A DROP in participation rates is an area of concern for the Hampden league as it navigates a changing football landscape.
Registration numbers have decreased since the last full season in 2019 with the COVID-19 break exacerbating issues which were "bubbling under the surface".
In 2019, 1905 footballers registered for the competition. They dropped to 1825 in 2021 when play resumed after a 12-month break only for the season to be cut short due to statewide lockdowns.
This season registrations sit at 1747.
It is being felt at club level with Port Fairy, which recorded a scoreless senior game on Saturday, three times forfeiting its reserves and Camperdown withdrawing its under 18.5 team - an age group which has lacked numbers throughout its junior journey.
AFL Western District region manager Jason Muldoon said an ongoing drop would reverberate across the competition.
"It's not a healthy drop. Is it unexpected? Probably not," he told The Standard.
"When you say 78 players (from 2021 to 2022), let's hypothetically say 20 per team, that's four teams, so across a 10-club competition that's significant.
"If we do that every year then that's an issue."
Hampden league president Shane Threlfall said participation - both players and volunteers - was the main concern.
He cited junior age groups as an area which could be reviewed.
"We have seen that in the Hampden league through forfeits and also the discrepancy in the score lines," he told The Standard.
"My belief is some of these issues were bubbling under the surface pre-COVID but COVID has certainly sped this up quite a bit and there's a lot of people - players and volunteers - who haven't returned to football and netball.
"I am hoping that plateaus a bit. I think this year most people are just going to be happy if we get a full season and a final series. Post-that I am hoping we see some numbers come back to the sport."
Threlfall, who has an education background, said COVID-19 had denied many children and teenagers rites of passage.
"I think there will be a natural movement back," he said.
"My theory - and I am talking juniors now - and during COVID young people had lots of things taken off them.
"They had school taken off them, they had sport taken off them, they had their social life taken off them and the only thing that wasn't taken away was technology.
"Getting them off the devices is the challenge and it's going to take a bit of promotion via leagues, via schools."
The Hampden league runs under 18.5 football on a Saturday and under 16s and under 14s on Sundays.
Threlfall said age groups were a discussion point - as they had been in past seasons.
"This is my opinion, but if you can drive to the footy, you probably don't need to be playing juniors," he said.
"But the issue with that is, once they start driving, they fill a car up with mates and parents aren't taking them to the footy.
"Once the parents aren't there you're losing potential goal umpires, canteen helpers, a range of volunteers."
Threlfall said the AFL Western District discussion group, which will meet again on Monday, was giving the Hampden, Warrnambool and District, Mininera and District and South West District leagues a chance to "throw lots of ideas around".
"Everything is out on the table. We'll start filtering through what can be done short-term and what a road-map for long-term," he said.
"It's not a decision-making group, that will be up to the clubs.
"The clubs in the Hampden league have been fantastic with communicating with one another and supporting one another."
Threlfall said clubs were being "proactive and addressing the issues" but no decisions had been made.
"All clubs have to look seriously at where they want to be in three, five and 10 years' time," he said.
"Then they can start mapping out a road-map of where they want to be in that period of time.
"The clubs have to make some decisions around that."
Terang Mortlake and Kolora-Noorat, which play in different competitions, have openly started talks about a potential merger.
Threlfall, who has coached in the Hampden and Warrnambool and District leagues, encouraged those invested in their clubs to "look at the bigger picture".
"I understand how passionate people are about their clubs and that's fantastic, we need passionate people involved at football clubs," he said.
"But I also urge those passionate people to start looking at the bigger picture and it's football in our region in general."
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