OriginsInsight Edition 14

The AFL – Many Cultures, One Game

This year’s fourth edition of the AFL’s Multicultural Round is scheduled for Round 19 in early August.  Along with a wide range of initiatives sponsored by the AFL Multicultural Program, it symbolises the AFL’s commitment to promoting multicultural participation in the code.  The AFL vision, as indicated on its diversity website is, “We want football to be a vehicle that bridges the gap between Australia’s diverse communities and promotes inclusion within the wider Australian community.”

The CEO of the AFL, Gillon McLachlan, continuing a tradition established by his predecessors, champions the cause of diversity and inclusion. In launching last year’s Multicultural Round he said, “The AFL is committed to reflecting Australia’s cultural diversity, providing an environment which welcomes people from all backgrounds to enjoy our game as supporters, players, umpires or administrators.”

But how much of this is aspirational rhetoric?  And what evidence is there of the problem and how can progress be monitored in a consistent and independent way?  This article draws on recent research by OriginsInfo which surveyed the extent of cultural diversity among the elite performers in several Australian sports (download the PDF).

With regard to Indigenous Australians, the AFL is widely recognised for its successful nurturing and ongoing support of Indigenous players, especially those from remote communities. In an article by Ian Syson which otherwise challenges the concept of a Multicultural round1, he acknowledges the way the AFL has supported indigenous players in their struggle to be recognised contributors to the game. He respects the AFL’s recognition of lack of diversity within the sport and the corrective steps it is taking.

Measuring Cultural Diversity

The challenge of collecting appropriate data on cultural diversity to support effective reporting is discussed in some depth in a previous edition of OriginsInsight.

According to the AFL’s own estimate, only 15 per cent of players come from a multicultural background, meaning at least one parent was born overseas. The figure is low compared to Victoria’s 48 per cent with a parent born overseas.  However, the AFL’s own estimates of diversity within its lists, and its definition of ‘multicultural’ are open to challenge, because they are largely gathered from its own surveys and anecdotal sources.  Ian Syson also questions the measurement basis of AFL’s claims of multicultural representation.

OriginsInfo’s independent and robust name analysis methodology infers the most likely cultural origin of a particular name combination.

Arguably, with the notable exception of Indigenous Australians2, this provides a better representation of multiculturalism than whether a person or one of their parents was born overseas. Inevitably such a measure includes people with New Zealand and British Isles backgrounds who, culturally, are too similar to the dominant host community to be considered culturally diverse.

In the case of the AFL, we collected names of 809 listed AFL players, current as at November 2014. For practical purposes and to ensure statistical reliability, we grouped the 257 Origins categories into a smaller number of groups – Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, North West European, Southern and Eastern European, CALD3 – Non-European.

We compared the proportion of AFL players in those categories with the proportion of the Australian adult population in the same categories.  We also compared the current picture with the results we found when we conducted similar research in 2007.


The results give clear evidence of the skewed participation in AFL at the elite level, and explain why the AFL feels that it has a problem in aiming to remain relevant to all sectors of the Australian population. It is immediately apparent that there is a significant over-representation of people with Anglo- Saxon and Celtic heritage (84.8% compared with 67.4% in the wider population).


A representative 8% have a North West European heritage (mainly German and Dutch), but players with a Southern and Eastern European heritage (predominantly Greek, Polish and Italian) are markedly under-represented – ironic, given the Greek origin of former CEO, Andrew Demetriou.

Most striking, however is the significant under-representation of players with migrant backgrounds from other parts of the world. Only 1.2% of elite players originate from Asia, the Middle East and Pacific Islands, compared with 12.0% in the wider population. It is not surprising, therefore, that the AFL keeps the likes of Bachar Houli, Nic Naitanui. Lin Jong, Majak Daw and Adam Saad firmly in the public spotlight.

We compared the 2014 Origins research to similar research we conducted in 2007.  Over the period of seven years, the efforts of the multicultural team show some progress but probably not of the scale they would like. The proportion of AFL players with a heritage other than Anglo-Celtic has grown from 14.8% to 15.2% – a remarkably similar figure to the one used by the AFL despite being derived from a different methodology.



Cultural diversity among elite players will continue to grow over time but competition from other football codes in an increasingly diverse market is intense.  The AFL is at an early stage in its diversity journey.

Because it is a code played almost exclusively in Australia, it is in the unique position of not being able to draw on a pool of high standard overseas players to inject ‘instant diversity’.

The growth of elite players of multicultural background presents its own challenges, as witnessed by the increasingly frequent reports of racial vilification of players.  European countries faced the same challenges in the round-ball code from the 1970s through to the present day as home-grown talent with a migrant ancestry progressively proved to be up to the mark.  More recently, an increasingly regionalised and global player market has seen an increase in imported superstars, adding further to the cultural mix.

As has occurred in other markets, sport offers a powerful agent for societal change. Racism bubbles under the surface of Australian society much as it has elsewhere and reveals itself through competitive and partisan supporters at AFL games, sometimes through the voices of otherwise innocent teenagers who expose flaws in our community4 5.  The good news for the AFL is that, through amendments to player codes and persistent education for more than twenty years, it has largely eliminated player-player vilification.

It also recognises the key role of education through the media, its school programs, Auskick, player role-modelling, coaching, junior competitions and, indeed, the promotion of a Multicultural Round.  Although it has the advantage of a substantial resource base and societal clout, it is re-assuring that the game’s administrators have the vision and commitment to provide desperately needed leadership within their sphere of influence.

In this study Origins has demonstrated its effectiveness in measuring cultural diversity among elite AFL players.  But it would be more interesting to understand the diversity among players in non-elite leagues, Auskick participants and, indeed supporter members of the various AFL clubs.  For a sport that is so driven by performance statistics, further evidence of diversity across the AFL will do much to inform and monitor wider progress in the sport.

1 See 
2  Many of whom have imposed or adopted Anglo-Celtic names
3 Culturally and Linguistically Diverse
4 See for a report on a 13-year-old girl’s unwitting offence against Adam Goodes
5 See for a report on regular racial abuse endured by players in the Sunshine Heights Under-13s

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