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Opinion

Has rugby’s Melbourne experiment failed?

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Roar Guru
28th December, 2020
304
4968 Reads

I recently read the term ‘viewership’ in a Roar article and almost queried the author about why he used that term rather than simply ‘viewing numbers’.

Much to my surprise, a google told me that ‘viewership’ is actually a word recognised by several dictionaries. It means ‘the type or number of people who watch a particular television program or station’.

Apparently it was invented by someone in the USA in 1952. It is not needed. The English language is more than adequate to describe the concept. Just as when Gilly says, “Thanks for your viewership” at the end of the cricket, what he really means is, “Thanks for watching the game on Fox”.

Back in the 1980s there was another invented word, ‘Reaganomics’, a term coined to describe what was also referred to (and not in a good way) as ‘trickle-down economics’. Supposedly the benefits of government contracts and tax cuts enriching large corporations were going to flow down to the workers. It didn’t really work out that way.

Rugby, or at least SAANZAR rugby, took the path of American-style ‘franchises’. They deliberately removed the geographic identifiers from the team descriptions. I gather this was done to engage fans of the minor provinces, which became a part of the Crusaders or the Stormers and the like. Perhaps some fans from those provinces can tell us what they think of that – I can only say that I have heard many a New Zealand or South African say (and write online) that they prefer the NPC or Currie Cup to the ‘soup’.

Many Australian rugby fans were indifferent to the NRC for the same reason. Even though its Sydney teams were built from coalitions of longstanding clubs, they didn’t care. They spent their rugby-watching time and money supporting a Shute Shield team, their Super Rugby team and the Wallabies.

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Trickle-down rugbynomics didn’t work either. When rugby administrators cut costs by reducing funding for community rugby – particularly in Sydney’s west and other similar areas of potential participation growth – and continued spending at the elite level, the grassroots game was damaged. Hopefully it was not damaged beyond repair.

It just goes to show that not everything new is a good thing, nor is every new concept necessarily useful in any or every setting.
Now private equity (or at least part ownership) is being suggested as the way forward or part of it. The danger of treating rugby teams as commodities is their becoming portable between different geographic locations and portable between different competition leagues. That appears to work for the US sports market. It may work in this country in the round ball game or for the occasional move of an AFL team to expand the market.

Melbourne Rebels players after a try

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

I do not think it will work for rugby, at least in this country. Rugby in Australia may or may not be a ‘second-tier’ sport, as some TV suit deprecatingly referred to it recently, but its geographic footprint is limited – and also crucial. The support is tribal, based on longstanding affiliations – New South Wales, Queensland, Randwick, Gordon, GPS et cetera.

In the last 30-ish years the emergence of the ACT and later the Brumbies has been built on a parochial rugby community in Canberra. The Force was built on a growing rugby community in Perth.

Rugby Australia should recognise that tribal affiliation and build on it, not alienate its members by imposing on them new teams bereft of any history and geographical connection. Nor should RA invent teams in places that do not have an existing rugby tribe. Any new ‘provincial’ competition can be populated by teams with history.

I remember well sitting at the old Sydney Sports Ground with my father in 1975 when Sydney beat England and in 1978 when Sydney beat the touring Welsh Five Nations champions. I also remember the ‘up the jumper’ move from NSW Country to defeat the city slickers back in that decade.

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There are two provincial teams from this state, and along with ACT – the so-called ‘Brumbies Runners’ – three teams with a history and an established following. Readers will query the relative competitive strength of country teams, but if the country sides have first pick of country-origin players (such as Ned Hanigan) that should alleviate that concern. With teams from Brisbane, Queensland Country and Perth (and possibly the Fijians) you have a six or seven-team provincial competition that people can actually identify with.

That brings us to the ticklish question of where Melbourne and the Rebels sit in all of this.

Unfortunately, there is no significant tribal support in Melbourne for the Rebels. I say that not as a personal observation – my son, who lives there and has played and follows rugby there, tells me that while there is some grassroots rugby, the support for the franchise is mostly expats from north of the Murray and across the Tasman and the odd Saffer.

He attended the last Rebels game in 2019 and says there were possibly 1750 people there, and most of them were supporting the Chiefs. I tried to check that figure at Austadiums, but that attendance figure and others for Rebels home games are listed as TBA. They must be rather embarrassing.

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Melbourne Rebels's Marika Koroibete runs with the ball

Melbourne Rebels’s Marika Koroibete. (Photo by Christian Kotze/AFP via Getty Images)

Added to that, he says most people in Melbourne don’t know the difference between rugby union and rugby league. On the other hand, the Storm get plenty of paying customers in the stands and there is an adult league competition at grassroots level.

The Rebels have no tribe supporting them. If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t buy the Rebels franchise from Rugby Australia; I’d rather buy a new franchise for a team in either Parramatta or Townsville to build a team that can engage with the local rugby community and is accepted by the tribe.

The question has to be asked: has Rugby Australia’s trickle-down experiment of imposing the Rebels on an uninterested mob failed? Is it time to redeploy diminishing resources in the tribal heartland where they arguably belong? Or do RA persevere in Melbourne?

As Einstein said, continuing to do things the same way and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Something needs to change.