The sight of hundreds of schoolchildren in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens would not normally be cause for celebration.
- AFL Queensland says junior participation is up 10-15 per cent and female participation up 3 per cent, across the state
- Both numbers are expected to rise if 2021 is not impacted by COVID-19
- Many clubs put the boost down to the AFL’s presence and visibility in Queensland in 2020
After all, it is a beautifully landscaped garden setting with plenty of open space ideal for children to run around in.
But for the AFL, the yelling, screaming and laughing mass was evidence of just how far Australian football has come in its northern outpost.
As part of AFL grand final week, the Botanic Gardens has hosted a Footy Festival site featuring multiple Auskick clinics.
The Festival runs for three days and registration numbers have been so strong, three more clinics have been added to meet demand on Saturday.
It only gets better for Australian football.
AFL Queensland (AFLQ) has reported participants at Auskick centres across the state are up 10-15 per cent, and that is with a significant number of the more than 900 centres unable to operate in the early part of the season because of COVID restrictions.
The growth in junior numbers has defied the bleak outlook when the coronavirus pandemic first hit in early autumn.
“We now have 13,000 juniors, and that’s the biggest competition in the country,” AFLQ state manager of game development Mark Ensor said.
“And across the state we’re up 3 per cent on female numbers.”
He cited two contributing factors to the overall rise in playing stocks.
Firstly, the success of the Brisbane Lions in 2020 — the Lions only dropped out of the premiership race with a preliminary final loss to Geelong.
Secondly, of course, was the COVID-enforced relocation of Victorian clubs to the Sunshine State.
“Playing 140-odd AFL matches in Queensland has made us incredibly happy with the year,” Ensor said.
“We’re expecting a 7-10 per cent increase in participation next year if we don’t have any COVID problems.”
Female participation on the up
Former SANFL player David Sanders has witnessed the game’s growth in Queensland from close quarters.
Sanders, who played 305 SANFL games for North Adelaide, has lived in Brisbane for 25 years and his son Van,13, plays for Wilston-Grange.
“As a parent, it’s hard to quantify the increase given it’s been such a different year with COVID,” Sanders said.
The Gorillas are a small club in an inner suburb but have about 400 junior players, around 25 per cent of whom are female.
“There’s no doubt the AFL being largely resident in Queensland has increased the interest for kids,” Sanders observed.
“One thing the AFL has done is show a lot of parents what the game is about and get them thinking it’s not bad for kids.”
Television ratings firmly indicate the attraction of the game with free-to-air numbers up 25 per cent this year.
Despite finishing outside the top eight, the Gold Coast Suns television audience grew 84 per cent and club membership jumped 16 per cent.
Matthew Argus, the football operations coordinator for the Aspley Hornets, a club on the northside of Brisbane, said his AFL 9s program was a good indicator of how the sport has grown.
AFL 9s is a non-contact hybrid version of the sport, similar to the relationship between touch football and rugby league.
“We’ve gone from 12 teams to 18 signed up to play across the summer and the openings filled up within a week of registrations being opened,” Argus said.
Women’s football is also on the move, aided by the establishment of the AFLW competition as well as the presence of so many AFL clubs in the south-east corner of the state across the past few months.
“The growth in girls playing juniors has been excellent in the last three or four years and now girls make up 25 per cent of our players,” Argus said.
He said he was confident the club’s presence in schools would grow once the coronavirus crisis ended.
“It would’ve been great if you could have the AFL here and you could go helter-skelter with schoolkids,” he said.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, who championed the establishment of the AFL and has been an important part of driving the competition’s expansion north of the Murray River, was clearly happy to talk about the progression of the code in Queensland when he launched grand final week.
“I’m not saying we’re the number one sport now in Queensland but it’s certainly nice to be in the conversation,” McLachlan commented with a smile.
When the AFL caravan closes down after the grand final and moves back to Melbourne, it will leave a legacy and it is increasingly likely it will be a large and growing one.
No wonder it is celebrating.