A FALL in the male participation rate in Gippsland and expectations of a dramatic increase in population at the western end of the region are driving major changes to the structure of football/netball competition in the area.

As outlined in ColganBauer’s interim ‘G25 Strategy’ report, released yesterday, the changes are set to start modestly enough with the six Alberton clubs joining the nine Mid Gippsland clubs to make a 15-team competition as early as 2021.

It’s an outcome that Fish Creek FNC in the Alberton League has warmly welcomed.

But more widespread changes are to follow by 2025, involving a divisional league competition at the western end of the Gippsland region, however one that allows the West Gippsland competition and Ellinbank League “to maintain their heritage”.

A driving force behind the change is the failing participation rate by senior men and junior males in Gippsland, with no growth in the senior ranks against the state average of 2% and junior males drifting away from the game.

Gippsland women by comparison are embracing the game in record numbers, up 140% against a state average of 48% for senior women and both junior female and youth female growth rates strong as well.

It is also proposed that there be a reduction in salary caps and for AFL Victoria to conduct a review of the player points program currently being used in Gippsland to identify ways to incentivise junior retention and development by senior clubs.

In detail, the new Mid Gippsland-Alberton league would become an 18-team competition with an annual rotation of home and away games, followed by a top-eight finals structure.

Nick Shaw, co-president of Fish Creek FNC says the change would be good for football, netball and for the whole region.

“It would be great if it happened,” Shaw said on Monday.

“After three years, it would be great if anything happened. Alberton can’t stay the way it is.”

But he said it would ultimately be up to individual clubs and leagues to decide.

The main reason given for the change is “sustainability”.

The bigger league size, according to consultants for AFL Victoria, ColganBauer, would boost financial security providing higher protection for the league in a low/no growth area.

“The amalgamation of the two leagues under the Mid Gippsland governance of the MGFNL will improve the financial position for all members. A final eight structure will ensure more teams play finals, increase the number of finals played to nine – which should also improve the financial health of the competition,” says the report.

“The demographic and economic dynamics between the Southern Gippsland clubs and Mid-Gippsland are similar, while the dynamics in the Western Corridor a different. The Mid Gippsland FNL structure is financially sound with a robust governance model that can accommodate the addition of the South Gippsland clubs and provide the opportunity for the South Gippsland clubs to be active members.

The plan is also to develop a divisional in the western region “to manage the competitive balance by 2025” but with the promotion and relegation criteria likely to be the sticking point.

Significant risks to football in the region will ramp up if there are no changes.

“If clubs are not competitively sustainable on-field, with player attraction becoming difficult, player attrition will increase, and sponsorship revenue will be harder to acquire. If there is not an improvement in competitive balance in select Gippsland leagues, weaker clubs may lose too many players to field sides and subsequently fold or must merge to survive.”

Paying big bucks to out-of-region players to top-up Gippsland playing lists is not sustainable in the future from a financial perspective. Currently, AFNL relies on 20% top-up of players from out of the region. These Melbourne-based players are driving up the total player payments as higher payments are required incentivising them to drive down to Southern Gippsland every week. This reliance on top-up players for the western and southern leagues also places Gippsland participation levels at risk to external factors such as increases in player salary caps in metropolitan regions. Without addressing this reliance, player costs will continue to remain at the same level as they are today, which have been expressed as not sustainable in the long-term by the Gippsland community clubs.

From the ColganBauer report

Scope of the review

The Gippsland region has a rich football history with some leagues dating back to the 19th century. However, while community football across Victoria continues to grow, macro challenges have emerged that are impacting community clubs and their respective competitions, including in Gippsland.

To address the concerns and develop a long-term plan for the Gippsland region, AFL Victoria engaged ColganBauer to conduct an independent review into the structure of Gippsland Football. The focus is on creating a structure to ensure the sustainability of football in the region going forward, with a view for developing a strategy for football in Gippsland called the “G25 Strategy”. The G25 Strategy addresses the Gippsland challenges and determines the appropriate operating structure, including governance and competitions, to ensure long term growth for community football in the Gippsland Region.

The strategy differs from previous reviews at it covers both competition, development and growth areas specific to community football in Gippsland and is structured around:

  1. Playing the Game: Determine the right competition structure for the region and how to create a sustainable future.
  2. Growing the Game: Identify the challenges and factors impacting the growth of football in Gippsland.
  3. Running the Game: Determine the main issues and develop recommendations related to all off-field administrative aspects of community football in Gippsland.

Scope of this document

Th G25 document captures the final recommendations relating to the senior football/ netball competitions structures. Based on community feedback on the need for clarity on competitions structures as soon as possible, we have accelerated the release of this section of the report to AFL Victoria. The recommendations relate to the significant structural changes for the leagues in the Gippsland region. We have not commented on the normal movement of clubs between leagues and would expect the natural flow of clubs to continue as competitions change and evolve. The remaining recommendations relating to “Playing the Game” – youth competition structures, “Growing the Game” and “Running the Game” will be shared in a secondary document, provided to the AFL on 30 June, per the terms of reference.

Approach

This review focused on extensive engagement with the Gippsland football community. ColganBauer has provided several opportunities for individuals, clubs, leagues, and participants to provide feedback and commentary on the state of football in the region. This review consisted of four phases:

  1. Desktop review.
  2. Industry engagement via town hall meetings/industry surveys/club submissions, AFL Victoria.
  3. Evaluation and solution design.
  4. Post-draft consultation and solution refinement, with consultation including: a. Virtual town halls with the region b. Sessions with League presidents c. One on One interviews d. Written submissions from the Gippsland community The contents of this final report are the views and recommendations of ColganBauer, AFL Victoria will need to review the recommendations with the industry to determine their position.

Factors impacting competition structures

AFL Victoria identified the need to develop a strategy for community football in Gippsland to address three critical issues that are impacting the competition structure for the region:

  1. The current league structures are not sustainable. Following restructures of the leagues in Gippsland, the Alberton League has reduced to six clubs and, under the current model, this league is not viable.
  2. There is a decline in participation in the Gippsland region. Current Gippsland participation rates are declining while Victorian country participation is growing – male juniors are declining at 1% per year, male youth at 2% per year and male seniors are flat. Junior participation decline is a lead indicator for future issues with participation at a senior level.
  3. Demographic changes are impacting community football. Over the last ten years, the population in Gippsland has been increasingly ageing, with low overall population growth across the region. Population growth is flat in the most eastern areas compared to the western regions, alongside increasing migration to regional centres. All these factors have been impacting club sustainability and competitive balance.

Key “Play the Game” recommendations league structures (senior football)

In reviewing the league structures, we have looked to determine what is going to provide the most robust model that will allow football in Gippsland to adapt over the next five years to the challenges that will face and give the most flexibility.

Since the release of the draft recommendations contained within the interim report, we have conducted extensive community consultation and had to consider the impact of COVID on the region. As a result, we have updated our recommendations with regards to “Playing the Game.”

There are two key recommendations in relations to senior football:

  1. The Alberton Football Netball League clubs integrate into the Mid Gippsland Football Netball League competition to create a healthy 15 club competition. This recommendation should be in place for the 2021 season.
  2. Create divisional football in the Western Corridor of the Gippsland region by 2025. The timing allows for the planning required to shift to this model and assess the impact of the current shutdown. This proposal provides for greater flexibility the teams that may look to join the Western Leagues as it supports competitive balance.

As a result of the proposed recommendations the Ellinbank & District Football League, North Gippsland Football Netball League, East Gippsland Football Netball League and Omeo & District Football Netball League will not be impacted and should continue in their current model.

The recommendations have considered the impact of COVID on the region. As things are still changing, there may be further adjustment requirements during implementation through the agreement between AFL Victoria, AFL Gippsland and the Gippsland Community.

Executive Summary

Summary of the findings and recommendations in the report.

Challenges: Through consultation, we identified a series of challenges across each of these areas:

  1. The current league structures are not sustainable: a. The creation of the West Gippsland Football Netball Competition resulted in the Alberton league reducing to seven teams. When an Alberton club, DWWW, entered administration, this reduced to six clubs for the 2019 season. A six-team league will not be sustainable moving forward. b. Significant growth in the western corridor of the region is forecast over the next ten years.The competition model needs to be flexible enough to adapt to these changes.

Recommendations

ColganBauer appreciates the level of involvement from all stakeholders across the Gippsland community football to date. There is a highly motivated football community in the region with a great passion for Gippsland football.

P.1. The Alberton FNL Clubs to join the Mid Gippsland FNL for the 2021 season.

Detail: In 2019, six teams competed in the Alberton Football Netball Competition, and nine clubs in the Mid Gippsland FNL. Integrate into the Mid Gippsland Football Netball League competition to create a 15-club competition. The league structure would then become an 18 round season, with an annual rotation of home and away, followed by a top-eight finals structure.

Rationale: 1. League sustainability, for the smaller leagues with less financial security having a larger league size, will provide high protection for the league that may come from further shocks. 2. It is forecast that the Western corridor will continue to grow, but the central and southern parts of Gippsland is going to have low/ no growth. Highlighting the need to strength central Gippsland. 3. The amalgamation of the two leagues under the Mid Gippsland governance of the MGFNL will improve the financial position for all members. 4. A final eight structure will ensure more teams play finals, increase the number of finals played to nine – which should also improve the financial health of the competition. 5. The demographic and economic dynamics between the Southern Gippsland clubs and Mid-Gippsland are similar, while the dynamics in the Western Corridor a different. 6. The Mid Gippsland FNL structure is financially sound with a robust governance model that can accommodate the addition of the South Gippsland clubs and provide the opportunity for the South Gippsland clubs to be active members.

P2. Develop a model in the western region to manage the competitive balance by 2025.

Detail: Shift to divisional football in the Western corridor, with the West Gippsland competition and Ellinbank League maintain their heritage. To be implemented at the point of best fit before 2025 Before the implementation of the divisional structure clubs should develop the promotion/relegation criteria.

Rationale: 1. Address the forecasted population trends in the western half of Gippsland, where the north-west population is growing at a faster rate than the south-west, which will impact competitive balance and the financial strength of clubs. 2. There are currently two levels of competition within both leagues (as measured by average club win rate over three years). By creating a divisional structure, the competitive balance across these two league’s associated clubs should improve.

P.3. Update salary caps by the start of 2021. Apply a reduction in salary caps to all Gippsland senior competitions. The modification to be done in conjunction with surrounding areas as this will have a direct impact on the ability of leagues to attract and retain talent. AFL Victoria to continue to review of the salary caps across all of Victoria annually, to ensure no senior participation shock in the regions. There also needs to be an increase in the audit of the club’s salary cap positions with a new process put in place to ensure compliance.

A key concern raised by interviewed clubs was the increasing cost and revenue pressure of running a club, with player payments what identified as a primary driver cost pressure for clubs. By reducing salary caps, the financial pressure on clubs will decline, and club sustainability will increase.  Reduction in salary caps may also contribute towards increased competitive balance as the incentive for players to move to financially stronger clubs will be reduced. There a currently very few audits conducted on salary caps. As the caps reduce the controls to identify and educate “offending” clubs, need to be strengthened as the margin of error will decrease. Coming out of COVID football finances will be challenged, this is going create a greater need to reduce salary caps.

P.4. Review the player points system to continue to incentivise junior retention/development ongoing

AFL Victoria to conduct a review of the player points program currently being used in Gippsland and identify improvements/revisions to incentivise junior retention and development by senior clubs.

While there is not a 1:1 relationship between every junior / senior football club in the region, the importance of forging relationships between junior and senior clubs was highlighted at various Town Hall sessions. To promote these relationships and incentivise clubs to develop local talent, reviewing and adjusting the player points program to promote further the creation of junior / senior club alignment should occur. Addressing the region’s challenge and concern regarding junior/youth dropout.

Factors impacting the Gippsland Region

Demographic Factors: Population shifts Aligned with broader Victorian trends, the larger towns in Gippsland are growing at a faster rate than smaller townships. Most of the growth is located in Traralgon, Bairnsdale, Wonthaggi, Warragul and Drouin. Smaller areas are forecast to experience slow or stable growth. The areas closest to Melbourne are forecast to grow faster than the rest of Gippsland, driven by the development of the Cardinia Employment corridor and new developments in the region.

Economic: The Gippsland economy has historically related to natural and economic assets; energy, water and agriculture. There has been limited growth in these areas over the last ten years with the growth focused in smaller sectors, e.g. construction and financial services. Recent and planned closures of powerplants in the Latrobe region, and the current Victorian government proposal to end logging of native forests in East Gippsland, is likely to translate into economic challenges.

Industry/employees/growth

  • Health Care and Social assistance 16,900 +22%
  • Construction 16,000 +19%
  • Education and Training 13,200 +37%
  • Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing 9,800 -41%
  • Retail 9,600 -16%

These are Gippsland’s top five employing industry and growth rates 2014 – 2018 Source: Australian Government Labour Information Portal.

Employment In the last four years, unemployment has declined from a high of 8% in October 2016 to less than 5% by October 2019. During this period, the labour participation rate stayed at a constant speed in 2017/18 with a drop off in October 2019.

Football in Gippsland

There has been organised football and Netball clubs in Gippsland for over 120 years, with the clubs providing a central point for the towns and sense of community. The current structure in Gippsland includes six junior competitions, eight male senior competitions, one youth girls’ competition and one women’s competition.

The leagues have grown in the geographic areas, with two leagues (AFLG Women’s League and the Gippsland League) covering the whole region. The senior competitions are more dispersed than the junior leagues.

Participation numbers (junior):

  • Central Gippsland Junior Football League 649
  • Sale & District Junior Football Association 665
  • Southern Gippsland Junior Football Competition 610
  • Traralgon & District Junior Football League 839
  • Warragul & District Junior Football League 1,005
  • Total 3,768

Participation numbers (senior):

  • Alberton Football Netball League 503
  • Ellinbank & District Football League 1,056
  • East Gippsland Football Netball League 1,290
  • Gippsland League 1,111
  • Mid Gippsland Football Netball League 926
  • North Gippsland Football Netball League 1,092
  • Omeo & District Football Netball League 420
  • West Gippsland Football Netball Competition 1,307
  • Total 7,705

There is a concern in Gippsland about the participation base growth, as it is currently lower than the state-wide country region averages across all male categories and youth females.