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Regional Australia officially includes all of the towns, small cities and areas that lie beyond the major capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra, and within regional Australia, football is as represented as any other sport when it comes to participation.

But at the professional and even semi-professional level, a lack of pathways is obstructive to so many regional families and players to turning early age potential into a career. Of course, football is not alone in this respect.

With A-League teams in Newcastle and Gosford, the sport is well represented at the elite level in New South Wales, but has little elite presence in any other regional area.

It is not feasible to start a private franchise in every regional area and without a promotion/relegation system, there is no chance for any regional outfit to earn their spot in the top flight, which means the National Premier Leagues clubs in these towns take a central role in the national football landscape.

For many kids they offer a route to regular high-level competition which is not available to them in their local competitions. They offer a chance to be seen and picked up by scouts in capital cities representing professional clubs. They offer a route to senior football at some of the highest levels available in their respective states.

But how well does the NPL structure allow regional clubs to compete? For most regional NPL clubs, high license costs, long travel times and associated increased travel costs mean high registration costs for parents, a lot of time on the road and other matchday struggles – particularly for junior teams.

In Queensland, North Queensland United FC and Cairns FC both relinquished their NPL licenses at the end of the 2018 season after just 15 wins from 52 collective games.

So, what about the rest of the states? Here's a quick snapshot of how regional clubs fared in the National Premier Leagues this season.

New South Wales

  • Number of senior NPLNSW divisions: 3
  • Number of NPLNSW clubs: 40
  • Number of regional clubs: 3 (7.5%)– Wollongong Wolves (Wollongong), Western NSW Mariners (Bathurst), Central Coast Mariners (Gosford) 
  • Regional teams in top NPLNSW division: 1
  • Highest ranked regional club: Wollongong Wolves – 9th, NPL NSW – 27 points from 22 games

Note: In addition to the NPL NSW competitions, there is the Northern New South Wales NPL which boasts 11 teams, including FFA Cup regulars Edgeworth Eagles and Broadmeadow Magic

Victoria

  • Number of senior NPLV divisions: 2
  • Number of NPLV clubs: 34
  • Number of regional clubs: 4 (12%) – Goulburn Valley Suns (Shepparton), North Geelong Warriors (Geelong), Ballarat City (Ballarat), Murray United (Albury-Wodonga).
  • Regional clubs in top NPLV division: 0
  • Highest ranked regional club:  Goulburn Valley Suns – 5thNPL2 East – 38 points from 28 games

Queensland

  • Number of senior NPLQ divisions: 1
  • Number of NPLQ clubs in total: 14
  • Number of regional clubs: 5 (35%) – South West Queensland Thunder FC (Toowoomba), Cairns FC (Cairns), Magpies Crusaders FC (Mckay), North Queensland United FC (Townsville), Sunshine Coast FC (Sunshine Coast)
  • Highest ranked regional club: South West Queensland Thunder FC – 7thNPLQ – 34 points from 26 games

Note: Cairns FC and North Queensland United FC have both relinquished their NPL licenses for the 2019 season, while Sunshine Coast FC finished last. However, Sunshine Coast FC was not relegated as a result of the former two clubs' decision to drop out of the NPL.

South Australia

  • Number of senior NPLSA divisions:1
  • Number of NPLSA clubs in total: 12
  • Number of regional clubs: 0 (0%)
  • Highest ranked regional club: N/A

Western Australia

  • Number of NPLWA divisions: 1
  • Number of NPLWA clubs in total: 14
  • Number of regional clubs: 0 (0%)
  • Highest ranked regional club: N/A

ACT

  • Number of NPL Capital Football divisions: 1
  • Number of NPLCF clubs in total: 9
  • Number of regional clubs: 3 (33%) – Monaro Panthers (Queanbeyan), Riverina Rhinos (Griffith), Cooma FC (Cooma)
  • Highest ranked regional club: Cooma FC – 3rdNPLCF – 28 points from 16 games

Tasmania

  • Number of NPLT divisions: 1
  • Number of NPLT clubs in total: 8
  • Number of regional clubs: By definition, all clubs in the NPLT are considered 'regional' but the one that is outside of the two major centres of Hobart and Launceston is Devonport City
  • Highest ranked regional club: Devonport City – 1stNPLT – 50 points from 21 game.

Source: Regional Australia Institute

Of course, every state's respective NPL competition is run independently of one another and every club's individual circumstances differ. Some clubs rely mostly on local players in their senior teams – provided their best local talent has not moved to major metropolitan areas – while other clubs sign players from outside their local areas to make up their senior squad. Furthermore, some states are naturally more decentralised than others (for example, Queensland), while others do not have significant regional areas. 

Nevertheless, with the exception of Devonport in Tasmania, regional clubs regularly struggle to compete at the highest level of the NPL within their respective state and in some states, regional centres still are not represented.

Another interesting trend in some regional areas is the creation of new clubs specifically for the NPL system. 

For instance, in Victoria, both Shepparton and Wodonga both have local competitions with a number of existing clubs between them.

However, in both instances a new club was created specifically to represent their respective regions in the NPL.

Not unexpectedly, in the two biggest states, Victoria and New South Wales, just seven of the 74 NPL clubs come from regional areas and only one – former National Soccer League heavyweights Wollongong Wolves – plays in the top division of their respective competitions.

While regional areas face a multitude of challenges when it comes to competing with their major metropolitan counterparts, the NPL structure could in some ways be hampering these regions further. This is an issue that has been raised by the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) in its May 2018 report on the national NPL following extensive consultation around the country, and is expected to be considered in the forthcoming national review. 


Categories: Analysis | Local

npl, aafc, regional football

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