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The Barassi line is a construct of Australian sporting culture wars: it is historically a geographical line that separated Australian football from rugby league and, to a lesser degree, rugby union.
It is also an example of some social and cultural differences between Sydney and Melbourne, one a city born of British convict classes and the social construct built around them and another born of men seeking their fortune and the brotherhood and equality built from working on the gold diggings.
That is a common thought, and although it has a ring of truth about it, it is far from being cut and dried. Melbourne might play the same football code across the demographics and classes from ritzy Toorak to the back streets of Collingwood, but the same class divisions still exist.
Sydney, on the other hand, has taken a different path and its history has seen them follow the British class system of different games for different classes. The rugby they play at exclusive GPS schools in Sydney is different to the sort of rugby they play at Blacktown, and never the twain shall meet
The actual term ‘Barassi line’ has an interesting history of its own. It was somewhat comically named after the Brisbane line, a line drawn across Northern Australia where the Australian government was prepared to cut and run from the Japanese in World War II if we were invaded, which was thought a real possibility at the height of the war.
Ian Turner, an academic and mad Richmond fan, coined the name ‘Barassi line’ in 1965 during a series of lectures about Ron Barassi. Barassi’s father served in the second world war and Barassi himself believed in spreading the code of Australian Rules football around the nation with an evangelical zeal, so much so that he became coach and major supporter of the relocated Sydney Swans.
Barassi foresaw a time when Australian Rules football clubs from around Australia, including up to four from New South Wales and Queensland, would play in a national football league with only a handful of them based in Melbourne, but his prognostications were largely ridiculed at the time.
The Barassi line is an imaginary line running principally from around Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales and up through Canberra to Wagga Wagga or a little further north to tiny dots on the map such as Condobolin and Lake Cargelligo. It then heads north up to the Queensland-Northern Territory border/
The line has barely moved in 100 years, and because many country areas are depopulating, it probably won’t move one way or the other in the future. It is what it is; the Barassi line still exists but essentially probably won’t move.
Deep on either side of the Barassi line the different codes have their own strengths and weaknesses in different areas.
In Western Australia rugby comes from the English, South African and Kiwi immigration in the last ten to 15 years. Because of the mining boom in WA and political changes in South Africa and the UK rugby has seen a real growth spurt – in particular rugby league is in a purple patch because Kiwi immigration has flowed in the west.
Although initially it was built on Sydney and Newcastle, rugby league people moved west over in the 1950 and 1960s, usually for employment in the mining industry. Rugby union, though, has a far longer and stronger history, and at one stage in the 1880s it was arguably the primary code in the west.
It seems rather ironic that rugby being in the strongest position it has been in Western Australia for 100-plus years has resulted in Rugby AU pulling the plug on its Super Rugby team. It possibly opens the door for an NRL team, but there is a huge difference between the two rugby codes at community level, with rugby union streets ahead.
In Queensland state migration principally from Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, souther New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory from the 1970s onwards has seen places like Cairns and south-east Queensland gain a strong Australian Rules flavour, not to mention that Queensland has always had a decent pocket of AFL culture.
You can also bank on the Gold Coast rugby league team getting some of its biggest crowds against the New Zealand NRL team, with Kiwi migration strong as well in that neck of the woods.
It would also be remiss to not point out that the Rugby AU and NRL each have one team south of the Barassi line in Melbourne and that the AFL have four north, but In reality that is all superficial without the support below them and the ability to pay their own ways.
I don’t have figures in front of me, but the Brisbane Lions ten years ago were making money and paying their way, although the last few season have seen them fall into quite a bit of debt.
The last five or so years have seen the Swans turn a profit and do quite well on and off the field. I would only be guessing if any of the other AFL, Rugby AU or NRL team north or south of the line were making a quid, but I don’t think they are.
It could be argued that they do turn a profit or pay their way due to media rights, but it’s a hard thing to quantify. Certainly they can be used to grow the game at a grassroots level through providing a pathway.
Sport these days is like beer: no longer does a pub in Melbourne sell only Carlton Draught or Victoria Bitter or a club in Sydney sell Tooheys or Reschs; it would appear that sport has well and truly transcended the Barassi line.