The AFL has recently cracked down on umpire abuse, citing the reason to close the gap of 6,000 umpires at community level. With AFL CEO Gillon McLaughlin even stating that it’s an issue “that has gotten away from us”.
If you ask those involved at grassroots level, they know a lack of umpires has been an issue for many years. For every local football league, finding sufficient umpire numbers is an annual crisis; borne greater in recent years due to the rapid growth of girls and women playing AFL.
This crisis at local League level shouldn’t come as a surprise to the AFL. When an organization invests millions of dollars into participation programs to support the growth of junior football, and there isn’t commensurate investment in officiating, naturally there will be shortfall. And that shortfall that will continue to grow over time without commensurate investment.
While a crackdown on umpire abuse at the elite level is a starting point, it is unlikely to be the silver bullet to solve the umpiring crisis. The AFL’s own survey of non-returning umpires shows less than 10% of umpires leave because of abuse. The upside is likely to be seen for those who may decide umpiring is a more attractive prospect than it once was.
How the new zero tolerance towards umpire abuse directive at AFL level will impact umpiring numbers can only be determined by monitoring umpire numbers at the grassroots level, something the AFL is currently unable to do. This is a result of a recent change in participation platforms and a lower than desired uptake of these platforms, the AFL currently does not have fully visibility to into umpire numbers nationally. It may could be years before the AFL may be able to measure the impact of these changes.
In December, the AFL announced an additional $8 million investment into community football in 2022, which includes coaching and umpiring. However, a large majority of this investment under this umbrella has been directed towards coaching. The remaining funding to umpiring is committed to covering the costs of the new umpire participation platform, not into programs to directly assist in the recruitment of more umpires for local Leagues.
Will this crackdown of umpire abuse at AFL level assist the ‘umpiring crisis’? Yes. Will this fix it? No. Only sufficient and genuine investment by the AFL into supporting umpire recruitment at the grassroots level, which has been lacking for years, will shift the needle enough to make a noticeable difference to local Leagues around the country.