“This is about control and money. We’re talking about trying to pull away from a peak body that has billions of dollars, because we don’t like some of what they do.”
At the Annual General Meeting of the Black Diamond AFL earlier this month, Warner’s Bay Junior AFL club President Mark Philpott summed up the difficult decision the independent body that manages the Hunter and Central Coast’s senior Aussie rules competitions will eventually have to make.
The BDAFL has long sought substantial funding from the AFL to sustain Aussie Rules in the Rugby and Soccer-dominated region, having received some support through small grants in recent years.
Last month, the AFL – which manages the junior leagues through AFL Hunter Coast - revealed what it wants in return for this injection: The junior and senior competitions in the regions combined into one entity from next year.
This merger is something the BDAFL and AFL both want. Where they disagree is on how this hypothetical body should look.
The AFL is pushing for a seven-person board with at least three or four board members they approve. “Our experience nationally and across New South Wales is that such a model will grow and enhance football in the region,” says the AFL’s state football operations manager Sam Chadwick.
But the BDAFL doesn’t support the AFL having a majority, or its argument no one who holds an official role on a club board or committee should be allowed on the new body.
“The AFL have consistently applauded the work of the Black Diamond,” says BDAFL President Wal Bembic. “We’ve worked really hard to produce a healthy, vibrant league, and part of that’s been due to not getting much funding. So we’ve had to go out and work to produce a product that sponsors want to be affiliated with.”
“Only now it’s come out the AFL wants to introduce their governance model have they decided we’re not doing a good job.”
Wal also says the AFL has introduced a new by-law in the past fortnight which requires any competition structure to “meet their approval”.
AFL NSW/ACT’s Regional Manager for northern NSW Simon Smyth also turned up to the meeting, to field questions from clubs about their proposal. He insists the AFL is not looking to take over, as has been made out, but simply wants to provide more resources.
The BDAFL is currently one of only three leagues in NSW that still has a board independent of the AFL, and one of a diminishing number nationwide. For the past few decades, the body governing the elite level of the game has been gradually increasing its share of power at a community level as well, incorporating more and more grassroots leagues into its organisation.
Last year’s AFL annual report states there are ‘360,648 participants in community club football made up of 14,772 teams in 2755 clubs and 230 leagues’, with another 120,000 volunteers on top of these numbers.
With the exceptions of South and Western Australia, the AFL directly owns and funds all state and territory bodies overseeing the majority of these leagues - AFL NSW/ACT, AFL Queensland, AFL Victoria, AFL Tasmania and AFL NT – out of its Docklands headquarters.
Despite its growing presence, the AFL is regularly criticised for a perceived lack of understanding and investment in the lower level of the game.
The annual report also revealed of the $348 million the governing body gave out in distributions, $250.4 million went to the 18 elite clubs. In comparison, $57.8 million was allocated - via the state and territory bodies - to support the development of players and facilities at a grassroots level. An AFL spokesperson has said there is no state-by-state breakdown of this expenditure.
For the AFL, the true value of a seat at the community club table is a new position from which it can pursue its attempts to grow its business – primarily through growing playing numbers and club fees.
Both Wal and BDAFL Treasurer Garry Burkinshaw are concerned the AFL’s focus on profit and participation might come at the expense of club health.
"AFL NSW/ACT believes they can make a forty to fifty grand reduction per annum in league costs," Burkinshaw tells the meeting. "We wonder whether it will be possible for this to happen while still maintaining the programs offered to the clubs, such as the coaches development program and footy record. We also gave back forty grand to clubs through subsidies this year."
The Black Diamond isn’t the only community league resisting pressure from the AFL to let it run the local competitions. Down in Tasmania, Kimbra Pettit, Vice President the Old Scholars Football Association, has had first-hand experience of the disadvantageous impacts AFL control can have on grassroots clubs.
Kimbra was previously the Secretary and Treasurer of Channel Football Club, which had a 13-year stint in the Southern Football League before leaving to join the independent OSFA in 2009.
She says a number of decisions hobbled Channel while it was under the AFL’s umbrella.
“We had no juniors filtering through,” Kimbra explains. “At that stage the ruling with the SFL was you had to field an Under-17 boys side, a Reserves and a Seniors. But they also gave some clubs 12 months before they had to do that. So sometimes our boys weren’t playing for two weeks, because some clubs didn’t have an underage (sic).”
Kimbra says Channel also lost out when AFL Tasmania backed a nearby SFL club, Kingborough, in its bid to join the Tasmanian State League.
“The AFL decided they’d acquire land at Kingston and put two ovals on it. They put about $500,000 into that. (After) Kingborough was granted a licence into the TSL, our better players and anyone who thought they could play at a higher standard went there. Instead of using the SFL as a pathway, they just came in and took from… a lot of clubs.”
Though they went from being thrashed each week to almost making the finals in the Old Scholars, ultimately, Channel couldn’t cope with a shortage of players, and folded last year.
Kimbra is now proud of OSFA’s power structure, which prioritises giving clubs control of its affairs.
“Every decision made is voted on by the six clubs. Nothing goes through without their support. Some of them will whinge because their motions get outvoted, but ultimately they respect the fact it’s them making the decisions, and all the money raised from the finals goes to the clubs.”
While she and the OSFA board remain guarded against AFL Tasmania’s approaches.
“They come to our pre-season meetings, list the pros and cons and tell us to go away think about it for next year. We listen to them, obviously, we’re respectful of them, but we never entertain the idea and we never have.”
As part of its proposal for the Hunter and Central Coast, Chadwick says AFL NSW/ACT 'has committed to investing in three full-time community football staff to manage the competitions and support clubs, plus additional media support along with existing development staff and benefits currently provided'.
Better resourcing, increased investment in the region and lower costs to clubs and players have also been promised as benefits.
But Kimbra says it’s reasonable for the BDAFL to be critical of these proposals.
“They promise you better resourcing, but that has to be a paid job, which takes away from money that would go into your league,” she says.
“They’re paying the salary to somebody that’s supposedly overseeing (the competitions) but we never meet.”
At the meeting, Smyth denied the AFL would be taking money away from clubs, saying it will completely fund the new resources it’s offering, beyond what it already provides the region.
At this stage, it’s business as usual for season 2018 as far as the BDAFL is concerned. After Smyth departs, fixtures, fees and plans to promote teams from five clubs to first grade are discussed, along with a player points system to replace recruitment limits on dominant clubs as an equalisation strategy.
While delegates from the AFL-linked junior clubs like Philpott support the proposal, it appears the senior clubs are just as prepared to back the BDAFL.
“We just want to play football, so most clubs just want to see it resolved one way or another,” says Warner’s Bay’s Todd Shelton. “But from a senior club perspective, the Black Diamond Board has done a wonderful job, and I don’t see why that has to change.”
Another BDAFL board meeting is set to take place on November 22nd, by when they hope to have some concrete proposals about the immediate future, agreed on by the clubs, to put to the AFL. Wal is hopeful the AFL will be open to each body running their respective competitions as normal next year, as they continue to work with AFL to come up with the best model.
“I think that would be a prudent result. The AFL need to demonstrate to our clubs they can run football in the region, because they haven’t done that thus far,” he says.
“What we don’t’ want is the Black Diamond to be managed out of Sydney. We want local people making decisions for local footy, and we’ve proven that model works.”
While down south, Kimbra says OSFA is now attracting interest from other clubs in the SFL.
She’ll be keeping a close eye on this chapter in the story of Australian football on the Hunter and Central Coast: Jaded from her time with a club under the AFL’s administration, she advocates for grassroots leagues that are still self-governing to do all they can to stay that way.
“I reckon if you have a strong executive and your club presidents and delegates are strong, (you should) stand alone.”