’d be feeding out better kids to TSL clubs, and taking them from juniors all the way through,” he says.
“But once they’re out of the TSL competition, they’re not coming back to SFL clubs. They’re going straight to Old Scholars clubs.”
The code has much in the way of competition vying for the participation of young males. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
Deeper struggles will begin in the coming years.
A broader choice of sports, as well as the juggling of part-time work and school, means fewer youth age boys are playing the game.
“When we look at youth football at the under-14 and under-16 age level, kids are walking away” Lovell says.
“At SFL level we are looking at only four to five under-18 clubs this season. So, in the next 12 months there’s going to be even less youth coming through and the situation will be worse.”
The man with the plan
Jackson Hills is set to play a crucial role in ‘flipping the pyramid’.
He’s the general manager of the Tasmanian Football Council, and the conduit between the states mish-mash of regional leagues and AFL Tasmania.
Hills wants every league and association in Tasmania to affiliate, and play by the same rules.
Under his direction, player points systems and hard salary caps would be implemented in every competition and breaches would result in tough penalties.
“There’s stress in the system,” he says.
“Every dollar they put on the table for players is a dollar they cant put into club development or another activity in the community.”
They’re fixes he believes will correct the Tasmanian football ecosystem.
Many players play several games across age divisions to make up team numbers. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
The north-west coast of Tasmania is ground zero for the decline of local football.
Three-thousand men of playing age have left the north-west coast in the past five years.
“We have 15 competitions in our state, which is a lot to be honest. That’s about 500 teams. Some would argue that’s too many senior teams,” Hills says.
“We’ve found that in the north-west and we’re seeing the fragility of that system with Burnie and Devonport.”
Things can be fixed. But as the saying goes, to make an omelette, you need to crack a few eggs.
In the four team Circular Head competition, a lack of numbers means players are ‘doubling up’ and playing reserves and senior grade football in the same day just to justify the existence of the competition.
“The question for Circular Head is, would it be better for that competition and those clubs to survive by being a one team competition? Or by moving ahead with a two team competition?” Hills says.
“There’s passion in those discussions, and you can understand it because some of those clubs have existed for over 100 years.
“We have to respect the history, but also the future and what’s happening in Tasmania. Where people are living, what’s happening in industry and with school and education.”
The boys from New Norfolk Football Club on the training track at Boyer Oval. (ABC News: David Hudspeth)
The West Ulverstone Lions are footy nomads.
For 30 years they’ve bounced around leagues, starting in the now defunct Leven Football Association, before shifting to the Darwin Football Association.
The Lions now call the North West Football Association home, but that could be about to change.
A winless past three seasons has led to a suggestion from the association that the Lions should fall by the wayside.
Club vice-president Lewis McCulloch isn’t budging.
“There’s a lot of teams in the area, but no more than there was 15 or 20 years ago,” he says.
“I think an association would be in the wrong to try and stamp a club out if the club was still financially viable and had the players to field two teams.”
Lewis McCulloch has been involved with the West Ulverstone Football Club since it started in the 1970s. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
Societal change has hit West Ulverstone hard. Once upon a time, bingo was the club’s big money-spinner and in the heydays of the 1980s and ’90s, hundreds would attend their Monday night sessions.
Every cent made would flow back into the club.
“The clubrooms were built and paid for by the bingo sessions, and that would also help to buy things around the club,” McCulloch says.
The jingle of poker machines has drowned out the Lions roar.
“Since the pokies came in the numbers have dropped from about 100 to about 30,” he says.
“We haven’t got any outside financial support at all. We haven’t got any big businesses to throw money our way. We haven’t got any farmers.”
“We haven’t got any outside financial support, we haven’t got any big businesses to throw money our way,” Lewis McCulloch says of West Ulverstone. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
Think outside the square
Ridgley Football Club stalwart Norm House is an innovator.
For years, his idea of reducing the Darwin Football Association’s (DFA) reserves league to a 16-a-side competition was knocked back.
But eventually, the DFA saw the writing on the wall and dwindling numbers meant House’s radical idea was approved.
In years gone by, large families employed by the local dairy industry would supply keen footballers.
That’s all changed.
“We used to have half-a-dozen families. You’d get a side out of that. They’ve all moved on, or shifted away,” he says.
House is now leading the charge for the DFA’s senior competition to also implement 16-a-side. It’s a move he believes could ensure Ridgley’s, and the league’s survival.
For the DFA though, the move is a step too far.
“If you don’t adapt, you’re going to fold. It’s as simple as that,” House warns.
“The way clubs are situated, they don’t want to give away what they’ve got. But once the points system kicks in they’ll find out they don’t need all those players because they cant play them.
“It’ll be too late then.”
The Saints have fallen on hard times before, but nothing like this.
And rather than help local football, House says that when AFL club Hawthorn comes to town, clubs like Ridgley are hit hard.
“You lose a fair few. Your ground staff, your people on the gate and on the bar and doing other jobs head off to the football. You lose. You can’t replace them at the drop of a hat.”
Another strategy for clubs is to open the door to female participation, with some clubs already fielding women’s teams.
But for Tasmanian bush clubs, fielding a women’s side means a financial outlay in administration costs, equipment purchases, use of facilities and personnel which they say will push them beyond breaking point.
Late last week, Ridgley decided it was unable to field a reserves team in 2018.
The AFL Tasmania Academy players hit the gym as part of training at Ulverstone. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
‘Mergers are good’
Bill Sorell knows what its like to see his club die.
He was at the helm of the Sandy Bay football club when it played its final game in 1997.
It was bad finances that brought the Seagulls down, exacerbated by an aging local population.
“Sandy Bay was an older area. They tended to go sailing or play bowls or something. Footy wasn’t the priority,” Sorell says.
Bill Sorell says clubs should do whatever it takes to survive, even amalgamating. (ABC News: Chris Rowbottom)
Ironically, the club survives now as a strong junior entity.
Sorell sympathises with the plight of regional clubs, and says in hindsight, he’d do anything to keep the Sandy Bay name alive, including amalgamate.
Once its gone, it’s gone forever.
“Anything you can do, you should do. Mergers are good.
“Fifty per cent of something is better than 100 per cent of nothing.”