AFL boss Gillon McLachlan has reaffirmed his pledge to save football in Tasmania, but has warned local clubs have to meet him halfway — and to bring their best ideas.
The AFL chief executive arrived in Hobart this morning to meet with key people in the local Tasmanian State League (TSL), including AFL Tasmania's new boss Trisha Squires, and state government representatives.
The visit comes as AFL in the state is widely acknowledged to be in crisis — with three major teams dropping out of the TSL in the past 18 months.
At a press conference at North Hobart Oval, Mr McLachlan announced an injection of $200,000 to ease the burden, but cautioned it was not just up to the AFL to find a remedy — initiatives would have to come from Tasmanian clubs as well.
"The solutions are not easy and will take time," he said, adding "hard decisions" would need to be made.
Flanked by Ms Squires, Mr McLachlan also reiterated his support for Tasmania having its own AFL club.
"I've said that before … I think Tasmania deserves its own team," he said.
"I love coming down to Tasmania, I don't know if Tasmanians love me coming here … I'll make sure I get to the north-west this year and Launceston."
He said the AFL was well aware it needed to "grow junior and youth teams and junior participation to ensure a pipeline into senior teams".
"In response to this about 18 months ago, the AFL increased its funding to AFL Tasmania by nearly 30 per cent — this investment has gone into more football development managers, coaching, umpiring and schools coordinators and significant growth has already occurred as a result of this significant investment in baseline participation."
Mr McLachlan said the Auskick junior program was "growing by over 26 per cent, schools by over 100 per cent, there's been growth at community club level, umpires have grown by nearly 7 per cent, and accredited coaches by over 30 per cent.
"Female participation has grown by over 30 per cent, as have the number of teams," he said.
But he admitted there remained "challenges in the talent pathway and challenges in the TSL".
"To remove the barrier for boys and girls playing football and progressing their football development, I've committed today to subsiding the levies of all Tasmanian junior players … with an immediate injection of $200,000 this year," he said.
"Our vision for Tasmanian football is clear — we want Tasmanian talent competing at every level of the game; more kids — boys and girls — playing our game.
"We want a robust, sustainable community football structure that Tasmanians can support in their towns and regions."
'Solutions are not easy'
Mr McLachlan said "we won't let Tasmanian football go without, but the solutions are not easy and will take time".
"I, along with Trish, will make sure that the right structure, resources and investment will be provided to ensure that all Tasmanians — men, women, boys and girls — have every opportunity to play footy."
Ms Squires described the cash boost as "great news".
"Being able to get that small win today, that's great for families and the talent program so there's no barriers for them to participate," she said.
Mr McLachlan and Ms Squires met with Premier Will Hodgman this morning, with funding on the agenda, but came away without a commitment.
"This is something that all of us have to work on together," she said.
Pay dilemma vexing other states as well
Mr McLachlan conceded local players being paid more to play in lower-ranked competitions than in the state league was a problem common to other states, and one the AFL was working to solve.
Many AFL players and followers have expressed concerns the game's governing body is ignoring Tasmania, while pouring money into expanding AFL's reach in traditional rugby league strongholds such as New South Wales and Queensland.
The AFL has also thrown money at other projects such as AFLX — a seven-a-side variation of Australian Rules Football — played intermittently as a pre-season event in the AFL calendar.
Mr McLachlan announced a steering committee would form to navigate the league's way forward in Tasmania, with four months to report back.
Ms Squires said the grassroot clubs would not be ignored in the process.
"What I have been saying to all the TSL clubs is I want to hear from them what the challenges are, so I can present that back into the committee," Ms Squires said.
"I think we're at the start if a really big positive step for Tassie footy."
Members include Carlton coach Brendan Bolton, former St Kilda player and Hobart native Nick Riewoldt, Ms Squires, AFL state and international league manager Simon Laughton, former AFL Tasmania CEO Rob Auld and McLachlan.