League shake-up talks begin

It is time to talk about the future of country football and netball in the community following a recent significant announcement from the Limestone Coast Regional Football Council.

Late Wednesday night the LCRFC released a review of the sustainability and structure of football on the Limestone Coast and outlined potential restructuring methods including the end of the Western Border, Mid South Eastern and Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara competitions.

The 23-page Discussion Paper covered all aspects of the country football in the region since its inception in 1894 to the key issues holding it back in the years to come.

Many concerns were raised from population, player, administration, spectator and volunteer decline, reluctance to change, travelling distances, demographic changes, increasing non-football and netball activities, club viability and management, standards of club facilities and the short and long-term effects of COVID-19.

The Discussion Paper is the start of the third phase of the LCRFC’s process to protect the future of country football and netball in the region following a historic meeting in Naracoorte on Sunday, June 20 attended by every single club, league and association in the area at the request of the WBFL.

Within the report, the SANFL and LCRFC stated they recognise significant social, economic and health benefits that football and netball provide to local communities and is committed to ensuring the sustainability and success of football on the Limestone Coast.

“However, there is also a high level of recognition, but not necessarily acceptance, across the Limestone Coast community that football on LC most likely cannot continue to be sustainable in its current format.

“There are a number of internal and external factors that are impacting the viability of football (and netball) in the Limestone Coast including changes to regional economic drivers and demographics; the traditional ‘working week’; the emergence of unstructured, adventure- based and electronic-based recreational activities; and an ever-increasing range of sport options and opportunities.”

It also took a deep statistical dive into junior and senior participation across all three leagues.

Junior numbers – kids aged 5-17 – did not paint a great picture with only the MSEFL possessing more players in 2021 than 2017.

After the WBFL’s total of junior participants climbed up to 1085 in 2018, following COVID-19 it has dropped to 868, while the KNTFL lost 29 players in four years.

However, the WBFL is the only league to increase its senior participation rate, climbing from 374 in 2017 to this year’s mark of 408.

The MSEFL and KNTFL have almost the same number of senior players with 575 and 576 aged 18 and over respectively having both exceeded the 600 mark before the pandemic.

Throughout the 127 years, change has been “constant” in football with 174 clubs playing in various leagues around the region.

At the present day there are 25 teams and the LCRFC presented four unique options of senior football and netball competitions for clubs, leagues and associations to consider, including the Western Border members to find new homes, geographical or population-based models and a system split by divisions.

None of the options included the current status quo of all three football leagues and netball associations.

Importantly the LCRFC believes it is “non-negotiable” football and netball must be played together across all junior and senior levels.

OPTION 1 – WESTERN BORDER DISSOLVES AND CLUBS MOVE: With only six clubs including one from Victoria currently competing, the Western Border Football League and Netball Association appears the most vulnerable of the three competitions.

This option would finish the 57-year history of the competition and force the six clubs to find new homes in either the Mid South Eastern or Kowree Naracoorte competitions.

The LCRFC stressed the arrangement “would still need significant work on where those clubs could go” plus the effect on netball and the junior competitions would have to be looked at.

OPTION 2 – CONFERENCE MODEL: The conference model named the Limestone Coast Football League splits the 25 clubs in two separate competitions.

The Northern and Southern conferences contain 11 and 14 clubs respectively and no divisions or relegation would be in play.

Most clubs on the Northern side of the “line” are from the KNT with only Robe the outlier, while the South conference is a combination of the MSE and WB competitions.

Despite uncertainty surrounding the finals’ structure, a possible positive of this model gravitates the competitions towards the traditional American sports where a combined conference finals series could decide the undisputed champion football and netball teams in the Limestone Coast.

But other concerns are where is the north/south “line” situated, the effect on junior numbers, equity and development, plus travel.

The Discussion Paper outlined which clubs could potentially play in the respective conferences based on geography.

Northern Conference: Bordertown, Keith, Mundulla, Padthaway, Border Districts, Lucindale, Naracoorte, Kingston, Robe, Kybybolite, Penola.

Southern Conference: Port MacDonnell, Kongorong, Casterton Sandford, West Gambier, East Gambier, North Gambier, South Gambier, Millicent, Tantanoola, Glencoe, Mt Burr, Nangwarry, Kalangadoo, Hatherleigh.

OPTION 3 – TOWN/COMMUNITY LEAGUES: The current trio of competitions will also be consumed by the Limestone Coast Football League title, but conferences will be based on population rather than geography.

With 12 town and 13 community teams, the clubs are evenly split in a model catering for the everchanging population around the Limestone Coast.

The concept does not have any divisions or relegation as clubs from larger towns such as Mount Gambier, Naracoorte and Millicent face off, while the likes of Padthaway, Casterton Sandford and Nangwarry compete in the rural areas.

The travel factor may be heightened with the Victorian-based Cats asked to take on the journey to Robe.

The Discussion Paper questions whether the model improves junior equity and quality and if clubs unable to field sides across all grades can survive.

It could also have an impact on player recruitment.

The Discussion Paper suggested the potential makeup of the town and community competitions.

Town conference: Bordertown, Keith, Port MacDonnell, Penola, Mundulla, West Gambier, East Gambier, North Gambier, South Gambier, Naracoorte, Millicent, Kingston.

Community conference: Kongorong, Casterton-Sandford, Padthaway, Border Districts, Lucindale, Tantanoola, Glencoe, Mount Burr, Nangwarry, Kalangadoo, Kybybolite, Hatherleigh, Robe.

OPTION 4 – DIVISION MODEL: The final option of splitting the 25 teams across two performance-based divisions appears unlikely.

The report stated it “would have a significant impact on recruitment between Divisions and negatively impact competition structures for juniors and netball”.

The Discussion Paper is the start of the “Consultation” phase of the five-part process.

The LCRFC will search for nominations to be part of a LCRFC Working Party and assist the body in future considerations, before conducting face-to-face meetings with all clubs for the remainder of this month and into September.

An online survey will be completed by leagues, netball associations, clubs and players.

Following any recommendations, the LCRFC will conduct at a forum around late October to early November to develop the final report.

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