Uni Teams Up With Its Demons

Saturday, 28 March, 2015

The University of Melbourne has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Melbourne Football Club (MFC) that affirms the institutions’ intention to collaborate on research and community engagement projects.

University Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis and MFC CEO Peter Jackson formalised the partnership in late January, noting a shared investment in the future of the City of Melbourne as well as a longstanding place in the city’s history as motivations for a deal.

The University, with a student population of over 40,000 from Victoria, interstate and overseas, represents a considerable source of social and cultural capital that the AFL club would hope to tap into. The partnership with the University fits into the MFC’s long-term strategy to increase its membership and supporter base. Both have dwindled since Melbourne’s last premiership victory in 1964 due to a combination of struggles on-field since 2006 and financial and administrative issues that stretch back decades.

A key focus of the club is to diversify its supporter demographic, which has typically been concentrated in the city’s richer inner suburbs. Furthermore, the MFC’s lack of recent success has led to it having one of the oldest supporter bases in the competition, with a declining influx of younger fans a major concern.

Third-year Arts student and MFC member Dean Goldstein welcomed the partnership announcement.

“The Melbourne Footy Club has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. Considering how much I’ve enjoyed the last couple of years at Melbourne Uni, it means a lot to me to know that both institutions recognise how important the other is to the fabric of our city. I think the MOU [memorandum of understanding] that they’ve signed will help unite two of Melbourne’s most recognisable brands, and will strengthen the bond between sport and education. I’m just hoping to spot some of the players around campus now,” he said.

Goldstein’s comments reflect the club’s hope that the new association with the University will help to distinguish the MFC identity from that of the nine other clubs in the AFL’s Victorian heartland, where competition for support has grown increasingly tough. Part of this process involves the emphasis of the club’s unique tie to the name ‘Melbourne’. Together, the state’s oldest football club and its oldest university intend to use their relationship to expand the cultural experience offered by Melbourne’s passionate sporting community to students and the broader population.

Melbourne players Tom McDonald and Jay Kennedy-Harris, also students of the University, were present for the partnership announcement. Kennedy-Harris, a Bachelor of Science student, was in his first year and a resident of Queen’s College prior to being drafted by the Demons in the 2013 national draft. The pair have played 60 and 14 games for the MFC respectively, with McDonald finishing third in the club’s Best and Fairest award in 2012 – the same year he was nominated for the AFL’s Rising Star award as a second-year player.

The MFC are not the first club from Australia’s most prominent football competition to have been partnered with the University of Melbourne. Between 1907 and 1914 the Melbourne University Football Club, known more commonly as ‘University’ and made up of students and alumni, competed in the Victorian Football League, the AFL’s predecessor.

University eventually withdrew from the VFL ahead of the 1915 season, without ever playing in a final and with an overall winning record of just 21 per cent across 126 home-and-away matches. Players from the team transferred to other VFL clubs, the majority moving to Melbourne. The MFC continued to recruit players from University after the club joined the VFL’s seconds competition, the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA), in 1919. The most notable of these recruits was 1946 Brownlow medallist Donald Cordner, as well as his brothers Denis, John and Ted who together formed one of the most famous families of the sport and the club.

The new memorandum follows on from the MFC’s work with the University’s School of Population and Global Health and Indigenous Eye Health Unit to alleviate infectious eye diseases such as trachoma in Northern Territory Indigenous communities. The initiative, which combines the work of university researchers with the club’s football outreach programs, strong Indigenous playing contingent and NT engagement projects, has reported a significant decline in trachoma infection rates from 14 per cent in 2009 to four per cent in 2012.

Similar research initiatives that capitalise upon the two institutions’ capacities in the sporting, cultural, and educational fields will be a priority of the partnership.

Gajan Thiyagarajah is a MFC supporter. Go Dees!