It was a question tweeted by Head of ABC Radio Sport, Craig Norenbergs, this week. The decisions he makes in that capacity could go a long way to determining the answer, but the very fact he considers it worth pondering suggests we are at a crossroads in Australian sport.
Cricket, soccer/football and basketball are the three serious professional summer sports in 2011/12.
Others could emerge in a couple of decades, and everything from Wii to bikinis continue to compete for our attention on those long, hot days and nights.
But let’s assume the “top” sport will emerge from this trio.
My straw poll among friends suggests the reflex response is: cricket will still be number one.
Steeped in tradition, it is the very sound of summer. An Ashes Test can still stop a nation. Cricket remains one of the few things a Gen Y can discuss with a Grandparent in a nursing home.
Harry Kewell may be the greatest signing in Australian sporting history, but he’ll never have the name recognition of Don Bradman – a bloke who hasn’t picked up a bat in 50 years.
Cricket though, has problems.
The Argus Report is either the blood test the game needs to fix a range of illnesses or a fatal diagnosis.
It seems hard to imagine a tournament, a team or a time that could ever return the national affection back to what it was in the Steve Waugh era, let alone the Lillee or Bradman eras.
Sure, a test against Sri Lanka will trend on Twitter, but that’s only one more reason why you needn’t pay more than a hundred dollars for an arvo in the Brewongle.
Twenty20 is packing houses, I hear you say. And so it is. But as the sponsor suggests, this is a fast food fix.
It may well be the future of the game, but like any fast food diet, it is ultimately unsustainable.
Critically, the results don’t really matter. Tell me the defining moments of any Big Bash final of the last three years off the top of your head.
Hard to do.
Captains are quitting to be players, players are quitting to captain foreign “franchises”, one-dayers have lost their specialness, but perhaps most tellingly, cricket is not the childhood rite of passage it once was.
Cricket is not being hard-wired into the DNA of young Australians in the way it once was. Cricket doesn’t suit modern life.
When I quit playing in my mid-30s I, like all my mates, did so because we simply couldn’t justify committing the time it requires.
We’re no great loss but your average ten-year-old in 2011 isn’t wired for six hours at fine leg in the scorching summer sun, either.
Watching the game requires real commitment, too.
On the macro scale, Australia is in danger of becoming a bit part player in a far grander sub-continental political game.
Do not misunderstand me. Cricket is number one by a long way.
But the national game has some serious cracks in its veneer or invulnerability. The number one spot is its to lose. And there are some signs it could do just that.
So will the number 1 contender please stand up?
Could it be basketball? Ludicrous?
Cast your mind back 20 years rather than forward. In 1991, basketball was powering. Stadiums were selling out. I shelled out for a “standing” ticket to watch the Newcastle Falcons playoffs campaign on my tippy toes.
Players were household names.
Now, the game is in a sad state. How can you have a pro league that didn’t include Sydney or Brisbane?
There is not enough room here to discuss what is wrong with the NBL but …
Basketball remains highly-marketable. Big and bold and brash at its best, it is the contender perhaps most accessible to non-sports lovers – especially kids.
It boasts great gender equality.
Women are respected in basketball – both on and off and the court – in a way only tennis can rival and cricket can only imagine.
The WNBL is the number two women’s competition in the world. Yeah, you aren’t the only one who didn’t know that.
Perhaps its biggest strength and its biggest weakness is that it is indoors in air-conditioned stadiums in an Australian summer.
Basketball is weak and, frankly, is showing no signs of dunking in the face of cricket anytime soon. But it still has a lot going for it.
And so too football.
You do not need me to refresh to arguments here. The “sleeping giant”, the “world game”, the only game that delivers events every demographic cares about.
And yet, every day, I see football eat its own. In a world where sports players, administrators, ex-players and media savagely protect their product, football’s “friends” are happy to air their dirtiest laundry on their wedding day.
The game is consistently self-defeating.
I see it show glimpses of its true greatness before retreating to petty internal politics.
All this in an environment where its haters unite against it. Whether they see it as a threat or a joke worthy of ridicule, football’s haters are many and influential.
Want one fact that encapsulates football’s problem? It wants to be called ‘football’ and the national team are known as the Socceroos.
Its biggest strength and weakness? Its multi-cultural nature. It is the game that truly speaks to modern Australia but also the hardest to corral into a marketing campaign.
Oh, and did I mention it eats its own?
But perhaps Craig Norenbergs’ question was deceptively timely.
It came the week Harry Kewell signed for the Melbourne Victory and the Brett Emerton became the first Premier League player to sign down under. This time last year, the A-League had limped through an invisible first month of competition.
This time around, with AFL and NRL finals series being forced off the back pages by killer A-league recruitment, the start of the season is being counted down.
The internet talks of Central Coast’s great XI; billionaire Tinkler owns Newcastle.
The haters are quieter than usual. The doubters are talking about getting to a game: “Just to see Kewell before he breaks down, you understand.”
There is excitement. There is anticipation.
Is this the moment?
Could football actually be the sport to emerge to challenge cricket for the hearts and minds of Australians over summer?
Let’s get some fried chicken and head to cow corner.