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  • Writer's pictureJohn Townsend

Dark clouds around but WAFL review a little more than blue sky

It’s been a couple of weeks since the WA Football Commission dropped the bombshell that the WAFL was stuffed.

Clubs were in financial disarray, the only people going to matches were middle-aged blokes, the same teams were winning and the same teams were losing, and club boards didn’t have acceptable gender diversity. This was from the body charged with overseeing WA football. It is also the body charged with answering many of the questions raised in the Challenge for Change review.

C4C is the third review of WA football in just over half a decade and, like the previous two, will most likely fade into obscurity. In fact, it was a surprise that Nick Marvin’s review even surfaced when it did. I was interviewed for the review, as were dozens of other people in and around the game, but my conversation happened so long ago – two years ago actually - that I thought the whole matter had been shelved as yet another expensive vanity project with limited real value.

That appeared the case with Boston Consulting Group’s structural review in 2017 that, apart from sucking a reported $600,000 out of WA footy, made almost zero difference to the game. Boston’s only substantial recommendation that was acted on was to take talent development, i.e. colts, off clubs and effectively hand that programme to the commission itself.

That move failed so spectacularly that the colts soon reverted to the clubs who, for all their plentiful faults, are still the best equipped vehicle to convert promising youngsters into decent footballers. Whispers that the WAFC may use C4C to take full control of country development off clubs, on the grounds that some clubs do it better – or worse - than others, is destined to follow the Boston path.

The other review was the parliamentary inquiry into State funding of football that reported in 2020 and saw its chairman and most passionate advocate Tony Buti elevated – briefly – to sports minister. That review made 58 findings and handed down 23 recommendations.

Some, such as the push to revamp the commissioner election process to make it less complicated and more transparent, were simply waved off. Others, such as the most critical recommendation that said: “The WAFC should provide mechanisms to ensure that the WAFL continues to be, and remains sustainable as, the premier State competition” go to the heart of what the future should look like.

Let’s look at some of the findings that have made the commission suggest the WAFL sky is about to fall in. One is that average attendances have fallen in the past few years but is that not an arithmetic consequence of five games being played now rather than the four that have been the staple for so many decades?

And given that West Coast are the lowest drawing team in a century, it is bleedingly obvious why average crowds have dropped.

Go back to four games a weekend and you will see average crowds rebound immediately. And rather than fear that 50-year-old men are the WAFL’s core constituency, why not embrace one of Australia’s fastest growing demographics.

If things continue as they are, the WAFL heartland is likely to expand with committed followers armed with considerable disposable income. Forget trying to attract teenage girls – go old blokes who remember Bill Monaghan and Stephen Bilcich in their prime.

There aren’t enough women on club boards, the review said. Fair enough, but whose fault is that? There is no WAFL club that wouldn’t welcome a director – male or female – who can bring energy, smarts, contacts, time and corporate support. Any women up for that?

The big one is finances, which are described as “fragile” in the Marvin report. Hello! That could have been lifted from this columnist’s analysis after being asked to assess the state of the WAFL in 2020.

Like global food stocks, there is no shortage of money in the football economy,” that analysis said. “West Coast have just spent $35 million on their new training facility but have another $45 million in the bank; Nic Naitanui’s pay packet is equivalent to the salary cap of about four WAFL clubs.

“The critical issue and source of most grief is where the money – or food – is distributed. “In the WAFL’s case, it is distributed so thinly that most clubs exists on a hand-to-mouth basis and as West Perth underlined recently, are rarely far from disaster.

“Clubs are forever walking a financial tightrope…one tumble and the game is over.”

It is a pity that Buti no longer has the sport portfolio because he had the capacity and interest to oversee football’s quest for success but his words carry a clear message. “The WAFC must ensure that the WAFL continues to be the premier State competition; history, traditions and the fabric of our communities demands as much,” he said.

Hear, hear.



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