COMMENT: Where to for the WAFL? 

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COMMENT: Where to for the WAFL? 

Credit: JamesDPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Credit: JamesDPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

James Demetrie

Credit: JamesDPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

James Demetrie

James Demetrie

Credit: JamesDPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Henry Sims, Reporter

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To say our state league football is at a crossroads would be generous. 

Since the expansion era of the AFL began with the admittance of the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears to the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1987, the once mighty state leagues around Australia have been searching for an audience. 

While the Western Australian Football League (WAFL) never had the appeal or financial clout enjoyed by the VFL, until the expansion era it still stood as a top-level competition in its own right. 

Once the Eagles entered the competition attendances plummeted, and have stayed there ever since. 

Henry Sims
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To go with this the league has also faced financial problems, with the oldest club in the competition, West Perth, going into administration mid-way through last season.  

2019 represents a significant opportunity for the league to embrace change, with West Coast getting their long-desired reserves team a spot in the competition. 

The financial windfall their entry will afford the league will certainly help clubs like the Falcons (West Perth), with the Eagles paying an additional $330,000 per year, on top of $467,000 for existing alignment fees and a $90,000 one-off licence fee upon entry – bringing their first-year costs to just under $900,000. 

When the announcement was made, West Australian Football Commission CEO, Gavin Taylor, was optimistic about the opportunities afforded to the league by the decision. 

“Having a competitive West Coast Eagles team in a quality State League competition is equally as important for the development of AFL-listed players as it is for the financial sustainability of our WAFL clubs and presents an exciting opportunity to enhance the competition,” Mr Taylor said.  

The vote to allow the Eagles to field a team in the WAFL for 2019 was reported in The West as having been unanimous.  

This was disputed by Swan Districts Football Club president Peter Hodyl.  

“The Swan Districts Football Club has strong concerns over the long term effect on membership, and general support of WAFL clubs.  

“Currently many WAFL supporters and their children support a WAFL club and an AFL club. 

“To have a branded WCE team in the WAFL will no doubt affect the allegiances of the next generation of football followers which will have a negative impact on the traditional WAFL clubs.”, Mr Hodyl said in a statement posted online. 

It’s hard not to agree with him. 

In my own experience, almost all the Fremantle supporters I speak to would tell me they (nominally) barrack for the Peel Thunder in the WAFL – the club Fremantle currently have an alignment deal with. 

It’s one thing for an AFL club to pull some supporters into a league with an alignment deal via an existing club.  

It’s another thing entirely for that club to enter the league with its multi-million dollar branding, TV deals, and existing support. 

It seems like a matter of time until the Dockers enter the league with a team of their own – and at that point, where are the next generation of West Perth, East Fremantle and Swan Districts supporters going to come from? 

The issue is complicated even further by the drum beating surrounding the AFL’s own apparent desire to start their own AFL reserves league.

Speaking to SEN South Australia in February, AFL commentator Dwayne Russell thought things were going to change for the league quickly. 

“The national AFL second-tier competition, I’m told, they’re hoping to get up and running for the 2022 AFL season,” Mr Russell said, 

“which is going to be interesting for the SANFL and the WAFL. 

“I think the AFL have taken a couple of larger steps in the last couple of months to get this thing to happen.” 

An AFL reserves competition, with top-level clubs being able to field their listed players along with others made up from the existing state leagues would surely weaken the WAFL to the point of irrelevancy. 

On the one hand, not allowing West Coast and Fremantle to enter the league would seem financially reckless and hard to sell to fans. 

On the other hand, does allowing them to join give the other clubs a brief windfall followed by a slow march to irrelevance? 

As the AFL becomes richer with each new TV deal and the state leagues weaken, it’s hard to see a long-term solution for the WAFL that will ensure their survival.