The other AFL story this week: the new Queensland powerhouse?

The biggest story in AFL this week has revolved around the vilification of one of the marquee players of the game. I do not want to get into that: enough has been written and said and whilst I am very concerned at the way it has been handled by the AFL there is another story about AFL that I want to comment on. I will quote the CEO of the AFL:

“By the end of the year, that [Queensland’s] will the second highest participation rate in Australia, higher than WA or South Australia”.

That is right folks: AFL is apparently a big business in Queensland and that is even when compared to rugby league. These statistics don’t lie: rugby league reports that in 2012 it had 170,027 active participants whilst the AFL reports that it had 155,000 such participants. Additionally, AFL is working off the back of growth in participation numbers of 9% per annum. That, in anyone’s language, is exceptionally good growth.

I should be very clear here: I am more a fan of cricket and rugby union rather than rugby league or AFL. What I find interesting about those numbers is the significant shift in the demographic of the players of sport in Queensland. Times certainly have changed from when I was a kid running around sports fields playing sport. Some 25 years ago I did not know that one could play AFL in Queensland and I would be astonished if any young bloke growing up in my generation thought any different. AFL was not the played sport back then: you played rugby league in the winter or cricket in the summer and that was pretty much it.

So why am I writing about this? Two reasons:

1. I do not believe the AFL and Brisbane Lions in particular have received enough kudos for the work they have done to develop the game in this state; and
2. It has to be stated that rugby league has done an equally poor job.

Upon the Lions winning their brace of three premierships they have leveraged off their massive up lift in membership and attendances at games to educate the people of Queensland about the game. The last of those victories was a decade ago and yet the fans continue to flock to the Gabba in droves to watch their team. What I think the Lions and the AFL have done particularly well is that they have won over the parents of sports playing kids.

Obviously one of the ways in which they have done this is that they have publicised the game of AFL as an essentially non-contact alternative to rugby league for children. Also, it is obvious when one goes to the games (I have attended recently at the Gabba as well on the Gold Coast) that attendance at the games is certainly kid friendly. Every game I have been too I have been impressed with number of children in attendance and engaged in the game.

The rugby league authorities have not done enough, conversely, in my view to make attendance at games kid friendly. This is an entirely personal view based solely on my attendances at games. The test that I have applied in coming to this conclusion is whether I would be happy to take my nephews or kids of my mates to a game and, indeed, have I actually done so? This year I have taken my nephews / kids of my mates to AFL and rugby union games but I have always been hesitant about taking them to a rugby league game. The vibe is just different: I cannot explain it. I guess I am going to be less likely to take young kids to a sporting contest that I myself in the past have felt personally threatened for my safety being in the crowd and that has only ever happened at rugby league games.

I am not at all here casting negative aspersions on rugby league fans: I am not. What I am saying is that if there is one area in which the NRL and the other rugby league authorities including the clubs have let themselves down it is in making the game family friendly. Of course parents, particularly mothers, are going to prefer their children to play a game that they feel comfortable taking them to watch.

The other area in which I think the NRL has let itself down is in its traditional heartland. Whilst kids are still playing rugby league in, for example, Ipswich and Toowoomba, it is entirely obvious that the AFL is making inroads in both places given, for example, the involvement of a number of junior teams from the Ipswich area in the greater Brisbane junior AFL competitions. A NRL team in either centre or even in Central Queensland would go a long way to pause those inroads being made by the AFL.

The rugby league authorities need to lift their game in Queensland: there is no escaping that. Equally, I for one am pleased that kids these days have a freedom of choice when it comes to sports they play. The fact that those kids have that choice is all to the credit of the AFL. I am waiting with baited breath for a similar report to come out next year on 2013 participation numbers in sport. I am fairly certain that the AFL will have pushed passed the rugby league to be the most popular oval ball sport in Queensland. Who ever thought they would see that day? I, for one, certainly did not!

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