Playing to win – the importance of sports to Sydney life

Anyone familiar with Sydney will know that there is an enviable array of professional sports teams here. So the AFL’s decision in 2009 to establish a second team in the west of the city was a brave one. We spoke to Tony Shepherd AO, Chair of the AFL GWS Giants and the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, about the role of sports in Sydney, the challenges of launching a new team here and what’s ahead for the future of sports and recreation in our city.

With four elite sports teams plus cricket in the summer, our climate, our harbour, our ocean beaches, our facilities, national parks all around – Sydney is a great city for people who love the outdoors or love to participate in or watch sport. The biggest problem is choice – what to do?

So while all of this is a great advantage for people who live in Sydney, for those like ourselves, trying to establish a brand new sports team with no support base in an already crowded market, it was more of a challenge. Seeing how far we’ve come with the GWS Giants in 7 years makes me very proud. What we’ve done with the team is maybe the best part of that for me. We took a group of 17 and 18 year olds and brought them together in Western Sydney. We not only had to teach them how to play footy, we also taught them how to cook, clean, how to live away from home. Seeing the young men that they have grown into, and the team and culture we have created from them, give me tremendous pride. And successfully adding a Women’s AFL team and a National Netball Team to that club has only doubled that pride.

The reason for the AFL moving into Western Sydney was driven by demographic trends. We know that’s where the population is, where the growth is, and if we are serious about becoming the national code, then we needed to have expansion into this area. And the people have really started to embrace us. We are up to 25,000 members, we’ve been in the finals the last three years. And that’s important because Sydney people – probably because we are so spoiled for choice – will only follow winners. Western Sydney is a great area because if you show loyalty and interest they’ll reward you several times over. We have a very active community programme establishing our bona fides, with over 10,000 schoolkids coming through our WestConnex Centre every season, focusing on health and education programmes.

The AFL has been a pioneer in diversity and inclusion. The AFL leadership have moved the organisation to be progressive and cater to different the new demographic. We understand the demands on a modern household. Parents are working all week to pay the mortgage, so family time on weekends are precious. They want family entertainment and a top class experience. It’s not about the Dads heading off to the footy on their own anymore. AFL offers that great option, recognising that both boys and girls want to play, they help families feel at home at the games and we become a part of the community.

Looking forward, the future success of sports in Sydney, both professional and local, will be the improvement of facilities. First up – transport links. All of the advantages that make us a beautiful city, also make us a difficult city to connect with transport. Current investments will help this, but we have to continue to prioritise this. The upgrade in stadia will put us back on the map globally and domestically in terms of our available facilities, and we were really slipping behind here. In the same way that that the MCA or Art Gallery NSW provide inspiration for budding artists, having talented teams performing at elite venues inspires young people and drives grassroots participation in sports. We won’t all make it to the level, but we need to see those heroes to motivate and attract us into sport. I started middle to long distance running after the !956 Olympics and I am still doing it.

For the general public, I think the best thing we can do to support the sports sector in Sydney is look at ways to give back. Every club is run by volunteers – have a look in your area and offer to give your time to help them – they’ll be so grateful and it is such a rewarding experience.

 

Deloitte’s ImagineSydney series sets out to contribute to the conversation around how we can create smart, flourishing and productive communities through exploring strategies that will drive economic and social development in Sydney. Our third Edition, ImagineSydney:Play is available now.


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