The popular and correct perception is that Sydney is and always will be a rugby league heartland.
That may well have been the case when the game was bought here after the split from rugby union at the turn of the last century. Rugby league has a rich history in the Harbour City that cannot be denied, and this mantle was theirs for well over 100 years.
That cannot be said today except by those who are rusted onto the code. Today other sports have risen, and Australian Rules football continues to conquer New South Wales and Sydney in particular.
Sydney deluded itself by proclaiming that rugby league was the greatest game of all and that it was the sporting capital of Australia. If that was was indeed the case, it would have a foothold and be the major sport in most countries. It cannot be argued that that distinction belongs to soccer. The NFL in America has the largest crowds of any sport and the AFL is always in the top five on that list.
The NRL competition is rightly regarded as the premier rugby league competition, with the English Super League not able to grab decent enough exposure in that crowded market to be able to claim they are a successor to the title. That explains why they moved their competition to a summer completion to escape the glare of the winter sports in Europe.
When the Sydney Swans relocated from South Melbourne in 1982 they were a failing club with a rich history. It was a case of move or die. And they have flourished after a decade of struggle to get to where they are today as the premier football club in New South Wales. The tide started to turn from 1995 when St Kilda powerhouse Tony Lockett came to the club and the team made a return to grand final football. They’ve been contenders ever since.
That doesn’t happen without a stable front office, and in today’s rugby league environment only a few clubs can lay claim to having that.
It was also 1995 that rugby league imploded in the Super League war over Rupert Murdoch’s plan to get content for his new subscription TV venture. It can be argued that the game has never fully recovered from that. The loyal fan-base that the game enjoyed either never came back or was fractured enough to look elsewhere.
I fall into the latter category. When I was growing up I was within earshot of the old Cumberland Oval, and I remember the excitement of those early 1980s grand final days when the mighty Eels took all before them. I recall too going to Granville Park on the pushy with the Dane Sorenson Scanlens footy card pegged to the back wheel for the sound effect that followed. The site of Peter Sterling arriving in the flash yellow RX-7 was a sight to behold for the housing commission kid who was in awe of this team of superstars arriving from training from their labouring or cellarman jobs.
While I did enjoy watching Super League and pay TV in those days, the game was laid bare to greed never before seen. The ground was firm for the AFL to strike, which they did in a way that now commands average crowds of 30,000 at the SCG when the Swans are at home. They have and continue to spend millions on the Greater Western Sydney Giants in a bid to conquer the west. This on top of the king’s ransom they spend on infrastructure at grounds and on junior footy.
Other codes cannot come close to competing with this spend, and as a result AFL is the cheapest junior competition to play as it is subsidised by head office to teach, and the game keeps them hooked for life.
The strategy is working. GWS have year on year built their following, and though it may take a generation to become what the Swans are now, that is the price you pay for success. They have already played in one grand final in their short history. The Swans boast a membership of over 60,000 when the best rugby league can do is half of that for the rejuvenated South Sydney.
Russell Crowe has proven that investment pays off. Maybe he learnt that from the AFL. Sydney has nine NRL teams, taking into account that St George Illawarra play some of their games in Wollongong. That said, the average home crowd of those Sydney clubs is 14,500. The 2019 premiers are the most efficient team in the league but the Sydney Roosters averaged only 17,251 a week.
It is said that Manly supporters won’t travel and that the at-home experience is better than getting in the car and spending a fortune to attend. The same can be said for all sports. In the UK and the US sellout crowds attend in below-zero temperatures and snow but in Sydney on a sunny day fewer than 10,000 go and watch the Saints play the Tigers. Yet across town at the SCG you might struggle to get a seat.
The AFL has done the groundwork and it has paid off in spades to establish themselves as the premier winter code in Sydney.