Is the AFL losing the great football war of western Sydney?
It was former Australian Rugby League chief executive Geoff Carr who once warned the AFL its push into western Sydney could be its Vietnam War.
“It is a huge risk for the AFL and a lot of people say it will be their Vietnam,” Carr said in 2009. “If they want to fight out there, that is their call.”
Thirteen years on, the Giants are languishing at 15th on the ladder and coach Leon Cameron has walked away from the job. Statistics show the GWS Giants are yet to make solid inroads into western Sydney’s sporting heartland of Parramatta, with participation figures leaked to The Weekend Australian showing just 1 per cent of participants in the area are playing Australian football, while TV ratings and crowd figures this season have, at times, been poor.
Despite an estimated $200m poured into GWS over the past decade, a City of Parramatta report from March shows AFL is the least popular of the 11 sports listed on a pie chart.
It shows AFL’s formal participation in the City of Parramatta — a home local government area of the Giants — is at 1 per cent of nearly 20,000 participants (senior and junior).
Meanwhile, tackle rugby league makes up 7 per cent. But when combined with the game’s other formats of touch football (11 per cent) and OzTag (6 per cent), the NRL holds a 24 per cent cut of participation figures.
Rugby league is the second-most popular sport behind soccer, which has a 47 per cent share of participation.
The Giants insist that despite these Parramatta statistics, the AFL figures truly show the growth of the game in western Sydney — with participation community football and Auskick doubling since 2012 in the area.
The AFL NSW/ACT has secured seven new AFL facilities in western Sydney since 2019 and facilitated upgrades for 13 existing club homes in the past 10 years.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan told The Weekend Australian the Giants were an irrefutable success story for the code.
“The Giants have unquestionably been a success story for our game and in the broader Australian sporting landscape with three teams across men’s and women’s elite sport and while they have reached great heights on-field, they have also continued to expand their footprint at an extraordinary rate,” he said.
“Given the base the club has built in new territory in just 11 years, there is no doubt it is going to be a very powerful and large club attracting generations of fans for decades to come.”
GWS boss Dave Matthews pointed out the Giants just ticked over 30,000 members. “By any metric, the Giants’ growth since entering the AFL just a decade ago has been remarkable,” he said. “As an organisation with over 30,000 members and three elite teams under the Giants brand our footprint in NSW and the ACT is vast.”
The AFL does not make participation numbers public but it was reported last week that the participation rates for boys aged 10-18 were down by 11.7 per cent in NSW (and just under 6 per cent in Victoria this year). The AFL attributed the fall in participation to the impact of Covid-19 on young people playing sport, while they also said the floods earlier this year had hurt NSW’s participation in junior footy.
Former long-time Sydney Swans chair Richard Colless — who in 1997 co-authored the review of the development of Australian Football in NSW/ACT and chaired the NSW/ACT Commission comprised exclusively of local members — has a deep knowledge of pathways, growing the game and what it takes to make a football club in Sydney successful.
Colless says while participation has risen across Sydney since 2000 it hasn’t converted to the elite level.
He noted the GWS players from NSW are almost entirely from regional NSW and the ACT.
Colless, who helmed the Swans for 21 years overseeing two AFL premierships, says area from the Illawarra (Wollongong) to the Hunter (Newcastle), where 27 per cent of the Australian population lives, has yet to be capitalised on by the AFL.
Colless says the statistics show the AFL hasn’t been able to cut into this rugby league talent belt and pointed out while there were 80 players added to senior lists this year (national draft and rookie elevations) none were from this area.
“The AFL seem oblivious or indifferent to this fact,” Colless said. “The AFL has a national competition but not a national game.”
He said the Parramatta council statistics were a concern — but of greater concern is the powerful Australian Rugby League chair Peter V’landys’s play to secure $800m from the NSW Government for redeveloping suburban grounds.
“This is the world rugby league heartland and I fear the AFL may have massively underestimated the power and craftiness of rugby league,” Colless said.
“I reckon if all suburban grounds are materially upgraded and with no draft it will lead to greater local links being created. It will be back to the good old days.”
Colless has empathy for the Giants’ situation and intricately understands the cost of living pressures and in turn the challenge to retain players and staff in Sydney. He constantly advocated for more player assistance for the NSW-based clubs — with his experience of overseeing the West Coast Eagles and the Swans.
Colless believes the AFL should seriously consider restructuring the administration of the game in the NSW and ACT and revive a local commission.
He also said with Rugby Australia this week securing the World Cup for 2027 and 2029, there was more competition in the Sydney market. “Rugby has still got some aces up their sleeve,” Colless said. “Sydney is the most competitive football market in the world. Tell me where else there are four main football codes competing for primacy?”
The Giants, who entered the competition in 2012, have struggled recently with crowd numbers and television figures this year — just 24,000 in Sydney tuned in for one game this season.
While the AFL boasts an extraordinary 1 million members across the code, the Giants state they have over a 30,000-strong membership base, however competing codes have privately scoffed at the figure. Critics have pointed to the small crowds currently turning up for the games. One source noted there hadn’t been a sold-out a game in Sydney since 2018.
The Giants can attract crowds of around 25,000 to their derby against the Swans. But just 4014 turned up for the game against the Gold Coast Suns last month.
Like Colless said, if V’landys is successful in his push for an $800m investment in suburban NRL grounds, this could be a problem for the AFL.
GWS bosses repeatedly maintain the franchise is here to stay. That dipping crowds and ratings are something to overcome as they play the “long game”.
In 2018, GWS chair Tony Shepherd told the Herald Sun Carr’s barb about the Vietnam had driven him and others within his administration to make the club successful.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I tell you what, I’m one of the most determined and that inspired me to say, ‘I’ll make you eat those words, and if I have to wait 20 years to make you eat them, we will get there,” Shepherd said.
Events are showing the years to come might be the most defining in the sporting war for western Sydney.
There are lies, damn lies and then there are ratings.
Rugby league, Australias most popular game in most of North Eastern Australia.