For the first 25 years of Adam Kingsley's time in the AFL, the health of the code in western Sydney barely crossed his mind. That has all changed. Since the Victorian secured his first senior coaching job in August 2022, the gig has become about much more than just the GIANTS.

The GIANTS have been a near permanent fixture at the pointy end of the season since they fell just short in that famous preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs in 2016. They reached the same weekend the following season, then made a maiden Grand Final in 2019 and have won nine of 16 finals across the past seven seasons.

But despite that record – only Geelong (19 finals) has played more finals in that period – the popularity of the game in that part of the country isn't what it could be.

Grassroots participation rates have plummeted since the coronavirus pandemic, while the average home attendance has also languished down the bottom post-COVID-19 – the GIANTS were ranked 18th (10,160) in the AFL in 2023 – below NRL neighbours Penrith (18,865), Canterbury (18,345), Parramatta (18,314) and Wests Tigers (15,591).

Kingsley isn't at the GIANTS just to capture the club's first premiership. That is his primary focus, but it is bigger than that for the man who helped Port Adelaide win its first – and only – AFL flag back in 2004. It is why he has spent time researching the issue and why he wants the AFL to devote more resources to a population that houses 2.6 million people, according to the most recent census.

"I've only known the game to be fair. I played it as a kid and played or coached in the AFL for the last 30 years. I see the opportunity for it to be great, I see the opportunity for the industry to do better, whether it's financially or whether it's to have a greater impact on the community. I find it really interesting. I just think there is an enormous opportunity for the AFL to become a real powerhouse in Australia and be really beneficial for the community," Kingsley told

Adam Kingsley and former AFL CEO Gillon Mclachlan.

"Western Sydney football - as I understand it - was strengthening pre-COVID, but as soon as COVID hit everything fell away, which has really hurt football in western Sydney. Participation levels are down on what they were and it is not really accelerating at the level anyone would hope for.

"There has to be a strong league in western Sydney, because Penrith (families) are driving to Manly - over an hour away - to take a 10-year-old to a footy game. It reminds me of rep basketball on a Friday night in Victoria where parents drive an hour or more to get their kids to a basketball game. That's at an elite level, this is grassroots level, where we are trying to encourage grassroots participation. Having a strong league in western Sydney is absolutely critical to growing the game.

"Participation numbers, getting TVs turned on in western Sydney, getting people to come to the GIANTS to watch live football are all the challenges. I'm not sure exactly how to fix it all, but right now, there is an enormous opportunity to pour time and effort into that space and really try and develop that. Based on our country, it is really the last untapped area the AFL can tap into. There are 2.5 million people in western Sydney alone. There aren't too many opportunities like that anywhere else, where the market isn't already saturated by AFL. It is a great opportunity, but there has to be a lot of time and effort invested.

"Obviously the AFL are aware of all this and are pouring resources in to fix it, but they can be doing more to saturate it. Why isn't every billboard in western Sydney housing AFL? Why isn't the GIANTS on every billboard in western Sydney? That is an investment, but what return could we get out of that? This is bigger than just the GIANTS, this is growing the game around the country. If the AFL want their players to be paid an average wage of $700,000 or $800,000 or even more, we've got to hit western Sydney and get TV sets turned on with the AFL on, because without it this is capped."

The GIANTS Academy has already produced current senior players Tom Green, Harry Himmelberg, Kieren Briggs, Isaac Cumming, Harry Perryman, while Harvey Thomas is in the hunt to make his debut against Collingwood on Saturday night after being selected at pick No.59 last November. But Sydney has reaped greater rewards through its own Academy in the form of captain Callum Mills, All-Australian pair Isaac Heeney and Errol Gulden, Nick Blakey and others.

Harry Himmelberg is a product of the GIANTS Academy.

Kingsley said the GIANTS could squeeze more out of its Academy in future, given the stark participation rate differential between the two New South Wales club Academies, with an opportunity to impact the Indigenous community in western Sydney also at the forefront of his focus.

"The Swans and GIANTS do such a great job with the Academies, but the reality is Sydney has 2500 12 to 15-year-olds to pick in their zone (whereas) we have 250. One in every 28 players join the Swans Academy, one in every four joins the GIANTS' Academy," he said.

"That's a reflection of participation levels because the population in both regions is almost identical. Different demographic. Indigenous, multiculturalism, rugby league and soccer are both massive in western Sydney. A lot of expats live in Sydney's eastern suburbs where AFL is more ingrained than the other areas.

"Western Sydney houses the largest Indigenous market in the country; more Indigenous people live in western Sydney than the Northern Territory and South Australia combined. What a great opportunity to introduce more multiculturalism into the game and increase the Indigenous participation in the game, at a playing level, coaching level and even at an administration level."

GIANTS Stadium has a capacity of 23,500 people on paper, but realistically it is a thousand less. The highest ever crowd was for a BBL game earlier this year when 22,102 people crammed in. The GIANTS have eclipsed 20,000 three times during home and away games in its history – all against the Swans – with the GIANTS aiming to break its record of 21,924 (Rd 17, 2017) when the reigning premiers come to town on Saturday night.

Kingsley said the introduction of Opening Round has already had an impact on Greater Western Sydney, but hopes it can snowball into a spike in home game attendances in 2024 and beyond.

"I've seen it have an impact within our club, particularly in the sales areas. They are really upbeat about it. It will be a sell-out," he said.

"There are a lot of good things going on at our club and I think Opening Round will contribute to that. I want us to win and have as much as we possibly can, but it is more about advertising the game and getting it immersed in this region.

"I don't know what comes first: do you turn the TV on and that then encourages kids and adults to participate? Or do you participate in the game and then once you start to play, you start to watch it on TV? I'm not sure what the sequence is. Maybe we can get another 10,000 a week. Why can't we be like West Coast with a waiting list for membership on seating inside the stadium? The region is big enough to support it."

The parallels between the two coaches this Saturday night are similar. Both completed long apprenticeships as development and assistant coaches before landing a shot. Craig McRae sling-shotted Collingwood from 17th in 2021 to a one-point preliminary final loss in his first season to be named the AFL Coaches Association Coach of the Year, before going all the way in 2023.

Kingsley won that award last year, following a season where he led the GIANTS to a one-point preliminary final loss to eventual premier Collingwood, 12 months after the GIANTS finished 16th. But despite that rise, the 48-year-old knows last year counts for nothing heading into 2024.

"I have belief, but it is not based on what 'Fly' has done at Collingwood. There is a lot to do between now and then to recreate what Collingwood did last year. Nothing is ever given, everyone starts nil-all and you have to win week in, week out. We are really well prepared to take on the season, but again, at the end of the home and away season we could have finished fifth or 14th. It was a game in it. People forget if the Bulldogs had have beaten West Coast, we would have missed the finals and finished ninth or 10th," he said.

"The difference between third and 13th was very tight, probably the tightest in history. I expect it to be as tight this year; anyone can beat anyone else. We saw that second to last game last year when the Eagles beat the Bulldogs. It is not just going to happen. We've got to go out and perform, go out and execute our plans. We have to do it at a really high level or we will be watching September."

The GIANTS won at an AFL record 11 different venues across Kingsley's brilliant first season at the helm and will start this season as one of the premiership favourites.

If they can go all the way, it could be a pivotal moment in the game's quest to conquer its final frontier.