State League – or NPL – football in Western Australia is at a major crossroads, whether people want to admit it or not. Rising costs to participate and put a team on the pitch with dropping crowds and virtually no public profile is crippling many long established clubs.
Deep at the heart of the problem for many clubs is the same issue that sees many of the A-League clubs in the red rather than the black, the fact that these clubs in the main do not own the grounds on which they play. Most simply have long term leases, and it is up to them to make these grounds financially viable.
Many of the clubs were built along ethnic ties and were social centres for those who set up the clubs. These elderly gentlemen who gave football a life in Western Australia would frequently be seen at the clubs supporting “their club” week-in-week-out, win or lose. Many would be there for training putting money over the bar and buying their dinner. All were willing to keep the club going, and would dig deep when required, into their own pockets. Sadly these men and women are literally a dying breed. Many of their children have not grown up with the same attachment to their clubs as times have changed; some may have been sick of the amount of time their families spent at the club.
Some will say the dropping of the ethnic identities led to the demise of these clubs; that cannot be proven, there is no doubt it contributed in some way.
Football West to be fair identified a major issue about seven years ago, the fact that many of the grounds were simply falling into disrepair and were no longer enjoyable venues to visit as a spectator or a player. They implemented a failed attempt to make clubs improve these aspects of the grounds which they leased.
The problem many clubs faced was justifying spending money on facilities that they did not own, when there was no guarantee that they would still be at their ground in ten years time. Many had connections within the clubs who would offer labour for free, but raw materials still cost money, so too do applications to councils to make these changes. Money that many needed to stay in business and put a team on the park.
It was a difficult balancing act and that was why Football West were forced to keep moving the deadline and also bend dramatically in some cases in regards to its very specific ground requirements. Had they not done this they would have ended up with only four to five teams in the league.
Some feel that the game’s governing body should have been more pro-active than they were in assisting clubs with meetings with councils in order to obtain funding and/or planning permission; Football West have always claimed they did what they were asked and what they could. Hindsight as they say is perfect vision, and maybe, and pigs might fly, had the clubs all sat down with Football West and worked as a united group a united approach to the problem could have been achieved and all could have benefitted, rather than each doing its own thing. There is always a strength in numbers, especially with government where issues such as this can result in votes being won or lost.
They ideal solution would be for local government to either sell off or enter long term agreements with all of those clubs who currently do not own their grounds; this is a pipe dream as many are in prime real estate positions, and if truth be told the local government would make more money selling off to a developer. However sporting clubs are key to the community and if stipulations were put on the buying clubs to increase local community involvement it could in fact be a win/win situation for all concerned. For example they could stipulate that a certain number of community events must be held at the ground each year.
One major stumbling block facing the clubs entering into such an agreement with their local councils is the fact that teams no longer attract meaningful crowds. In fact very few clubs gate receipts would cover the cost of putting a team on the pitch each week.
This weekend there is a great opportunity to make a point to a government that believes that Australian Rules Football is the leading code in Western Australia; despite the WAFL clubs facing similar issues as football, falling crowds and rising costs.
When was the last time that the Premier of Western Australia went to a state league game in the regular season to watch the action? You would have to go back to the days of Brian Burke when he was involved with Balga almost 30 years ago.
This weekend Premier Colin Barnett will be attending the Western Knights game at Nash Field in his role as member for Cottesloe. He has supported the club’s application to upgrade its facilities and they have in fact received a grant for a percentage of the costs to carry out much needed work on the clubhouse.
It would be great if football fans made the journey to Nash Field this weekend to show the Premier that support is there for the game at State Level, that an investment not just in a new club room at Nash Field, but at many of the other venues around the city where it is much needed is a worthwhile investment. If he sees a good crowd at Nash Field it may change his perception of the game and where it sits in the pecking order in Western Australia. It may make him realise that the game has evolved from a purely ethnic sport that he no doubt remembers growing up, and that it has a future and a part to play in local communities.
Will the football community seize this opportunity to make a point to the Premier? Will they acknowledge that this opportunity may not come again and it could in fact benefit all? One would like to dream and think that they would. Who knows the impact and difference it could make for the future of the game.