In the centre of the mall, in the centre of Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia, a 10-year-old Indigenous boy kicks a scrubby red footy.
His goals are two gum trees in Todd Mall.
With the outside of a foot, he dribbles the footy to bounce rightwards and between the trees: red, centre.
He picks up the footy. This time, with the inside of a foot, he curls the ball to bounce left, through the centre.
Asked his name, the boy replies: “Eddie”.
Eddie? “Eddie Betts,” he says, beaming.
The boy wears a Chicago Bulls cap. And a black t-shirt with red words: ’Need Wifi’.
American influence. Technology. He’s a snapshot of young Australian society.
And he’s the very reason why the AFL must keep playing games in the Northern Territory, says Stu Totham, AFL NT’s chief executive.
Totham says first-hand experience of the AFL elite is vital for the fabric, and the future, of the code in the Territory.
“It’s critical,” Totham told AAP.
“That inspiration, and touch and feel that they can get through these games, we need to value it.
“The Territory government invests heavily in these games and there would be sections of the community that perhaps don’t see the value.
“But it just can’t be underestimated.
“Those kids that get to see Eddie Betts … or Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti from Tiwi Islands; to see them in the flesh and go ’wow, I can do that’.”
The boy was playing in Todd Mall, near Reg Harris Lane, named after a man known as the Father of Football in central Australia.
Harris arrived in Alice Springs in 1947, the year the Central Australia Football Association was founded; a year after the first documented Australian Rules games in the town.
Harris played a dozen years; was captain and coach of Alice Springs’ representative side for six years straight; and became the association’s chairman who organised the building of Traeger Park and its grandstand.
Traeger Park on Saturday night hosted an AFL game between Melbourne and St Kilda.
The fixture was the third AFL game in eight days in the Territory, following two matches last weekend in Darwin.
“We have proven we can deliver the games,” Totham said.
“And we would love to see some more footy played in the Territory to help grow the game.”
Growth can’t be taken for granted, despite the Territory boasting the highest Australian Rules participation rate in the nation.
“We have got 53,000 (participants), which is 20 per cent of the population of the Territory … just phenomenal,” Totham said.
But numbers of Territorians reaching the elite AFL are dwindling: from 27 players in 2012 to just 11 this season.
“It’s hard to say it’s cyclic because of the timeframe, eight years,” Totham said.
“We know that the best kids will always get picked, whether it’s a (Nakia) Cockatoo, (Brandan) Parfitt, a Rioli … we’re not too concerned about that first-round type.
“It’s really the back-end rookies.
“We have had these Next Generation Academies running in the Territory for some time now, five clubs.
“Melbourne have been seven or eight years in Alice and haven’t really extracted a player as yet. I think that’s disappointing.
“And I’m not putting it all on the clubs. That is us … let’s get our clubs operating better, nurture our talent better.”
Many of the 53,000 participants are in remote Indigenous communities where Aussie Rules isn’t a game, but a societal glue.
AFL NT runs eight remote projects, in central Australia, Lajamanu, Wadeye, Tiwi Islands, Maningrida, Elcho Island, Gove and Groote Eylandt.
The peak body employs eight project officers via the federal government’s National Indigenous Australians Agency.
The agency provided about $4.5 million over three years. But the funding deal expires next year.
“I would love to think that we can get our funding for a longer period just to give everyone a bit more stability,” Totham said.
“But that three years was significant. It was the first time we have had that length of time in the contract funding.”
When COVID-19 struck earlier this year and the AFL stood down 80 per cent of its staff, the remote projects were untouched.
“Because of the funding structure, there was no financial exposure,” Totham said.
“And also, just to help those communities. They were all basically quarantined from the rest of the world, they couldn’t even move out of their communities.
“So we thought trying to keep footy moving along was an important part of keeping some social cohesion.”
The projects are a conduit between remote communities, their outside worlds, and the big footy leagues.
“Our talent pathways aren’t bad,” Totham said.
“But it’s connecting, getting the players engaged and the commitment – and that is where a lot of the cost comes in because they’re in remote communities.”
Smoothing the talent pathway was vital for the Territory achieving an ambition of fielding its own team in the AFL.
AFL NT commissioned a report into that possibility which Totham expected to be released later this year.
“It outlines a pretty aspirational target, to have our own team,” he said.
“Interestingly in that report, there is a few challenges, but one of the main challenges is really resetting our talent base here in the Territory.
“If we’re going to have a team of 35, 40 players, you’d have to think for player retention purposes you’re going to have at least half of them from the Territory.”