Sydney Swans chairman Andrew Pridham has warned the AFL could suffer a rugby union-like decline if it stopped investing strongly New South Wales and Queensland grassroots footy, including northern club academies.

Pridham said the interest in rugby union, from both a financial and participation perspective, had “dropped substantially” over the past 30 years, claiming many had “naturally gravitated” to the NRL — the “dominant code” in the northern states that was only “getting stronger”.

Speaking to The Age, Pridham said Peter V’landys and the NRL had “got the jump on the AFL” this season by returning a fortnight earlier.

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The Swans chairman and coronavirus cabinet member said while the AFL had made inroads in the northern states over the past 38 years, rugby league remained a clear No. 1 in the state.

One area where the AFL has targeted participation growth in NSW and Queensland is club academies, which has helped the Sydney Swans, GWS Giants, Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast Suns all develop homegrown talent. It’s also helped the four clubs avoid drafting players from interstate that might be more likely to request a trade home.

Isaac Heeney has developed into an AFL star since graduating from the Swans’ academy, while the two most recent Rising Star nominees — Connor Budarick and Tom Green — were drafted from the Suns and Giants academies respectively.

Isaac Heeney has developed into an AFL star since graduating from the Sydney Swans academy. Picture: Michael WillsonIsaac Heeney has developed into an AFL star since graduating from the Sydney Swans academy. Picture: Michael WillsonSource: Getty Images

With the COVID-19 crisis hitting the league hard financially, Pridham urged the AFL not to abandon the northern academies and urged all parties involved to think creatively to keep club development programs healthy.

“I think it’s a very high priority, because if we don’t continue the grassroots development eventually you could become rugby union,” Pridham told The Age.

“The amount of media content they command in Sydney, it’d be 10 times what the AFL gets. If left unchecked, it’s a big risk. Peter V’landys has really grabbed the imagination of NSW. They’re probably going to put another NRL team in Queensland, Brisbane, so they’ll have more content there.

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“And this is in a landscape where the four AFL clubs in the northern states aren’t particularly financially strong. I think in the AFL, we’re all guilty of equating on-field success to off-field success, and it’s not the way to look at it.”

Pridham said the entire AFL community needed recommit to ensuring grassroots development and academies remained viable, as well as strong promotion of the game.

“We’ve got to keep investing, and that’s clearly in a landscape where everybody is trying to reduce expenditure,” he said.

Dustin Martin knows how to pass a footy rugby-style. Picture: Michael DodgeDustin Martin knows how to pass a footy rugby-style. Picture: Michael DodgeSource: AAP

While the AFL attracts more fans through the turnstiles, Pridham said rugby league was a “popular sport for people to watch on TV”.

Pridham claimed the AFL community sometimes put too much emphasis on how many fans attended games.

“ … I think the lens in the southern states tends to be that the way to measure the interest in sport is the number of people that go to the games. It’s one measure, but it’s not the only measure,” he said.

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