The Australians sporting landscape is flooded with options. This flood causes all the team sports, and a lot of their fans, to engage in a code war that all deny is taking place.
It is a sporting cold war.
In the winter months, there is the Australian Football League (AFL), the National Rugby League (NRL) and Super Rugby while at the same time football at grassroots level continues to be played.
This competition translates into the warmer months where Cricket Australia takes on the A-League and a rejuvenated National Basketball League and a focused Netball Australia while the Australian Baseball League maintains a limited presence.
The problem for all the codes is that Australia’s population is not like that of the United States of America. This means that all the sports are fighting for the attention of the same fans. Furthermore, they are trapped in a cage fight for the development of the next generation of athlete.
In other countries, there is not the tension between sports because the market that they are targeting is so big that there are plenty of fans and potential players to be spread around or one sport (usually football) dominates the others.
In the United States, if you live in New York, you might follow the Giants in American Football, the Rangers in Ice-Hockey, and the Knicks in Basketball, NY Red Bulls in football and the Yankees Baseball. The sports still try to maintain dominance, but there are so many fans that they all manage to co-exist.
In Australia, there may be some people who support many teams across many sports. Unfortunately, this fandom is not at the same level that all codes require being equally successful. Like it or not, many people follow only a single sport and will never get behind any other code.
There are many people that live in Sydney who follow rugby league, yet will never go and watch the Waratahs or the Swans play. While conversely, some union fans refuse to admit that rugby league is a form of rugby. Moreover, there are people in Melbourne who know only of Aussie Rules and may not even know the difference between league and union.
At the moment the codes are in an arms race, and the weapons that they are trying to build and stockpile are fans. It is with this intention that the different sports hope to achieve dominance over their rivals.
During the winter months, it is clear that the AFL is winning. Its crowd averages are far superior to the NRL or the Australian teams in the Super Rugby competition. However, as I have mentioned in a previous article (The Cold War of Australian Sport) the geographical layout of the two major cities, Melbourne and Sydney are a contributing (not the sole) factor in the rates of crowds for the AFL and the NRL.
Unfortunately, for Super Rugby fans, at present, its sport is very much in the doldrums.
Not only in crowds is the AFL winning, but it is winning in the promotion of its sports into new domestic markets. AFL is rising in areas where it was never played before, while for rugby union its traditional lifeblood – private schools – is now introducing both rugby league and AFL into their schools. It is losing its grassroots fan-base.
Rugby league also has seen its participation numbers shrink. The shrinking of numbers has seen the game look inward and conduct studies into the reasons why its participation levels have fallen. They know the reasons, so now the game is in the planning phase for launching programs to counter the trend. The NRL will need to act soon, before it’s too late.
Concerning fans watching on the television, then the NRL is king. Often (not always) the top five programs each year in Australia are sports-based programs. Usually, the NRL grand final and the three State of Origins are up there along with the AFL grand final.
These ratings along with the television deals show the importance that the broadcasters and the public place onto these two sports. Once more, rugby union relies on the foreign element of the broadcast deal to keep it competitive in the Australian market.
Although the AFL dominates domestically, it is not even a contender on a global stage. rugby union, on the other hand, is a major international sport. It is here where the game of rugby union holds its greatest appeal to the fans. For a long time the Wallabies were Australia’s team for the winter season – now, not so much.
Rugby league is in the process of putting its toe into the water regarding its international game. Strangely, the NRL seems unsure if it wants to throw itself into the international aspect of its game. If it did, the potential for growth would be massive, and this could prove another strike against the game of rugby union domestically.
Ultimately, when it comes to the winter months, the AFL holds sway but does not dominate as the Football Association does in England. Rugby union is struggling to stay relevant while both codes should be wary, for if the NRL focused its energies like that of the AFL, then it could potentially reach its potential and be the dominant winter football code.
The AFL, NRL and rugby union are all contact sports. As societal standards change, they will need to address the nature of their games to keep the mums and dad in society wanting their children to play their sports. On the other hand, a dominant rival, football – even though its main league plays in summer – does not have such a problem.
Despite this, the A-League is at a crossroads. It suffers from internal division similar to rugby league, but on a larger scale. The A-League had the potential to be a giant of a sport in Australia like it is in the world. Instead, it seems more like a garden gnome. The league’s inability to grow is concerning for its fans. Crowds have not risen liked they had hoped. The World Cup and its international component continue to prove its saving grace.
Unfortunately, the television figures for the A-League are inadequate, and that does not bode well for its future. In fact, soccer’s loss was crickets gain. The Big Bash League has rejuvenated cricket in Australia.
I know the purists don’t like it, and it has contributed to the near death of one-day internationals, but it has also impacted on the A-League’s development into a major sport. It appears people in summer are more enthusiastic about going to the cricket than they are about going to a soccer game.
Cricket is Australia’s national game, and it maintains a prominent position throughout the summer months. Yet, this has not stopped the National Basketball League from being bold. It realises that it’s not a dominant sport and its aim is simple – to be the second best basketball league in the world.
This goal is achievable, and if the NBL obtains this goal, then it may expand and solidify its place as an alternative sporting option in summer.
Basketball like football is one of those sports where participation levels are extremely strong, yet this has not translated into the support of the elite domestic league. If either the FFA or the NBL figures out how to get fans of their codes to follow the domestic league with an equal passion, then all the other codes should be very concerned.
Meanwhile, the Australian Baseball League continues to operate. Its following is small but equally passionate. It aims to be a genuine development pathway into the minor and major leagues in America.
However, just like the NBL and the A-League, Australian sporting fans generally prefer to watch the best only. The thought in a fans mind is best summarised as “Why watch the A-League, NBL, or the ABL when I can watch the Premier League, the NBA or Major League Baseball?”
Then, with all these fantastic sports competing with each other, Netball Australia also throws its hat into the ring. It is ready to rumble with the big and small boys of Australian sport. Its main fan and player is now the target of every other game. The chase for the female fan and athlete is similar to the scramble of the Gold Rush of the 1850s.
Every major sport is tripping over themselves trying to lure the female public to choose their game over any other. Some sports are more successful than others in obtaining the attention of the female fan and athlete. Some codes have included women into their games since their inception, others for years, and a couple has just recently woken up to the fact that women like watching and playing sport too.
Nevertheless, while this rush takes place, netball continues to provide exciting content and clear pathways for girls across the country. It has a robust domestic competition, a respectable international competition and is professionally run. It will most likely remain the dominant female game for many years to come. The other codes are very envious of their reach and appeal to the female market.
Will there be any clear winners in this Cold War? Probably not. Though if a sport is not managed correctly, it could lose out. All the sporting bodies need to maintain their focus on junior development and fan engagement. If a sport creates a system where all the profits go to the top end, then it is neglecting its base and will suffer in the long term.
For as it currently stands, there seems no end to the tension of the codes. Maybe in time, following more than one team game passionately will be the norm. Until that time, only the smartest, most energetic and inclusive of sports will thrive in a market where a Sporting Cold War is in operation.
Approximate average crowds for Australian sporting competitions (2017-18)
A-League – 10,926
Australian Baseball League – 750
Australian Football League – 35,207
Cricket Australia / Big Bash League – 26,531
National Basketball League – 8,198
National Rugby League – 15,704
Netball – 7,682
Rugby union (Australian based teams) – 11,493