By Greg Bridges
“It’s part of footy culture to be involved in the community.”
Those are the words of Mark Saunders, current member of the Thailand Tigers Australian Rules Football Club and one of the many who are involved with overseeing and running the successful Khlong Toei “Community United by Sports” (CUBS) program.
“That’s what builds the sense of belonging. For us, that’s just part of being a good footy club.”
Through on and off-field initiatives, the KT CUBS program demonstrates the power of sport and the role that footy plays in creating opportunities for local youth.
It’s a remarkable story, built off the efforts of passionate volunteers, community partners, and support from local businesses. And it’s a program that has already achieved some impressive results.
The beginning – The story of the KT CUBS Program
Australian Rules Football has been played in Thailand since at least 1993. Long-time members will tell tales of expat Aussies gathering in local parks for a kick and to stay connected with the game they loved back home. As word spread, the Thailand Tigers Australian Rules Football Club was officially established in 1996, with the first game of competitive footy being played at Kasetsart University against the traveling Hong Kong Dragons.
The club continued to grow, competing in the inaugural Four Nations Cup (precursor to the Asian Championships) in 2000 and playing internationals both home and away against clubs from across Asia.
Nuch and Andrew Cox, Phil Stevens, and John Wellby, encouraged by Past Presidents Alan Sutherland and Jarrod Roberts, developed the relationship with Kru Prateep, Founder of the Duang Prateep Foundation, and began the program that is now known as the KT Cubs in 2016.
“That’s what builds the sense of belonging. For us, that’s just part of being a good footy club.” – Mark Saunders
Creating opportunities on and off the field
The DPF is a local charity organization that has been involved in Bangkok’s Khlong Toei district for more than 40 years. The organization supports projects related to poverty relief, education, health care, social services, human development, and emergency relief, and it has since grown to provide assistance to schools and children throughout the country.
The KT CUBS Program is aimed at youths in the district. Home to more than 100,000 residents, the area boasts one of the country’s largest fresh markets and is home to a major port facility. But it is also one of the lowest socio-economic regions in the city, with many residents struggling to gain access to stable work and educational opportunities.
On the field, the KT CUBS program introduces Thais to the game of Australian Rules Football. Coaches Mani Saunders and Mark Anderson provide skill development, training, and playing opportunities. As players improve, they are encouraged to take part in weekend domestic games, with players increasingly joining senior games between the Singha’s and Leo’s (the Tiger’s domestic league football squads).
KT CUBS at Hellfire Pass as part of the annual ANZAC Day game, learning about the history of the region and its ties to Australia.
This year saw a major milestone, as graduates of the KT CUBS programs played their first senior-level international matches. Players travelled to Kanchanaburi, Thailand for the annual ANZAC Day game, where they not only competed but also had an opportunity to learn about the region and its significance to Australia during World War II.
Later, players from both the boys’ and girls’ teams took part in AFL Asia’s Asian Championships, traveling and competing against international opponents from 12 countries across Asia.
“It’s these types of cross-cultural and travel experiences that are really powerful and quite unique to footy in Asia.” – Mark Saunders
With the AFL’s upcoming Asia Cup in 2024, the Tigers are planning to field teams filled exclusively with Thai national players, many of them young athletes who have come through the KT CUBS.
“It’s these types of cross-cultural and travel experiences that are really powerful and quite unique to footy in Asia,” says Mark. “The Asia Cup creates an opportunity not only to play, but to represent your country and compete against your peers internationally. We’re really excited for next year.”
Off the field, the program emphasizes education and encourages young people to stay in school longer than they potentially would otherwise. Scholarships, provided through the support of sponsors and local businesses, help the teenagers to cover the cost of further education and living expenses while in school.
Members of the KT CUBS program receive educational scholarships through the Tigers and the Duang Prateep Foundation.
As the program grows, many of the initial participants are transitioning to the workplace. In response, the Tigers have had to find new ways to help and support players who have completed their education and are looking for jobs.
An early success came when the Tigers helped one player access a three-month internship that she needed to continue her vocational college. Highlighting the potential of this type of initiative, the Tigers hope this will create the foundation for future employment opportunities and provide a pathway for players as they move into the next phase of their careers.
The power of community – The role of volunteers and partners
As with most footy clubs, the Thailand Tigers are a volunteer-based organization driven by a dedicated and passionate group of people, community partners, sponsors, and supporters.
“I’ve seen the guys develop, not only on but also off the field. The way they communicate with each other and with the senior players – they’ve created a really special bond.” – Mani Saunders
Mani Saunders, 17-year-old star and coach of the KT CUBS boys, is proud of what his team has accomplished.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” he says. “I’ve seen the guys develop, not only on but also off the field. The way they communicate with each other and with the senior players – they’ve created a really special bond.”
Nongcran “Tud” Saunders, a member of the Tigers women’s team, shares similar stories of the girls’ program.
“The girls improve very quickly. It makes them more confident playing, and when they know they can do it, they come back to training and they enjoy it a lot.”
CUBS coach Mani Saunders and other members of the Tigers bring footy to Khlong Toei as part of the community outreach program.
The program has been led by volunteers, including Phil Stevens, Nuch and Andrew Cox, and supported by the club, players, and sponsors. Jason York laid the groundwork for skill development, while John Wellby and Mark Anderson have worked closely to expand the girls’ program. And as Thai players become more established, the club looks forward to having them take on larger roles within the club as well.
Community partners and sponsors have also been vital. Austhai Geophysical joined as a major sponsor this year, not only supporting the program but also providing the internship opportunity to one of the program participants.
Further support came from AustCham Thailand, the Advance Australian Council, and Grundfos Thailand, who have all been instrumental in growing the program over the years.
Finally, AFL Asia’s Development Grants Program allowed the Tigers to purchase equipment, organize attendance to training and games, and free up the club to support players traveling to tournaments.
“The girls improve very quickly. It makes them more confident playing, and when they know they can do it, they come back to training and they enjoy it a lot.” – Nongran Saunders
Going forward, the club plans to introduce a part-time Development Manager position to help grow the game, implement more school sessions, and expand the program into other communities and districts throughout Bangkok.
The sky’s the limit – The future of the KT CUBS
After more than a decade, the success of the KT CUBS program demonstrates the power of footy in building community. It shows how a dedicated group of volunteers can work to not only grow and develop the sport of Australian Rules Football internationally but also empower young people to achieve success and improve as athletes and as people. With a focus on education, community involvement, and youth sport, the KT CUBS program brings together the very best parts of footy.
Looking ahead, the club has big plans to continue and expand the program. And with more domestic and international footy tournaments coming up, the club expects to see the benefits of their efforts for many years to come.