Western Australia's Wheatbelt punches above its weight when it comes to producing top AFL talent and football clubs are the heart and soul of country towns in the region. But a new report has painted an alarming picture for the sport if its teams and leagues do not change the way they operate.
Stemming from a review by WA Country Football League (WACFL) into the health and sustainability of teams and leagues, the report backs up anecdotal evidence of decline.
It shows players are getting older, volunteers are becoming more scarce, and paid athletes are increasingly essential for clubs seeking to field a side.
The report, which is regarded by some in the sector as the most in-depth picture of the game in the Wheatbelt ever conducted, describes the trends as "concerning".
The review recommends a number of strategies, including reducing the number of players on the field, crossover matches between leagues, club mergers, a review of reserves competitions and longer-term planning.
It's not too late
But despite these challenges WACFL president John Shadbolt said it was not too late to turn the tide for many clubs in the region.
"It's very timely that we've done this review because it [Wheatbelt football] isn't actually broken yet, it's failing in some places," Mr Shadbolt said.
"We've got to be proactive and paint the picture as it is, rather than [be] reactive after it's broken.
"I think we've been suffering this for quite a long time, things have evolved from having reserves and a league side, to now just having a league side and then going from 18 on the field to 16 on the field."
Ms Shadbolt said local clubs will play an important role in driving necessary changes.
"I don't think anything is terminal and I think it's just a matter of being governed well," he said.
"There's lots of ways that we can actually mitigate things going forward and I think it's the will of the communities that are going to be the moving force behind all of that."
Mr Shadbolt said more support from the top echelons of the AFL would help stem some of the decline.
"They [the AFL] need to spend more money and resources into country footy," he said.
"There's a big heap of money at the top that doesn't actually filter through, but there's still plenty of room for us to share resources and human resources — people to give us a hand out in the bush."
Change needed for survival
Three Springs, a small community located 320 kilometres north-east of Perth, is home to one of three football teams identified as being "on the brink" of closure in the report.
While the town's league football side has just secured a place in the North Midlands Football League's grand final, it was only months ago it had no team and no players, forfeiting its first four games.
Club president Brad Taylor is also assistant coach and player, and said the club was relying on its ageing player base and a growing number of paid athletes just to compete.
"Over the last couple of years, we've struggled with numbers. We makeshift a side and then as long as we get a side then we're happy," Mr Taylor said.
"Farms are getting bigger, people send their kids to boarding school, and they end up liking it there, so they stay in the city and we don't get footballers to come back to town.
"If we don't pay players then we've got no chance of having a side, so paying players is the key to keeping our footy club going."
Mr Taylor agreed that change is needed to help Wheatbelt football clubs survive.
"We need to do something about it because it does look like we're going to be in dire straits very soon, and I don't know what the answer is," he said.
"We'll just soldier on … we'll just keep on fighting year by year and we'll see what happens from there."
Lifeblood of Wheatbelt towns
Three Springs Shire president Chris Lane said the football club was the lifeblood of the town.
"For some of these kids and players it's the only time they get out in winter, and representing their town is a big thing," Ms Lane said.
"If the footy team folded there possibly could be some players, some blokes, who could leave town because of it.
"For Three Springs we have quite a history and it would be devastating for the town to not have a footy team in the future.
Ms Lane said the future of football in the town is reliant on finding people to play.
"It's a constant struggle to find players. I'm proud of the committee this year in what they've done," she said.
"They've had a great turnaround but next year who knows — finding players is impossible."