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AFL begins addressing reduction of Indigenous players at top level

Andrew Mathieson -

The AFL has started addressing concerns about a significant drop in recent seasons of Indigenous playing numbers across its national competition and in its multiple talent pathways programs.

AFL's leading Indigenous official, Tanya Hosch, called for a meeting on Thursday with senior management, including AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon and AFL executive general manager of football Laura Kane.

Clubs recently returned feedback surveys on the latest data, which the National Indigenous Times revealed, reporting a recent decline in Indigenous AFL players that caused Hosch, the AFL general manager of inclusion and social policy, to also bring in recruiting and list managers from all 18 current clubs.

The numbers tell the story where previously in recent decades, Indigenous involvement in the AFL has historically always been on the rise, dating back to the early 1980s when the number of First Nations footballers in the former VFL could be counted on the one hand.

The slump began from 2020 when there were 89 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders on AFL clubs' playing lists. By the start of the 2024 season, the numbers have dropped to just 72 footballers with five clubs – Port Adelaide with seven, St Kilda, Richmond, West Coast and Gold Coast all with six on their lists – carrying the other 13 clubs.

The AFL highlighted the details behind the revealing figures in a presentation to the clubs last Thursday.

"We are focused on growing this number for future years. We're working closely with list managers across all our clubs to grow our Indigenous talent pathway,'' Kane said during a press conference to reporters.

Kane could not put a finger on reasons behind the drop-off, while reportedly detailing to the clubs an increase of resources from the grassroots to improve representation of Indigenous footballers to progress to the top level of the game.

She recognised a decline of Indigenous numbers was unexpected, but noted that the 19.1 per cent drop was more of a "slight reduction" than a drastic or alarming trend.

"The more people that can see themselves in our game the better," Kane added.

"So I see this as an opportunity to try and increase the numbers of Indigenous players in our game."

The appointment of Pauly Vanenbergh, as multicultural player engagement manager for Indigenous recruitment after stints at Port Adelaide and the AFL's diversity talent programs manager, only to be succeeded by Narelle Long, is said to be among the major changes to the AFL football department's restructure to bolster First Nations relations with the game.

The pair will take control of the task with a new National Diversity Academy, which has been set to bring together the judged top 15 Indigenous players in with multicultural talent in their 17th and 18th year to the lead up to their eligible draft.

"We have been working through what the talent pathway looks like post-Covid for the past six months, and making sure that we really, deeply understand all the pockets in Australia, and challenges that they are facing, and we are working on solutions as we speak," Kane said.

"This year we have a strong focus on transitioning and retaining Indigenous talent in regional, club and state talent pathway programs across the country."

Data has shown that Indigenous numbers in Auskick is the one area of growth that has continued to rise over the past four years and this year there will be no less than 40 Indigenous Auskick centres present.

The AFL already continues on with Woomeras and Flying Boomerangs tournaments for First Nations males and females, aged 15, that initially is "targeting engagement and talent identification" in the first step towards reaching elite competitions.

The pre-existing National Indigenous Academy that collectively includes up to 90 males and females, aged 16 and 17, in year-long programs focuses across "football development, leadership, culture, and well-being excellence''.

The Next Generation Academy has engaged Indigenous players across the 16-to-18 age bracket, but clubs have complained to the AFL at this meeting that teenagers in many remote and rural areas have been inaccessible to monitor considering all the extra costs some clubs are forced to fork out from the AFL-designated zones, multiple media outlets also revealed.

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