Western Region Football League rebounds after lockdown

“Ultimately, it didn’t have the culmination of a final series that we so desperately wanted and that we certainly felt our clubs has deserved after a difficult 18-month period.”

The words of WRFL CEO Matthew Duck above echo the sentiment of every player in the league.

Players from different levels of football train and play weekly, for the incentive to win a premiership.

Ideally, crowds would be filled to the brim and stadiums would be packed, to cheer on local teams with such passion.

But in the last two years this hasn’t been the case as a result of states like Victoria going into lockdown in the middle of March 2020, because of COVID-19.

This impacted community football, with the 2020 season in the Western Region Football League being shut down.

Crowds return to a Western Region Football League match. Photo: Kristen Alebakis

There was a glimmer of hope in a season the following year but the ever-growing amount of cases forced the league to write 2021 off too.

“We’ve rebounded reasonably well and to that end we have 34 clubs who play within the competition,” Duck says.

“Some have managed to rebound exceedingly well whereas others found it more challenging, both from a financial perspective and a capacity to re-engage with a playing group.”

Ultimately, he was pleased with the approaches from all clubs, who were able to find a way through the lockdowns financially.

“Overall, we’re buoyed by the fact that we went into the pandemic with 34 clubs, and all 34 have come out.”

When Duck was asked which year between the two [2020 & 2021] he found more challenging, he says both were, but for different reasons.

An aspect the CEO found difficult to control was allowing people being able to attend community football, despite the restrictions in crowd numbers.

“You had this in between juncture at times where you were able to play, but with some restrictions around crowds and non-attendance at games,” he says.

“In our environment, that’s a particularly challenging scenario, given the fact we play in open recreation reserves without fences and without the capacity to really control who comes down and watches.”

Ball used by the Western Region Football League. Photo: Kristen Alebakis

Duck outlines how there were a lot of conversations held among clubs, about the league’s expectations.

He says that with the lack of games being played, no clubs were receiving near enough income, to cover their expenses.

So he prioritized the clubs, to make sure all teams were able to make it to the other side and get back to playing.

“We as an administration needed to take the financial pressure off [the clubs] as best as we could that resulted in wiping every conceivable fee and expense we possibly could for all clubs,” he says.

“We understood that it’s best to protect the future sustainability of our clubs, as an administration – [for example] we hadn’t increased our club or team affiliation fees.”

Although there’s been a surge in overall participant rates from under 12s upwards, the reserves and senior sides of some clubs have had difficulty filling teams.

This was because of a range of factors, like former players not being inclined to return, or current players being affected by COVID protocols.

“Filling reserve sides has been a challenge for some clubs for a long time not just with the result of COVID, but the last two years have seen players, umpires, and administrators alike, have been forced to do other things with their weekends,” says Duck.

Conversely, the WRFL has seen a rise in women’s football and netball competitions.

Duck emphasizes how pleased he is with not only an increase in competitions, but also in sports participation.

“Yeah, it’s been really satisfying, and I think female football has had a period of significant growth, large on the emergence of the WFL program (Women’s Football League), which is great,” he says.

“For 90 years, we were solely a male football competition – the fact we’ve expanded female football and netball into other sports has been a point of pride for the administration and the league.”

The WRFL now has future aims to not just grow football and netball competitions, but ultimately bring back the game the community loves, without the worry of lockdowns.

“I think it ultimately speaks to our purpose, which is less about increasing football, and more about increasing sports participation for the health and wellbeing, of the people in the West,” Duck says.