Everyone versus AFL, but NRL shakiest

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Chris Sandow celebrates his try during the round 21 NRL match against the Canterbury Bulldogs. AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay

Chris Sandow celebrates his try during the round 21 NRL match against the Canterbury Bulldogs. AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay

The balance of power in Australian sport was clearly visible in Sydney University’s Manning Bar on Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking to around forty students, with no cameras or journalists in sight, CEO of the NRL David Gallop and SANZAR head Greg Peters made the cases for league and union in a forum entitled, “This is Our House: The Battle for Bums on Seats.”

Conspicuous in his absence was Andrew Demetriou, or any of his representatives.

I understand why Demetriou wasn’t there. The flight from Melbourne is a long one, particularly when you’re flying first-class, and the Big Dog doesn’t stir for small-time events like a student forum.

But why couldn’t the AFL at least have sent someone − maybe a junior executive, or, better yet, a minor employee from AFL House, someone who would have really underlined the gap between the country’s dominant code and the rest? You send your CEO, we send a cleaner. Take that, rivals.

The AFL can afford such arrogance, because unlike league and union, it doesn’t have to battle for bums on seats. While Gallop proudly delivered a ream of statistics about how well the NRL is doing, especially in Western Sydney, the fact remains that, in attendance at least, the AFL reigns supreme.

At Monday night’s match between Souths and Parramatta (albeit two struggling teams) there was a little over 10,000 people, and Andrew Johns commenting for Triple M thought that was a “good” crowd. If the AFL got a crowd like that for a match between say, Richmond and Melbourne, there’d be an inquiry.

True, the NRL’s major source of revenue is not from attendance but from television, and Gallop emphasised televised league rates very highly. Indeed, it rates so highly that it’s possible the upcoming TV deal between the NRL and its various suitors may be bigger than the AFL’s massive deal struck earlier in the year.

If so, then league people will be crowing. But the dollar signs should not blind them to the underlying weakness of league vis-à-vis AFL.

The NRL is strong in Western Sydney and Queensland, as Gallop says, and there is no prospect of its heartland falling to AFL any time soon. But the very fact that the AFL is expanding into these territories and that the NRL perceives it as a threat is a sign of the codes’ relative positions.

One is national, and growing, and the other is regional, and largely staying steady. The AFL’s biggest problem at the moment is that one of two clubs in South Australia is failing. Wouldn’t the NRL love to have this problem?

Union is a different case altogether. As the manner of Peters indicated (relaxed and jovial, where Gallop was pre-emptively defensive), the “game they play in heaven” − or what amounts to heaven in this world for rugby fans, the all-boys private school − has little to worry about.

Its international status means it’s not dependent on a single league or national competition in the way league and AFL are, though one might doubt whether it’s the “truly global” sport the New Zealander Peters says it is.

The least played and followed of the three codes in this country, Australian rugby nevertheless has a ready supply of cash from its hard-core of supporters on Sydney’s North Shore. While the domestic competitions get virtually no crowds, and Super Rugby teams (except the Reds this year) get small ones, the Wallabies are a national brand.

So while union will never be able to compete with AFL for dominance of the market, it doesn’t really have to. Content with its niche position, it can watch from the sidelines as AFL and league fight it out, perhaps hoping (though Peters was much too polite to say so) that league will ultimately fail and its supporters and fan-base can then be absorbed into a new super code.

Impossibly distant as that event may seem (and I don’t believe it will ever happen), it must be on Gallop’s mind. One of the most interesting things he said during the forum was that the reason the NRL doesn’t have a draft is that, if boys were faced with the prospect of moving from Sydney to Townsville, or Auckland to Melbourne, or vice versa, they would choose to play union rather than the league.

This is not, of course, something the AFL has to worry about. Though many of its youngsters could play any of the three codes, the possibility of leaving home does not deter from them choosing to play the unique, distinctly Australian sport.

Which brings us to what is really the rub for rugby league. Where AFL’s uniqueness is both its strength and limit − secure in Australia, it is hard to see how it could ever expand beyond it − and union’s international status ensures its safety, league is caught in no-man’s land.

Like enough to union to be vulnerable to poaching, but not offering the opportunities of a truly international sport, it is the only one of the three codes which could (which doesn’t mean it will, or should) go under.

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