Concerns over match payments in AFL Victoria country football leagues

Concerns over match payments in AFL Victoria country football leagues The Charlton Navy Blues is yet to win a game and is on the bottom of the North Central Football League ladder. (ABC News: Matthew Holmes)

A tired, quiet group of footballers walks off the ground with their heads down. Charlton has lost by 104 points and no-one has the energy to analyse the match or even commiserate.

As they walk into the clubrooms, one player says to the coach, "You just got to be positive."

But it's hard to stay positive when you're yet to win a game 12 weeks into the season and you're languishing on the bottom of the ladder.

Despite their on-field struggles and being a small rural town of just 1,000, a loud crowd of hundreds has gathered at the Charlton Recreation Reserve to watch football on a sunny winter afternoon in Northern Victoria.

The dominant team, the Sea Lake-Nandaly Tigers, is second on the North Central Football League ladder.

The Navy Blues had braced for a big defeat but that didn't make it sting less.

During the third quarter, spectators stand near a fire and a "beer ute", watching and drinking.

An onlooker shrieks, "45 grand for that?" when a Sea Lake player misses.

He was referring to rumours of the amount opposition players are paid to be on the field.

It reflects an underlying distrust and belief held by the Charlton community — and many in country Victoria — that small country clubs are increasingly unable to compete with clubs that can afford to pay their senior players big money.

Sealake-Nandaly Football Netball Club president Ivan Tait said the club was not paying a player $45,000 a season, which would equate to $2,500 a game.

"All player declarations and salary cap figures are private and confidential," he said.

"Like every club, we are required to submit these figures into AFL Central Victoria at the start of the season."

Paying under the table

Senior community football players and coaches are paid per game, with the amounts being tightly held secrets by clubs.

AFL Victoria brought in salary caps in 2016, which impose a limit of how much each club can spend on players.

They range from $30,000 in the Omeo League in the state's east to $130,000 in Northern Victoria.

Rumours turned to reality when the Wangaratta Magpies were caught having breached their salary cap in 2022.

They were stripped of their Ovens and Murray Premiership, lost four premiership points, and were fined the amount of the breach — $28,000.

AFL Victoria has since vowed to crack down on salary cap breaches and recently audited 118 grand finalists, with four clubs caught breaching the cap last year.

Country football remains rife with unsubstantiated rumours that clubs are paying players with cash, prams, or even phoney jobs to get around the salary cap.

Charlton FNC president Kris Dixon said increasing payments were threatening his club's future.

"When you're trying to recruit from a similar area, it's hard when they could go half an hour up the road and get paid three or four times more," he said.

"It's been happening for a while, but it's getting worse."

'Evil' player payments

Sixty kilometres north-west of Melbourne, the Gisborne Football Netball Club has benefited from the capital's urban sprawl.

It has long been at the top of the Bendigo Football Netball League ladder.

The club has won a senior's football premiership and an A-grade netball premiership in the past two years after years spent rebuilding its finances.

Club vice-president Tony Brancatisano said he wanted the competition to be fairer and wanted to see "evil" player payments banned.

"Even if we put a moratorium on it for three years," Mr Brancatisano said.

"Instead of paying players, put the money back into the club. It's destroying clubs."

Former Heathcote District Football Netball League chair Peter Cole said he had hundreds of conversations with people about suspected salary cap breaches during his six years in the role but never substantiated any of those claims.

"We were told a player was getting his house restumped at a cost of $20,000 as a payment … it turned out to be a concrete house," he said.

"You hear stories of cows in the paddock for players … but no-one will tell you what they're getting."

Money is 'manageable'

AFL Victoria says there are 920 clubs with more than 8,700 teams playing across 85 Victorian football netball leagues.

It says a club has merged or folded every year since 2000.

In the state's north, the Quambatook Football Netball Club folded in 2022.

Average winning margins per game are 80–100 points in some leagues, with struggling teams getting smashed every week.

The four out of 118 clubs found to breach their caps were Outer East clubs Alexandra and Emerald, Mooroopna in the state's north, and Robinvale-Euston on the Murray River.

They were all fined for the breaches, with Alexandra receiving the highest penalty — a $40,000 fine and the loss of four premiership points.

Emerald was fined $8,000, while Mooroopna was fined $25,500.

In the Sunraysia Football Netball League, Robinvale-Euston was fined $15,000, had 12 premiership points taken away and its president was banned from holding office at any AFL-affiliated club for 12 months.

AFL Victoria head Greg Madigan said player payments were not out of control, with the player points system proving an effective equalisation measure.

"We're constantly reviewing it," he said.

"We talk to clubs each year.

"There is the ability for leagues to make exceptions for clubs that need extra points and extra salary cap.

"I think it's working really well."

The player points system prevents clubs from recruiting a group of former AFL players or top-tier players from other leagues.

It is based on a three-point system that allocates each player a point based on where they've played.

Mr Madigan said the AFL wanted to help prevent clubs from folding but some were inevitable.

"History's shown that it's inevitable that clubs fall away, towns close … we're not always able to help, but we're certainly willing to," he said.

Calls for change

Mr Cole wants the AFL to implement a new player points system that would take points and money away from top clubs and give more points and money to the bottom clubs to try to even up competitions.

"Something has to be done, otherwise the top clubs will be playing themselves," he said.

"The way we're going at the moment, it's a slow death.

"The struggling clubs won't be here in three or four years' time."

Mr Madigan said it was up to each individual league if they wanted to make changes.

"We don't get involved as such … generally it's a local decision by local people in that league," he said.

He said the best thing struggling clubs could do was focus on building their juniors.

"They talk about buying premierships and two years later they're on their knees because they've not built a club around the sport," he said.

Clubs search for solutions

Charlton chippie Jed Thompson won't reveal how much he is getting paid by his local club where he has played with his mates for the past 16 years.

He has had offers to play for other clubs, for double, or even triple the money, but said he turned them down.

"[The money] hasn't really interested me too much," the 23-year-old said.

"It's the mateship. In a small community town, you come here and everyone's here."

In Charlton, a girl in pigtails bounces a netball towards the canteen while a boy carries a football around.

The four volunteers in the canteen work like a well-oiled machine, not stopping for a minute of respite during the three games of football as they fulfil an endless stream of soup, pie, chip, and donut orders.

"It's all homemade," a volunteer said proudly of the two types of soup.

But despite the energy and laughter, it has been a tough few years for the Charlton community.

Tragically, they have lost two young people, a parent, and two life members.

Residents say the club becomes even more vital for the community in tough times.

During a recent Charlton home game dedicated to the memory of 20-year-old netballer Maddi Fitzpatrick, who died of cancer earlier this year, a special moment encapsulated the importance of the club.

Maddi's brother, 17-year-old Elliott, kicked his first goal in senior football.

Dozens of footballers ran at him from all angles, some from the backline, for a celebratory hug.

The team, which is losing by 100 points at this point, hug and celebrate like they never have before.

Parents on the sidelines shake their heads and cry.

"The way we celebrated that goal, that's what football clubs are about," senior coach Mitch Collins said in his post-game debrief to the team.

"Today is more than just a game of football, it's about that family.

"It's about community."

Local business owner Bernard "Benno" Catherine is walking into the function room, beer in hand, as the sun goes down when he sums it up best.

"Win, lose or draw, we'll fill that dining room up with more than 200 people every Saturday night," he said.

"We're a very tight-knit community that supports everyone, 100 per cent.

"You can't buy that."



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