League, union or AFL: Which is Canberra’s sport of choice?

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By aligee, aligee is a Roar Rookie

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    It has long been argued that Canberra has been either AFL or NRL heartland, but for much of its history it has been delicately poised as neither.

    Neither one of Australia’s main codes are on top. Indeed, you could actually throw rugby into the mix and nearly describe the city as union heartland such is the relative closeness between the three codes.

    A relative overview of the city’s footballing history would probably put Australian football on par or even slightly ahead of RL from the 1920s through to the 1980s, but that was when league slipped quite comfortably ahead, due to the addition of the Canberra Raiders.

    That lead has been worn down in the last few years with GWS’ success and the Raiders’ struggles.

    The city was built on the back of Victorian working class labourers and tradesman, along with plenty of transferring Victorian middle class public servants from the 1920s as Parliament moved from Melbourne.

    But Canberra was surrounded by league-centric working class towns such as Queanbeyan, Goulburn, Yass and smaller hamlets. Farm labourers were needed and plentiful whom and in general they followed the rugby codes.

    This leads us to a Canberra Times article where AFL boss Gillon McLachlan has stated a grand five-year plan to make Australian football the most dominant sport in Canberra, boosted by soaring participation numbers.

    This plan comes on the back of where AFL Canberra boasted 125 junior teams this year – the first time they’ve had that many since 1984 and GWS selling out Manuka Oval in five of the club’s seven games at the venue.

    However, let’s dig a bit deeper across local community football in Canberra and see what we find as far as numbers of senior teams goes. It is always a decent gauge of community interest, although that gauge as everywhere is somewhat tempered at a senior level because of work, injury concerns, families, time constraints and other factors that lead many capable adults to still follow a particular code but not necessarily play it.

    In 2017 playing senior football within Canberra district competitions there were:
    43 senior Australian football teams (11 women’s teams)
    35 senior rugby league teams (7 women’s teams – inaugural women’s comp)
    54 senior rugby union teams (6 women’s teams and a far wider geographical spread than either AF or RL)

    Jordan Rapana Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    What do these stats tell us? They tell me that the football demographics in Canberra are particularly split.

    League, possibly due to the brutal collision sport that it is, is not the market leader. Unon is bigger than I thought it would be but includes many teams from NSW areas that AFL and rugby league have other leagues in, so is somewhat of an outlier.

    As far as senior team numbers and sheer numbers go, rugby union is probably the market leader, at any rate it would be close.

    Which brings us back to the AFL’s plan and bold statement. It is one thing for a code to think they want to become the market leader, but another to boldly state it. How will the AFL go about it?

    They have suggested they will upgrade Manuka Oval and have big games at the venue, do more development work in schools, seek greater media exposure and strengthen the GWS academy to include more local boys and girls.

    The above are all standard ideas and ideas that may or may not happen and there is probably stacks more I haven’t listed, but realistically without a AFL team based in Canberra I am not sure that even with a very liberal dose of optimism that the AFL will become the dominant market leader.

    Ryan Griffen GWS Giants AFL

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Personally I see the status quo remaining, the other codes will fight tooth and nail to retain their market share and that is more than fair enough, it is actually a good thing for kids.

    Both rugby codes have the perpetual ace up the sleeve of actually having a truly representative Canberra team. GWS will never be truly representative of Canberra and is more of a team that fulfils a footy fix for many people, although future generations may grow up barracking for GWS from Canberra as kids are now.

    It did occur to me that Gillon has made these claims to put pressure on rival codes to use their resources to shore up heartland areas rather than branch out into new areas. Let’s face it, Gillon’s claims in three months let alone five years will probably be forgotten and he may not be even be at the AFL anymore.

    Whatever happens, Canberra is definitely a curious case as far as football goes.

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    The Crowd Says (78)

    • December 30th 2017 @ 10:17am
      Chris said | December 30th 2017 @ 10:17am | ! Report

      Let both Rugby codes embrace each other as one and fight off that sill game called Aussie Rules.

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:11pm
        terrence said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:11pm | ! Report

        In Canberra the three sports are:
        politics (blood sport)
        public service grade levels (blood sport)
        getting out of canberra on the weekend to the coast or snow fields (competitive sport).
        All other sports don’t matter or rate.

    • December 30th 2017 @ 10:34am
      RandyM said | December 30th 2017 @ 10:34am | ! Report

      Gillon is kidding himself if he thinks those Canberra folk are turning up to watch GWS, they are Vic expats coming to watch their Melbourne teams. Why the hell would anyone in Canberra care about a team that represents some vague area between Blacktown, Liverpool and Breakfast Point?

      The Raiders are the team that put Canberra on the sporting map. Crowd average was over 14k this year, the highest since 1995. Many RL legends from the local area and surrounding towns. The Raiders run 5 Leagues clubs throughout Canberra, all very profitable.

    • December 30th 2017 @ 11:00am
      Norad said | December 30th 2017 @ 11:00am | ! Report

      AFL spin leaves out the real Australian football history. Wasn’t AFL or NRL. It was football.
      Canberra Community News Tue 11 May 1926 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66060130
      A well-attended meeting of enthusiasts of the round ball game was held at Eastlake Hall on 21st April, for the purpose of forming a Federal Territory Soccer Football Association. The following clubs have already affiliated to the Association:-Burns Club (black and white hoops), Molonglo (light and dark blue), Capitol Hill (royal blue), Northbourne Club (blue and gold stripes).

      • December 31st 2017 @ 10:10am
        not so super said | December 31st 2017 @ 10:10am | ! Report


    • December 30th 2017 @ 11:02am
      Norad said | December 30th 2017 @ 11:02am | ! Report

      Bit ridiculous to think only Victorian built Canberra.
      Canberra Community News Mon 12 Jul 1926
      FOOTBALL. RUGBY LEAGUE. (By ” Rugger.»)
      Great progress has taken place in this code of football since my last report, as there are now nine clubs in the Territory.
      the first team to affiliate with the N.S.W. Rugby League on the Federal Territory was the “Sewer F.C.M four years ago

      • December 30th 2017 @ 8:46pm
        Aligee said | December 30th 2017 @ 8:46pm | ! Report

        If you think that then you are barking up the wrong tree, there was plenty of Vic tradesman and public servants in early Canberra because they moved from Melbourne as Australias Parliament moved from Melbourne, but they had plenty of help and there was Government departments that moved from Sydney as well so perhaps i did exaggerate that claim.

        Those early Canberrans from mainly South started clubs such as Ainslie, Eastlake, Manuka and Queanbeyan and other clubs no longer in existence or merged like Turner or Acton.

        1911 was the first recorded game and in 1924 a league was started.

    • December 30th 2017 @ 11:36am
      Gfox said | December 30th 2017 @ 11:36am | ! Report

      I attended a GWS game at Manuka a couple of years ago. Before the game they had a parade of the Canberra junior football clubs. I think just 10 clubs – but was quite surprised at the large number of kids who play.

    • December 30th 2017 @ 5:46pm
      Anthony15 said | December 30th 2017 @ 5:46pm | ! Report

      As a Canberra local it’s clear that our most favoured sport is Rugby League followed closely by Football (the REAL football. Round ball) The Brumbies crowds are piss poor and no one seems to know when they’re in town. AFL has GWS but they technically aren’t our team. Not many people play AFL in Canberra anyway. Which leaves league and football. Raiders games can average from 10-13K and the ACT rugby league community has quite a lot of grassroots players. League is Canberra’s game and football would be too if we had a damn a league side. The grassroots participation levels for football are the best in the state and everyone in the football community is passionate about the round ball game. You’d be surprised as to how many more football fans there are compared to AFL and Union…. whoever wrote this artickle clearly isn’t a true local

      • December 30th 2017 @ 6:07pm
        Kangajets said | December 30th 2017 @ 6:07pm | ! Report

        Canberra United has to be the next team
        In the A league. Soccer is huge in southern nsw and act

        • December 31st 2017 @ 9:28am
          Rasty said | December 31st 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

          Sounds original.

      • December 30th 2017 @ 8:36pm
        Aligee said | December 30th 2017 @ 8:36pm | ! Report

        According to pretty reliable stats more people play AF than RL in Canberra, not only that but around 50% of all RL teams in the Canberra region are not even in Canberra, but in surrounding rural NSW.

        9 teams make up the First grade Canberra region RL, 4 are outside Canberra including 2 Queanbeyan teams, Yass and Goulburn, in 2017, the first 3 teams on the ladder at the end of the season were Queanbeyan, Queanbeyan and then Yass, Yass i thought was just a truck stop – no disrespect of course to anyone from Yass.

        If we look at the only other RL comp operating in the ‘ ‘Canberra region” it is the George Tooke Shield, sort of like a amatuer pub type league, there is 10 teams in that and 6 are from outside Canberra. Once again at the end of the season the first 3 teams are all from outside Canberra – Crookwell, Harden and Boorowa, pretty small towns.

        It is the exact opposite of AF, where teams where overwhelmingly from Canberra, the senior team comparison was in the article, so it stuns me that you claim that more people play RL in Canberra than AF, however i would agree that RL across the board may be more popular than AF in Canberra, but at a playing level it is not.

        • December 30th 2017 @ 10:06pm
          Mat said | December 30th 2017 @ 10:06pm | ! Report

          “Pretty reliable stats” ????? Come on mate!! You have over stretched on this article. You obviously love your AFL but you can’t just make stuff up lest you get shown up.

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            December 30th 2017 @ 10:20pm
            Cat said | December 30th 2017 @ 10:20pm | ! Report

            Where is your evidence that they aren’t?

          • December 30th 2017 @ 10:22pm
            Aligee said | December 30th 2017 @ 10:22pm | ! Report

            Mat, nothing is made up, it is pretty clear at a senior community level RL is way behind the other 2 codes in players in Canberra, what is even more damming is the fact 50% of the teams come from outside Canberra from small towns.

            Feel free to show me up, RL has 28 mens teams in the Canberra region RL, exactly 50% of them are outside Canberra, the population of Canberra dwarfs the rural areas around the Capital, you have to look at history to understand this huge disparity.

            By contrast AF is the opposite, that says to me that actually in Canberra AF is stronger and in the rural areas surrounding Canberra RL is stronger.

            What am i making up here Mat ?, look for yourself … http://websites.sportstg.com/comp_info.cgi?c=0-1084-0-437178-0&a=LADDER

          • December 30th 2017 @ 10:26pm
            Aligee said | December 30th 2017 @ 10:26pm | ! Report

            There is 9 mens first grade teams, 9 reserve and the George Tooke Shield (10 teams) thats it as far as senior mens RL teams go in the Canberra region. – 28

            Of those 28, 14 are from outside the ACT.

            An incredible disparity to the population of Canberra.

          • December 30th 2017 @ 11:05pm
            Alicesprings said | December 30th 2017 @ 11:05pm | ! Report

            Care to be more specific??


            I guess all these ladders & fixtures are made up as well??

            • December 31st 2017 @ 10:12am
              not so super said | December 31st 2017 @ 10:12am | ! Report

              congrats on having a few mates that kick a sherrin in Canberra. absoultely irrelevant point about the country towns playing RL?

              • December 31st 2017 @ 10:44am
                republican said | December 31st 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

                ……….your hominem directed at our great indigenous game is palpable NSS.

      • January 1st 2018 @ 1:11pm
        republican said | January 1st 2018 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

        ……..how local exactly?
        I have lived here since age 7, arriving in 1963.
        While the GR of Soccer nationally and locally is dominant, Australian Football remains as much an influence and integral to the sporting DNA of this fine city, as any of its competitors.
        The presence of an elite commercially concocted brand i.e. the Brumbies and Raiders in any demographic, does not necessarily translate to support on the ground, as you have alluded to regards Soccer in Canberra.
        This is also the case in re. to the indigenous code in this town, which is as strong if not stronger than either Rugby code at the GR, while its historical footprint is more compelling than RL.
        This is further evidenced by the gates at Giants fixtures, which are on par and often greater than either of the supposed home Rugby teams and this for an entity the isn’t a Canberra one………..

        • January 2nd 2018 @ 8:24am
          RandyM said | January 2nd 2018 @ 8:24am | ! Report

          You just sound bitter than League got a professional club in before the AFL did. There is healthy League grassroots in canberra, at least when I lived there in the early 90s. Maybe Canberran’s only started playing League when the Raiders were invented, who cares? Canberra has since produced many NRL players, as has country NSW including the Riverina (another area AFL supporters claim as its heartland).

          • January 2nd 2018 @ 9:37am
            Aligee said | January 2nd 2018 @ 9:37am | ! Report

            The Riverina is like Canberra, it is generally split, however the further South you go the stronger AF is, interestingly and sort of the opposite to Canberra is that RL’s strongpoint is in the towns in the Riverina and AF stronger in the rural communities, that is because from around the 1880’s onwards settlers from the South settled the farming lands and the towns over a period of time had postmasters, teachers, public servants Police etc moving from the North bringing the rugbies.

            It has changed a bit these days with less labour required on farms and people heading to cities

            AF Clubs like Grong grong, Ganmain and Matong and plenty of others North of wagga were formed in the early 1890’s from small farming communities, Rugby league clubs were not really formed like that in the riverina, around Canberra they were however.

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