Gavel / Oh, how the big men fly

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AN out-of-the-blue phone call six years ago gave me an insight into the AFL’s intent in the Canberra sporting market.

The caller said the AFL was doing more in Canberra schools to develop the code than it had ever done before. Teachers, burdened enough with teaching responsibilities, expressed a sense of relief when AFL development officers, armed with significant resources, turned up with the offer of running school AFL programs and competitions. There was even the offer of goalposts.

Tim Gavel.

It was a wake-up call to rival sports that have since considerably lifted their game in a bid to match the AFL’s development and community programs.

In the past, the AFL has made several ill-fated attempts to crack the Canberra market with the Kangaroos and Fitzroy. It appears now to have hit the mark!

Just as other sports have got their act together, the AFL is about to launch the next wave.

At a luncheon in the lead up to the Giant’s first Friday-night game at Manuka Oval, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan uttered a prediction that could have a major impact on sport in Canberra.

Unprompted, McLachlan forecast that AFL would become the number one code in Canberra within five years. What is meant by “number one” I am not entirely sure.

GWS still has some way to go before it catches the Raiders in terms of overall crowds. The Brumbies have dropped back in popularity after being the top-drawing code in Canberra for years.

Free-to-air television ratings, to a certain extent, provide a barometer of popularity in Canberra and suggest that League remains the dominant sport, followed by the AFL on Channel 7’s secondary channel. Ratings for soccer remain small by comparison on SBS and Super Rugby has no live exposure on free-to-air.

Pay television numbers trail free-to-air by a considerable margin.

When it comes to women’s participation, the AFL has emerged as a genuine contender to the traditionally strong women’s sports of soccer and netball. Both soccer and netball have well-established pathway programs that have resulted in growth in the sports.

Cricket and basketball have also lifted their game in a bid to attract more participants in Canberra with modified versions of their sports.

However, rival sports must be in awe of the resources at the disposal of the AFL, which are difficult to match. The AFL has the ability to have more development officers on the ground than any other sport in Canberra and when the CEO says he wants it to be the dominant sport, it’s fair to predict no stone will be left unturned in a bid to achieve that goal.

The AFL is also better at securing government funding for facilities and programs than any other sport in Australia. Part of its pitch is the contribution made by the AFL towards the upgrade of sporting facilities. Governments see this as a major factor in allocating funds.

This is an area rival codes can’t match, mainly because of the funds required. For instance, in Canberra the Raiders have been lobbying for a centre of excellence at their facility in Braddon. To say things have moved slowly in terms of securing ARL and government funding is an understatement.

In contrast, the AFL seems able to get things moving rapidly. I presume this is why the prediction of the AFL boss could become a reality.

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Tim Gavel
Journalist and ABC sports broadcaster

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