AFL Outer East regional general manager Aaron Bailey is still in the early stages of his career in football, but has already achieved a great deal, including being one of the key drivers in bringing a divisional football model to seven clubs who moved across from the now-defunct South East Football Netball League (SEFNL). NICK CREELY recently caught up with the highly-regarded football administrator to chat about his life in the game, the inaugural competition in 2019, the criticism that has been around about the merger, and what to expect ahead of season 2020 …
Nick Creely: Aaron, I really appreciate your time, how was the break? It was obviously a really busy 2019 for you, personally as well as from an Outer East perspective. Did you get a good chance to put the feet up, reflect and enjoy some time away?
Aaron Bailey: The break is getting shorter, there’s always something new that needs to be done. We just had a little boy (Ciaran), our first child, so a lot of my break has been about being a dad, and I’m coming back more tired than I probably normally would. But it’s been enjoyable, and overall it’s been a really positive first year and we have set the foundations for the future, competition wise, financially and with our move into our permanent home in Kilsyth.
NC: Before we get on to your current role, you’ve had a pretty heavy involvement in footy over the journey, with the Eastern Football League and the Eastern Ranges as well. Tell me about your background in footy … .
AB: My involvement has been at a variety of levels at local level. I started coaching junior footy as a 16 year old and played and coached at senior level in the EFL, Southern and the Ammos. I’ve always enjoyed being involved with community sport, particularly in coaching or committee roles
I’m a school teacher by trade, and like a lot of people in the industry worked in the education sector before getting the opportunity to make my passion a full time job. That opportunity came through a role the EFL as a development manager, and from there, it’s built.
I feel very blessed to do what I do. I’m really proud of the small role I’ve played in the development of female football in particular, with setting up the Eastern Ranges NAB League team, and the development of the Eastern Region Girls and women’s. It is nice to have something positive to look back on and having a role in helping the game grow and provide opportunity for others to play our game.
I feel extremely blessed to do what I do. Sport played a significant role in my life, particularly as a young bloke. To have such an opportunity is something I do not take for granted. I get the same enjoyment in this role as I did as a president of my local cricket club. I still pinch myself that I get paid to do what I love.
NC: Towards the end of 2016 you left the Eastern league, how did the opportunity come up as the AFL Yarra Ranges general manager?
AB: I was looking for an opportunity to take on a more senior role and I needed to make a decision whether to work in the talent or community space. I’d gone on and done further study (Masters in Sports Administration) and after talking to the key people I trust, working in the community side of it was what appealed to me. I’d already done some work within my previous role with the Yarra Ranges and was excited by the possibilities the league offered so when I heard Luke McCormick was finishing up I felt this was a great fit. I was really excited by the challenges the role presented. I went and met with Tony Mitchell, and it was clear from that meeting that Tony and I shared the same vision for the region. I’m really pleased that I took the role on. Great competition and people. Every day I’m excited about coming in to work.
NC: Was it a smooth transition into the role?
AB: I had a good grounding in the EFL under people like Phil Murton, and looking back now, I was more prepared than I gave myself credit for at the time. You always doubt yourself when making a big leap, but looking back, my experiences in roles such as president, coaching and the like had set a sound foundation for the role. My dad comes from a strong footy background, so a lot of it has been learnt watching dad and seeing him in a variety of roles as a long-time volunteer at community level.
I was under no illusion of the challenges when I started. We did two audits in the first six months, and financially we inherited a debt of around $50,000 when I took over. There was a lot to do in terms of the business side of the commission. It was a good competition, we just needed to get the off field structure right and start to promote what we was already there
NC: So that takes us to now and in the current AFL Outer East model. I guess the first time the idea of bringing in the SEFNL clubs into the competition came to public attention was in March 2018 when the proposed merger with the MPNFL fell over. When did the idea to bring the south-east clubs into your competition first get discussed?
AB: We were reviewing football in the northern regions of the competition, how these were structured, looking how the Murrindindi and outer Yarra Ranges could be sustainable and viable. When you do that work, as you look at the structure of your competition, you are paying attention to what is happening on and around your borders.
You’re always talking to other commissions, and there was a period at the back-end of the late 2017 season where it became clear that the Mornington Peninsula/SEFNL merge may not eventuate. We sat down and spoke about what would happen if this didn’t get up. It was clear if it didn’t, something had to happen as the SEFNL was not continuing as previously structured.
We did a lengthy review of the feasibility of it, we essentially tried to disprove it, mindful that we needed to continue to grow our competition. We needed to be confident it would work. We spoke to AFL South East and presented this as a viable option, only if the planned structure did not get up at south-east Level. When the Mornington vote didn’t go through, we let the clubs know and met with clubs within a week.
NC: How did the Yarra Ranges clubs initially react when you had discussions with them about bringing these clubs in?
AB: When it got put to us that it was a possibility, we met with the clubs four days later. The reaction was varied; there were people who were genuinely worried about it. Those same people probably still have those concerns. The concerns raised were identical to areas we had identified in our feasibility, which allowed us to address a lot of those. We knew from the start we had to be transparent and open through the process. I think we had over 50 club meetings, as well as providing clubs an opportunity to provide detailed feedback through a survey sent to all clubs. Most clubs have been accepting of it and embraced the new structure.
When we met with the south-east clubs, we were conscious of being as open with them as possible, when presenting our model. We presented multiple options to the south east clubs. For Tooradin we highlighted West Gippy and our model. They made a great choice for them and have settled beautifully there. With the clubs that did join us, we provided alternatives, ours was simply one option.
NC: Another key date along the journey of the two competitions coming together was the 2018 interleague clash at Holm Park. I remember interviewing you that day, and you spoke of how important it was for the two sides to interact. Was the fixture a bit of a blessing in disguise?
AB: I think what it showed was the difference between the top end wasn’t significant. It was an opportunity you don’t often get where you can put them together. For people to get the chance to look at it was certainly beneficial and showed what was potentially possible.
NC: 2019 was a fascinating season of footy and netball, with clubs playing each other for the first time. How do you look back on the year from an on-field perspective, were you overall pleased with how the season unfolded?
AB: Netball was always going to be a really good fit. Most people would agree this has become a reality because of the netball component of it. The netball competitions were fantastic. We are really excited by the opportunities this is providing, particularly at Junior and representative level. Division 2 football was the best it’s been, and I believe the quality to when I started to now has gone up significantly. We’re in an instant gratification society and we’re mindful of that, but Division 1 was a really close competition all year, and anyone that got on a roll would have won a flag. It was a fantastic result for Doveton, and I think the most pleasing thing about Doveton winning was that it shows that divisional football is the model. They’ll go into Premier being really competitive, and if they stayed in that model, they would have continued to deteriorate.
From Premier, most of the discussion was centered on that. If you look at the previous year, the top-four out of SEFNL only lost one game, and that was Beaconsfield to Pakenham in the middle of the year. There’s no doubt it’s been an improved competition, but we’re mindful there’s work to do. As senior lists improve, reserves do too, so we’ve got no doubt that it’ll be something strong, but we are under no illusion we have got work to do.
NC: You would have been aware in your role that criticism and backlash was going to come in the first season. How do you respond to the criticism that’s been around, mostly about the Premier Division and some skewed scores across the grades?
AB: Don’t work in sport if you’re worried about critics. I welcome feedback, it helps you improve and grow. Criticism shows that people do care and are engaged in the competition. Our job is to separate what is viable and what is not. Sometimes the feedback can be over the top, but often it can be valuable. Social media can be an echo chamber at times, whether its politics or AFL football. If you look hard enough you can always find something. We are willing to make the changes required for this to grow, but we believe in this structure and its potential. I think the grading of the under 18s is a great example of our willingness to adapt and modify where necessary.
You need to have a thick skin in this business, be willing to listen, and identifying how to make feedback constructive and viable. We’re willing to make changes, we pride ourselves on being innovative, we are committed to making this one of the premier country competitions in the state.
NC: Is it a matter of the commission directly communicating a lot with the clubs and people who have created noise?
AB: There are clubs, and people we need to continue to work with to understand, educate and support. We also need to be very careful to not respond to every negative noise. We have been very clear on our direction. Both our strategic plan and future direction document are public record and available to all. They are detailed and articulate exactly where we are heading.
NC: Another key issue to work through this year is Berwick, who have indicated a desire to join the Eastern Football League in 2021. What’s happening in that space?
AB: The recent vote by the EFL is the beginning of what will be a long process. That simply approves the process to begin at EFL Level and lodge an application for moving in 2021. There is a lot to play out here. We are yet to receive a formal application to move, so until that is received, we cannot provide more information.
Berwick netball have been very clear with us they see Outer East as their long-term home, which is fantastic and is a key consideration in our thinking long term. The competition structure in 2020, with the return of Pakenham and Doveton provides a good regional divisional competition, which the south east clubs have been crying out for a long period.
NC: Another rapid development in the competition is the rise of Berwick Springs, and coming in as a senior club this year. How pleased are you with the progress of that club?
AB: There’s great opportunity in the Casey and Cardinia region to grow new clubs, and one way the competition will level out is the development of new clubs. With Narre South Saints joining Southern, that’s two new clubs in Casey, there are more senior opportunities and levels for people in the region. Footballers and netballers now have got more options, and that’s really important. Growth of new clubs in the south east region is vital for the long term sustainability of the game in the region. If you look at the growth happening behind Pakenham and Officer, and out the back of Clyde, I think there’s opportunity to bring new clubs as we go. That’s why maintaining divisional football is really important.
Ashley and the team at Berwick Springs have done a fantastic job, so to have them in 2020 when we had it as 2021 as our goal is fantastic. With a new facility coming as well, the club is one of the real success stories out of our first year
NC: While on growth, female football continues to develop in the region, and Outer East had four players drafted to AFLW clubs. Tell me about the growth of female football in your region and beyond …
AB: I think the growth of female football is exciting, and if you look at the numbers, there are over 1000 teams across Victoria, and we’re hoping to get two divisions in the women’s comp. We’re really proud that we’re a genuine option for females, with over 50 per cent of participation and teams in our competitions being female We’ve invested significantly in creating inclusive environments through the Leading the Change program. We want the environments to be really open and dynamic for females. We want female presidents, coaches; to fulfil key roles in our clubs.
NC: Season 2020 is coming closer and closer by the day and clubs are in full swing of their preparations. Do you feel as a commission you’re in a better position than you were twelve months ago?
AB: No doubt. The ability to have twelve months to reflect has been important. What was pleasing is that were no surprises, the challenges we faced we certainly expected. When we talk around the negative voices, there was. We’ve been able to adjust where we need to adjust, and we hope clubs can start to embrace it and improve, and collectively we can improve as a competition.
I’m really excited for the season, and now we’ve got a year in we can see where we can improve. We’ve gone from three staff to eight, a settled commission, and clubs are starting to know each other now. We’ve got some exciting things coming, but we’ve got plenty of work to do, as a game and a region. We can’t rest on our laurels. We want to continue to grow the competition, to build this into something really fantastic and we’ll continue to do the work required that.
NC: It’s been a fascinating insight Aaron, I really appreciate your time, and all the best for the season ahead.
AB: Thanks very much for the opportunity mate.