Change in the air

The future of the sporting soul of the community – country football and netball is  up in the air after an historic meeting took place at Naracoorte on Sunday.

With playing and umpiring numbers across the Limestone Coast reducing, representatives from the Western Border, Mid South Eastern and Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara football and netball league’s competing clubs, plus the SANFL and Limestone Coast Regional Council met in the same room to express their opinions on the state of the play for the first time ever.

After an afternoon filled with debate, the LCRC will meet with each club individually over the coming months  to unearth the best solutions if action is needed  to change the face of community football and netball.

The council will present the best methods at the next meeting in October.

SANFL Football Operations Coordinator SE Michael Mourbey said the major event first reported by The SE Voice had been planned for some time and was called into action after some expressed concerns about the current structure.

“The SANFL called the meeting and held sway on the day presenting the data, but the reason for it was at the request of a couple of leagues and clubs to have a look at the future of football and netball in the South East,” he said.

“Over the last two seasons COVID has affected footy with the border situation, but that was just  one of the things we looked at from population projections to seeing where the clubs will be at in 10  years’ time.

“It had been on the agenda for six months or so  and we always intended to have the meeting mid- year.”  Although COVID-19 and border closures pushed the sport and particularly the WBFL to the edge recently, Mourbey confirmed the meeting addressed long-term issues as well.

Challenges such as junior participation rates,  population drop offs in regional areas and a declining number of umpires were major concerns.

Around 60% of umpires in the South East are above the age of 50, while football and netball games are not the standalone social events they once were.

 The SANFL and LCRC did most of the talking and presented several potential options for the future.

However, Mourbey said nothing was set in stone just yet  with the examples’ only purpose to  create food for thought.

“We put some options up to promote discussion, none of them were intended to be the final solution,” he said.

 “Some of those discussions were along the lines of having two leagues in the South East with a north and south conference for example.

“We also suggested something similar to the Limestone Coast Football League last year or having small town and big town competitions.” Rising from the ashes of the cancelled WBFL, MSEFL and KNTFL 2020 seasons was the Limestone Coast Football League which consisted of six teams from all over the region and produced some highly entertaining action.

After Mundulla overcame South Gambier in the grand final, some have pondered the possibility of the “Super League” becoming the norm in the Limestone Coast.

Some of those suggestions have increased  since Casterton Sandford has been heavily hurt by border closures and rumours have circulated whether the club would follow the likes of Hamilton and Portland out of the Western Border family.

Earlier this year the Cats voted to stay in the  South Australian competition and the WBFL continues to support its only Victorian team.

In a sign of solidarity, Mourbey confirmed Casterton Sandford expressed its commitment to keeping the 58-year relationship with the WBFL alive.

“Casterton remain very keen to stay involved with the Western Border Football League and that was stated by them very strongly on Sunday,” he said.

But the  vulnerability of the WBFL is hard to  ignore with an all- time low amount of  clubs competing.

Mourbey denied the current model of three leagues in the South East was unsustainable, but said if something did happen to the WBFL, urgent attention would be required.

“The three leagues will continue on as they are at the moment unless a catalyst change occurs,” he said.

“In a six-team competition, any club  could be the catalyst because if you lose one, a five team competition is unmanageable.”  When asked about the meetings, WBFL president Michael Summers appeared supportive of the  current structure receiving a dramatic shake up.

“Some good points came  out of it, plus some disagreements which is normal when  you have 30 clubs in the same room,” he said.

“They are always going to be territorial to their own league and do not like  change, but it is inevitable and one day it  will happen.” KNTFL president Peter McLellan said discussions were still ongoing with clubs and they were waiting to see how proceedings panned out, while the MSEFL was approached  by The SE Voice for comment.

Despite no timeline for change in play, Mourbey said a busy period lies ahead of the SANFL and LCRC as they hope to keep the game in safe hands.

“We have a responsibility as part of the community to make sure football and netball thrives and prospers,” he said.

“You never know when the trigger is going to happen, it could be 2022 or 2030, but we need to have plans in place if something does happen so we can achieve the right outcome for the clubs in the South East.”

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