Host Richard Parkin interviews Western Sydney Wanderers’ Tim Thorne about the club’s engagement with local Asian communities.
Kate Cohen analyses the A-League and the Socceroos performance in the Asian Cup.
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(Interview begins at 18 mins 23 sec)
Richard Parkin: Welcome back to the Leopold Method Show on 2ser 107.3 with me Richard Parkin. Western Sydney Wanderers have grabbed the headlines not only for their results on the pitch during their short history, but also for the incredible support they’ve received from the western Sydney community. Joining us in the studio to discuss the Wanderers’ community engagement strategy is Community Pathway and Football Development Manager, Tim Thorne. Welcome Tim.
Tim Thorne: Thank you very much, glad to be here.
RP: Our pleasure. The western Sydney region is perhaps one of the most culturally diverse in all of Australia. When Western Sydney Wanderers were set up, what was the brief to engage with the local community?
TT: It was pretty simple – it was to make a difference. With the Wanderers, we were probably set up quite differently to a lot of other clubs. The major bit was that we went around with all the forums that you’ve seen and had a look at all the different bits and pieces that they had to see and the amount that came in was phenomenal. The amount of information they [the fans] wanted, they were very specific about how they wanted the club to look, how they wanted the team to behave when they were on the field, how they wanted the team to play on the field and the main thing we had to do was unpack that make sure we lived up to it. There’s a lot of forums that got on but not everybody listens in terms of putting it into action and I think that was the major difference.
RP: Certainly we remember that in terms of the club colours, the strip, all this feedback. What did you get feedback on in terms of existing football communities versus new football communities? Did you get people from more established football communities like Croatians, Serbians, Greeks and Italians saying ‘x’, or did you get new communities saying ‘we have no representation and we would like to see Western Sydney Wanderers stand for us’?
TT: It was really a combination. I think the main thing, when we came in and looked at all the information we had, the existing cultures were saying ‘respect us, respect all of our opinions’ and we had the new communities saying ‘we want to be heard and we want to be involved’. So the main one was to make sure we didn’t say we were one or the other, and we weren’t one or the other – we never wanted to be that.
There was a term – standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us – and I think that was really true, respecting the rich heritage that comes from western Sydney. Over half the Socceroos have come from western Sydney and to come in and say we know more is just wrong. It’s not the way we wanted to be, we wanted to come in and say we love the fact western Sydney has such a great multicultural heritage, we love the fact that those cultures were massive in developing football in this country and we just wanted to respect that and see if we could enhance the work that’s been done and respect all the communities who are new to western Sydney and are emerging and will be massive in 20 years and try and move that forward.
RP: Speaking of the emerging communities, we know western Sydney itself, the demographics of western Sydney, are changing very rapidly. What specific communities within western Sydney have you been targeting or working with?
TT: What we did was we looked at all the demographics and we looked at who’s going to have larger numbers in the next 20 years. It’s pretty safe to say we’re embracing everybody. We’re embracing all the different cultures of western Sydney but obviously you’ve got your Chinese, Indian, Iraqi communities etc. who are really expanding. There’s about 7, 8, 9 or 10 that will be getting quite large over the next 20 years. The main thing was to firstly embrace all, but then look at specific strategies where we can go in and bring all the different cultures of western Sydney and the larger ones and the ones that will be larger in the next 20 years will be at the front.
RP: That’s something we’ve noticed with the Asian Cup. You’re talking about the powerhouses of Asian football – Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan – and no one’s really mentioned China or India, with the development of the I-League attracting big names like Del Piero so a massive growth market there. We had Patrick Skene from Red Elephant Projects on the show a couple of weeks ago and he spoke about some of the difficulties migrant communities have in joining established football clubs. Is this a problem you’ve identified with some of the communities you’ve been working with?
TT: The great thing that’s happened over the last few years is, because from the get go we’ve been going in and supporting those kinds of communities, they’ve joined with us and see us as somebody who can be a bit of a voice and a face for their communities. We take that as a really humble honour. The main thing is to get involved and be respectful. If we do that, it doesn’t matter which cultures, we embrace them and they’ll take it on and move it forward with us.
RP: So if I’m a 16 year old Iraqi boy out in Auburn, what are my pathways? How can I get involved with football and how can you assist in integrating me into that process?
TT: ‘Pathways’ is a really interesting one, because there are so many different levels. A lot of people see pathways as just for players but then you have coaches, administrators, volunteers who come into the game, people who make the game tick over, media, all those different ways you can get involved. If you’re a young kid who wants to get involved and you’re from one of the emerging cultures, the main thing to do is to keep on playing football, keep on getting involved, come and join our Wandercrew which is now 167-strong, come and get involved in the different events we have on, we have the Youth Asian Cup which is being played on the 31st [January], the same day as the Asian Cup Final and then just see how it goes from there.
RP: We’re going to come back to the Asian Cup and some of the tournaments you’ve set up in western Sydney because they’re certainly very interesting projects. But let’s look at a specific community – the South Sudanese community. Again, this is a newer community in western Sydney. What are some of the projects you’ve done with them to help them discover their love for football?
TT: I think it was about a year ago when we combined with Minister Dolminello, the PCYC, the police and also Catholic Care to help support the South Sudanese community to then be able to support themselves from a football perspective and a community perspective. What we did was we helped them get a training ground, we helped for that to be funded for a year and the state government was fantastic in coming forward with that, we then got them a business coach so the aim was that within two years for them to be fully self-sufficient, we did coaching courses which I did and referee courses so that when they ran their tournament, which they run in the summer, they didn’t have to have the massive 3, 4 or $5,000 costs for referees. Then their coaches were also more qualified so the coaching quality would get better and we also put a system in place, which to be honest is still growing but it’s getting better, where players who came in could be mentored and if there were issues that were happening on the other side, there were people who could jump in and help out.
RP: What would be the legacy of this? Is this something that the community would then be looking to set up a local club and then integrate into the existing football pyramid structure? Or is this something where they continue with local tournaments?
TT: The major aim is firstly that they feel their culture is respected. That’s number one. There’s no problem with them having a fantastic job within their own culture but at the same time there’s all these wonderful opportunities where they can get involved in their local communities and one of those communities is a football club.
The great thing about what we’ve done with the project is that this year they’re paying for their own venues – so they’ve already got to the stage where they’re paying for their own venues and they’ll also this year be joining the PCYC so they’re getting involved in that community club then with a new football club that is likely to be brought to fruition over the next few months, there will be a fairly close local club they can join, but there’s also a lot of other local clubs they can join.
RP: We know you’ve been working closely with Red Elephant Projects, they are a for profit company, it’s great they’re doing a lot of this work but is there a sense that a lot of the clubs, as in Western Sydney, should be working directly with these communities instead of using a commercial middle-man?
TT: With Red Elephant, their role within this is to help us connect. While we do financially help them to come and help us connect, the major part they do is making sure we use the best philosophies and the best targeting procedures to go in there and connect. And to not connect that maybe aren’t as low hanging fruit at the time or maybe making sure we connect with communities who really need our help. They’re a great vehicle for us and they’ve worked really well for us and they’ve been a big part of the Asian Cup and we’ve combined fantastically during the Asian Cup. So they’re a great resource now, whether we use them in the future will just depend.
RP: If you’ve just joined us, this is the Leopold Method Show, we’re speaking to Tim Thorne from the Western Sydney Wanderers about their community engagement programmes. We’ll have more after this short break.
RP: Welcome back, you’re listening to the Leopold Method show on 2SER with me, Richard Parkin. Before the break we were talking to Western Sydney Wanderers’ Community Pathway and Football Development Manager Tim Thorne about their programs designed to engage the diverse communities of western Sydney. Now Tim, one of the projects you mentioned earlier, late last year, was the inaugural Western Sydney Wanderers’ Asian Cup, played out of Club Marconi. What was the inspiration for this idea and how did it come about?
TT: Well obviously we’ve got the Asian Cup on our doorstep, so it was a great way to look and see if we could excite. There were two aims: the first one was to excite the people of western Sydney, and Sydney about the Asian Cup, because that’s really important. If the Asian Cup does well, everybody in football does well. The second one was, ‘can we go out there and give those cultures out there a cracking event, and make them feel part of the Wanderers, and part of football’, which doesn’t always happen.
RP: Have you seen enough from the FFA and from the various A-League clubs, enough attempts to capture the legacy of the Asian Cup – as you mention, this is the continental tournament for 4.4 billion people and we’ve seen so many communities come out that haven’t been engaged by the A-League. Have you seen enough efforts to get a kick-on effect?
TT: To be honest, because we’ve been focused on ourselves, other A-League clubs may or may not have been doing different bits and pieces, and it’s hard to tell from where we are how much they’ve done. Does everyone understand how big this tournament is, or even just how big football is? I don’t think everybody has fully grasped that within the sporting community within Australia.
For ourselves, we’ve been working towards the Asian Cup for almost two years now. We’ve been doing events where we’ve been going out to cultural events… I think within two weeks of us being pulled together as a team – by that I mean the team that runs out of the offices – we went to an Indian festival. That first one, people kept asking us ‘Are you rugby league? Are you AFL?’ cause they didn’t know at that stage, they’d never heard of the Wanderers.
But we just kept on persisting. We worked out a few bits and pieces that really work when you go into those areas, like penalty shootouts and things like that – so make sure you bring your football with you. We, almost every big cultural event, and quite a few smaller ones we’ve been to, we’ve been taking activity, taking branding, sending players, whichever it could be… the numbers of people we’ve touched, reached out to along the way, would be in the thousands.
RP: You mention the players there. How important is it for the players, who are in some ways the face of the club, to be out there in the community spreading the message for the Wanderers?
Tim: It’s massive. There’s so many kids and adults who say ‘the moment I decided to support this club was because I met this person’. Some people will follow that player around, others will just then tag to that club and stay with that club, or others will just tag to that sport and stay with that sport, so it’s imperative. I think, since we’ve started last season, we’ve done over 300 appearances. In the first season we did over 250 appearances, so we’ve been clocking somewhere between the 250-330 appearances since we started.
I can’t say how that compared to other clubs, but that involved 471 players in just one year. So if you just add it up, all the different bits and pieces they went to, so that’s potentially between 300-471 moments of a kid being motivated, an adult feeling like they belong. Some of the ones haven’t even been media moments, where we’ve just gone out and supported the community in a very personal way. We only do it because just because, once again, our aim is to make a difference. It’s in our vision mission, that’s what our aim is to do. We know that can come back and help the club later on, but it’s not the starting point of why we do it.
RP: Now you mentioned earlier, the Wandercrew. Who are the Wandercrew, and what do they do?
TT: The Wandercrew are wonderful. That’s the simple way to look at them. Basically we started this very early on, one of the first things I put together. It’s those people who want to be involved in the club and would like to help us at the different things we do.
It started out as game day, we now have 60 Wandercrew who come along and get involved every single time we’re at game day. So it’s quite a big workforce. They completely run themselves now, we built them to be that way, so that people can get a lot of great experiences.
We’ve now got ones who help in the community; the Wanderers’ Asian Cup was run by a Wandercrew except for Josh and myself being there. So they came along, they helped make sure everything worked, they helped us out with media, they helped us out with all the usherwork on the day, and we had a wonderful young lady called Rebecca who managed the event on the day, who’s now in the future, wants to be in events in a football club. So she’s just gaining experience to get where she wants to go.
The Wandercrew have had six people get into sport, full time jobs into sport over the last two years, and a whole bunch of them have been here since day dot and are still there. Every year we have Wandercrew Winner of the Year for the person who has given the most, and what it means for them is absolutely phenomenal.
RP: Obviously a lot of money would need to go into some of these community engagement plans. How much funding assistance does the Western Sydney Wanderers get, and how much does it cost to commit to these projects?
TT: You can do something that’s cost-intensive, or you can be smart about it. So yep the club supports us with what we need to get out there, but we use every cent of what we make in clinics, holiday clinics, etc., and we bring that back in and that goes back out into the community.
It’s very important when you build a community department, you make it very tight financially, because you never know when you might get in tight times, and you want to keep it nice and tight… not that I think Western Sydney’s going to have any of those, cause we’re just rocking and rolling. But it’s really important that you make sure that you keep things tight and that you don’t just spend for the sake, you have to be very strategic. Our school programs are strategic; the way we’ve done them is for a specific purpose. Our cultural programs are strategic, so we make sure we make the best use out of what we’ve got.
RP: Obviously a component of all of this is about trying to build the membership, build the fan base for the Western Sydney Wanderers. As we know it’s almost capacity over at Parramatta Stadium in terms of existing members. How much more growth can the club support?
TT: The stadium’s always an interesting one. The stadium’s being renovated, and that’ll allow more people in. The aim isn’t to have, ‘Can we sell out a 20,000 stadium?’ At the moment, with the exception of people who don’t turn up to memberships, we’re doing that most weeks. It’s about ‘How much can we engage with the community’, cause remember the starting point is ‘to make a difference.’ The next point is, ‘Can we excite people about football?’ Then we get to fan engagement, then we get to membership. That’s our order; it’s not the other way around, we’re not just going, ‘fan engagement, get memberships, that’s the be-all and end-all,’ cause we mean more than that, we’re here to represent western Sydney. So we’ve still got to go and make a difference. We’ve still got to go and make people love football. Basically since we started, the number of kids playing football in western Sydney has doubled, because we’ve had strategic programs going out there. There’s all this great work that’s happening out there in the associations that’s helped make it better as well.
RP: Those are massive numbers. If you’re talking about something that was already football’s existing heartland, and you’re saying participation rates have doubled. Have you seen Sydney FC get more interested in trying to access some of these untapped communities? Do you get a sense Sydney is trying to push further west?
TT: Not so much, but if they do, then that’s their right – there aren’t any boundaries at the moment. We’ve just made a very clear statement – these are our areas, these are the areas we work in. We have an 80/20 rule; we can go outside, but it’s got to be for a specific reason. We love the fact that there’s competition in the marketplace from a Sydney/Western Sydney perspective. We would all love Sydney FC to get stronger, us get stronger, it just means there will be a whole heap more people watching football, playing football, the snowball gets bigger, the ecosystem gets bigger, everything gets bigger.
RP: Very quickly, we know the Western Sydney Wanderers have gone out and signed two new Japanese players with a view for the Asian Champions League competition, but also they may come into the A-League squad. How important is it for the A-League to introduce something like a 4 + 1 foreign visa spot where one is set aside for Asian players, to try and tap into the legacy of this Asian Cup?
TT: From a community perspective that’d be great. I don’t know the ins and outs and how that would work, and how that would modify the system, so it’s a bit hard for me to say. But having different cultures come in and play in our competition, having different cultures in Australia itself is just a magnificent thing, it just makes Australia even better. So for me? Fantastic, but as I said I don’t know all the other little bits and pieces that go along with it.
(Image courtesy of Red Elephant Projects)