Clever AFL targets young hearts and young minds
The AFL season kicked off in Sydney this weekend, with the Swans/Giants showdown at the old Olympic Stadium. Not that you’d have known in Sydney’s inner south, where I live.
At my two local pubs, both of which are firmly in NRL Dragons territory, every single TV monitor was tuned to the live NRL match between the Dragons and Sea Eagles. I would sooner have ordered a Pimms and Lemonade than ask the bar staff to change the channel.
The AFL won’t despair over this. Their main target market isn’t the over-30s who’ll likely never pay any attention to the scrappy, unmanly sport from the southern states.
In the broad scheme, even $4 million recruit Israel Folau and the endless public appearances by GWS coach Kevin Sheedy (who this week admitted his role was 70 per cent coach, 30 per cent marketer) will matter little too.
Neither will the bottomless swag of free tickets handed out to bolster Saturday night’s crowd to a still-not-very-impressive 38,000 make much difference in the big scheme.
Ultimately, what will make or break the AFL’s second wave into Sydney will be junior players. If a new generation of Sydney kids grows up with AFL blood flowing through their veins, then the AFL’s dream of national conquest might – just might – materialise.
Sydney’s Henson Park is a ground better known as the home of the Newtown Jets, who last appeared in rugby league’s top tier in 1982. Today, the Jets bumble along in rugby league’s second tier competition. And the huge bowl-like expanses of Henson Park now have four white posts at either end.
For the last three weeks, the local council and junior AFL club the Newtown Swans, have put on AFL clinics for kids. At least three development officers have been in attendance at each event. They start at the very beginning.
“OK kids. So what’s it called when you catch the ball in AFL?”
About half the hands go up. “A mark,” says a kid in a Carlton jumper. Well, of course he’d know. There are always a few southern refugees with kids at these events. The blow-in parents give themselves away with their attitude and club regalia. They are the AFL’s unofficial foot soldiers, determined to make every northern heathen see the light.
Their kids can play too. In contested mark situations, they grab the ball every time. The Sydney kids are close to clueless. Positionally, they have no idea where to put themselves during the practice game. Some can’t even kick the ball. But all are keen.
AFL, and especially the watered down kiddie game of Auskick, is in many ways the ideal sport for kids. They run around, chase the ball, maybe even get a kick or two. In fact, they all get a kick. The development officers ensure it. There’s no tackling either, so that no girl or boy drops out of the school of hard knocks.
This is a parent’s dream. Mums love the lack of contact and Dads love the fact their kid will get a go. They don’t even keep score, so nobody feels like a loser. The competitiveness, or lack thereof, is a sore point for my five year old son, who learned to add six to any number after watching Dave Warner in the cricket all summer.
But the bottom line is that the game is played not in the name of competitiveness, but for the sake of a good run around. New recruits also get an Auskick pack complete with free footy, pump and a whole bunch of goodies. My kid is thrilled to be a Newtown Swan, and he’s a mad keen NRL fan who can’t name a single AFL player.
This is where the AFL is doing its most meaningful work, and where the billion dollar TV rights war chest is being most wisely spent. The AFL has 100 development officers operating in Sydney. One hundred employees dedicated to growing the game. Last year, almost 100,000 NSW and ACT kids tried the game for a period of at least six weeks. That’s serious bananas.
Not that any of this guarantees that today’s Auskick juniors will be tomorrow’s AFL fans. Soccer has long had the highest junior participation numbers in Australia, yet that has never translated to making the national competition any more popular than the National basketball League.
Neither is there the certainty that GWS will succeed or that the AFL will eat into rugby league’s stranglehold on the heart and purse strings of people in Sydney’s west.
This much we do know. Change happens through the impressionable young, not the stubborn middle-aged and old. You can’t watch the AFL at certain Sydney pubs today, but I bet you’ll be able to in 20 years, if not much sooner.
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