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Why aren't American sports more popular in Australia?

How did AFL evolve?

How has class warfare shaped the NRL?

Why does rugby union have a private school boy image?

Does soccer suffer discrimination in Australia?

How have notions of identity been expressed in cricket?

Why does only one code play State of Origin?

Why are there 4 football codes in Australia?

What are some team names in Australia?

Battle of Sydney 1804

Battle of the Football Codes

Australia has four professional football codes. Most countries have one, and two at maximum. There are various reasons why one code tends to dominate over all others. Firstly, fans only have the economic and emotional resources to support one team passionately. If the passion rises, it is just too difficult to follow a variety of codes equally. Secondly, only one code can fill the back page on a newspaper. This position will always go to the strongest code, and so further strengthen its dominant position. Thirdly, the dominant code benefits from being the code of choice for people who want to have a conversation. Football can't serve its role as a conversation starter if every individual follows a different code. To be involved in the conversation, individuals will have to take an interest in the dominant code, thereby strengthening it again. Finally, whichever code raises the most money will subsequently have the most money to reinvest in promotion, development and government lobbying- thereby increasing its dominant position.

Even if fans wanted to follow all codes, the administration of football codes have never guided by a love of pluralism. Each code has wanted to increase its market share and destroy the competition. Former NRL chief executive David Gallop was honest enough to give his opinion on the type of fan his organisation tries to shape when he said,

" We expect these days a lot of people are going to sample all the codes, but the people we love are the people who don't go to anything else but rugby league, become season ticket-holders, talk about it over the water cooler every day and come up to you in the summer and say, 'Can't wait for the footy to start'."

Expecting the administrators to be happy with co-existence is like expecting a football team to take the field and be happy with a draw.

The existence of four codes in Australia can be attributed to a combination of diverse national identities, diverse environments, as well as Australia’s tyranny of distance preventing some of these homogenising forces working upon Australians the way they have worked on other cultures. In recent times, the forces of diversity have weakened, while the forces of homogenisation have strengthened, thus it can be predicted that there may be some rationalisation going on in the forthcoming years.  


Demand for sport is intertwined with desire to express valued identities. For example, support for Gaelic football in Ireland and Gridiron in America owed a lot to the desire of past generations of Irish and American patriots to have a code of their own. In Australia, there was also a desire to also have a uniquely Australia code that symbolised Australian culture, and this drove some of the early demand for Australian football. This demand; however, was countered by an arguably stronger demand to express a British identity by playing the football codes of the mother country (rugby union and soccer.)

Potentially, Australian football could have been used as a vehicle to increase Australian patriotism and become more popular in the process. Unfortunately for the code, its image was very closely intertwined with Victoria, rather than Australia. As a consequence, playing it became more of a celebration of Victorian culture than Australian culture. Meanwhile, an Australian representative team in the other codes was able to assert Australian patriotism but in a way that didn’t undermine loyalty to Britain.

After World War 2, identity had a huge impact upon attempts to revive soccer. A massive immigration intake from mainland Europe brought large numbers of migrants who had a love of soccer, but didn’t associate it with Britain. Much like previous generations of British migrants, however, they did associate soccer with their motherland and many wanted to play soccer as a reminder of their homeland. Ironically, this led to soccer creating the first national football league in 1977, but naming the clubs with European identities like "Sydney Croatia" and "Marconi" that Australians struggled to identify with.

While many migrants wanted to keep alive the memory of the homeland, others wanted to find a connection with their new homeland, and in Melbourne this seemed to drive demand for Australian football.

Although an English game, rugby league has never been a code to trumpet its English heritage to improve its appeal. Its social appeal related to socio-economic class. In Sydney, it portrayed itself as the working man’s game. When Australian football tried to relocate some of its Melbourne teams to Sydney in the 80s and 90s, it portrayed itself as the NSW code. Both images appealed to sections of the local community, and in turn strengthened that community.


Some of the early pioneers of Australian football were familiar with the various English games that later evolved into rugby, but they felt they were unsuitable for Victoria's hard grounds. They then evolved a game with a focus on running and quick ball movement. The bouncing of the ball and the hand pass were two innovations designed to make such a game.

Australian football found that people in the drier areas of southern Australia (SA, WA, Victoria and Tasmania) enjoyed playing the sport, while the wetter areas, such as Sydney and Brisbane, were less enthusiastic. Here, bouncing the ball on grounds that almost never dried out was problematic as was hand passing a water-soaked ball. On ovals that were like swamps, rugby was more fun for many to play.

Tyranny of distance

Australia is a huge country and the tyranny of distance allowed Australia to develop city-based football codes that weren’t really in competition with each other. In Queensland and NSW, most people supported rugby league, with rugby union prevailing in the private schools. Furthermore, because rugby league was professional while union was amateur, they had different commercial imperatives. Union was safe from destruction because its players could make money by non-playing means and its international strength ensured it would hold an attraction to Australians that wanted more international engagement.

In South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia, Australian football prevailed with some minor support for rugby union in private schools. The football competitions ran on a city wide model, where each club represented a suburb. Inter-city competition did not exist because each city was too far from each other.

Once commercial flight became economically viable and revenue gained form the sale of television started to exceed revenue that from the sale of attendance tickets, the NSWRL (rugby league) and the VFL (Australian football) started to expand out of their Sydney and Melbourne strongholds.

Australian football also had strong leagues in Adelaide and Perth, and administrators from those leagues had pressed for a national competition. None eventuated because the Melbourne league (VFL) just used its superior economic power to buy the best players from the Perth and Adelaide leagues, and then worked to establish teams that represented Perth and Adelaide in their Melbourne league. As was to be expected, football fans in Perth and Adelaide developed some hostility towards the Melbourne league.

The situation in rugby league was similar in that there was also a strong league in Brisbane, and administrators wanted a national competition, not to just enter a team in a Sydney competition. Sydney league officials just bought the best players from Brisbane and then accepted a proposal from a private company to base a team in Brisbane and play in Sydney.

Unlike the leagues of rugby league and Australian football, the leagues of soccer and rugby union didn’t grow out of any existing leagues, rather, they were just created on a national scale from scratch. This was because they hadn’t had strong leagues to begin with that were able to use their superior economic power to assert their self interest.

Australian football is now competing with soccer in WA, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and NSW. It is competing with rugby union in WA, Victoria, NSW and Queensland. It is competing with rugby league in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are the only cities in which all four codes are represented. Adelaide only has Australian football and soccer. Tasmania doesn't have any.

Activity 1- Battle of the Codes

Look at the statistics below comparing the fortunes of Australia's football codes

  1. Do you notice any trends?
  2. Find up to date figures to identify any trends
  3. Is there a sign of any change in the status quo?
  4. If one code emerges to dominate all others, which one do you think it will be? Why?


Australia's Battle of the Codes - Statistics

Average Football Crowds - 2005-2009


Table 1 shows the change in average attendance of Australia's four professional football leagues in the seasons commencing in the years 2005 to 2009. The figures show that all the codes are in holding position without making significant movement forwards or backwards. Slight variances from year to year can be explained as stemming from weather variances, or success of the better supported teams.

The AFL average attendance is almost triple that of the A-league and double that of the NRL. The Super12/14's average attendance is higher than both the NRL and A-league; however, it should be remembered that it does not supply as many games to fans. Concerning for Rugby Union is that out of all the codes, it is the only one that could be seen as having a trend in crowd figures and that the trend is downwards.

The lack of forward movement would be a concern for the A-league considering that one of its sales pitches is that it will become the dominant football code in Australia. If light is not seen at the end of the tunnel, soccer fans may jump off the band wagon as they Basketball fans did in the 90s when their big talk failed to come to fruition. .

The failure of the AFL to turn its revenue superority into a rising trend in attendance must be a cause for concern.


Football Crowds

Table 2

Table 2 shows the change in total attendance of Australia's four professional football leagues in the seasons commencing in the years 2005 to 2009. The figures show that all the codes are holding position without making significant movement forwards or backwards. The sharp drop in the A-league's 2009 figure stems from its season not being complete.

Each year, total attendance for the AFL is more than double the NRL, more than six times that of the A-league and more than 12 times that of the Super 14. The addition of a Gold Coast team in 2011 and a West Sydney team in 2012 should increase total attendance for the AFL but decrease average attendance.


Code popularity

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows the relative participation rates for a people over 14 in a variety of sports in the years 2003/04. The figures show that Soccer has the highest participation and Rugby Union the least. Because the spectator popularity does not match participant popularity, the results can be seen as a sign that people don't want to get hurt playing sport but perhaps like seeing other people hurt playing sport. Soccer is a relatively safe sport while union is relatively brutal. Australian Rules Football is somewhere in between, which explains its position between the two extremes.

In regards to the further prospects for the various codes, the low participation rate for Rugby Union is a concern because it relies upon a strong national team for its marketing. Low participation rates lowers the talent pool it can choose from.


State of Play in 2006

Revenue, Participation Rates and All-round assessment


Rugby League    Rugby Union      
Participation Rates
614,300 536,200 195,900 165,900
Revenue $ 60 m $208 m $107 m $ 70 m
Sweeney Sports Report 2006        50 % 54 % 42 % 40%

Table 4 - Sources (with thanks to Stuart Pearson of Sydney Australia who is a rugby tragic.)

Participation rates: (2005 ERASS Report Australian Sports Commission)
All players over 15 years.- participation rates

Revenue: All figures from 2005 Annual Reports

Sweeney Sports Report 2006: combines participation, attendance,
television and radio audience as well as print readership in sport, and
is expressed as a percentage of the population

Table 4 ranks Australia's football codes according to participation rates, revenue and the Sweeny Sports report in 2006. The figures show that AFL revenue was almost double NRL revenue and almost triple the revenue of rugby union and soccer.

Differences in revenue are particularly interesting because they indicate the relative resources available to the codes to spend on public relations, player development, recruitment and government lobbying. It should be remembered; however, that school popularity contests are not won by making friends with the teacher or the publisher of the school newspaper, nor are they won by trying to buy friends with a great party. That said, having the resources to put on a great party is an asset.


Crowds for opening rounds of the A-League
Season Aggregate Avg per game
2009/10* 61501 12300
2008/09 53325 13331
2007/08 58214 14553
2006/07 62938 15741
2005/06 70206 17551


Attendance in its major competition - 2006





Percentage Change

(15-team Australasian competition)




(16-team National competition)




A-League Soccer
(8-team Australasian competition)


Est. 1,050,000

   52.2% (est.)

Super 14 Rugby
(14-team, 3 country provincial competition. Attendance at Australian home games only)





Global participation - 2006

Football Code

Number of Countries

Number of players


207 countries


 Rugby Union

129 countries



2 countries


 Aussie Rules

2 countries



5 countries



1 country


Sources (with thanks to Stuart Pearson of Sydney Australia who is a Rugby tragic.)


Source: Sport rules – OK? A study of media usage in 2005
By Roger Patching

Table 4: Sports by weeks in list and total number of stories.



Total number of stories


























Table 4 and Figure 2 (above) show the dominance of AFL in sports coverage in the nation’s media. It appeared in the “top 5” list for 26 of the 44 weeks, with a total number of mentions in excess of 322,000 – more than a third of sport’s 900,000-plus total. Cricket comes in second with mentions in 20 weeks (almost half) of the survey period, but with a total number of stories not much more than half that of the AFL….Rugby league is the third most-popular sport with the nation’s media, understandable since it is limited to the eastern mainland states.


Table 6: Sports categories by total number of mentions.


Mentions total

















The dominance of AFL is also demonstrated in the distribution of the mentions in the “top 5” News Value lists. Nearly 80 percent of their mentions were either top or second on the list – 19 of the 26. On the other hand, about the same percentage of the rugby league mentions were in the lower 60 percent of the lists – That is, either third, fourth of fifth. Only on one occasion – coverage of the NRL Grand Final (and another fairytale result with the Wests Tigers taking out their first premiership as a combined club) did the NRL top the list of the most-mentioned stories of the week.

About two-thirds of the listings for cricket (13 of 20) were either as the top story of the week or the second most-mentioned, but only on three occasions was it the top story of the week. While the NRL might make the lists almost as many times as cricket, the sport is nowhere near as popular (as measured by the total number of mentions) as AFL – see table 6


Rugby Union Development

Number of Rugby players by state

State 2005 Registration 2006 Registration Change
ACT & Southern NSW

14,045 14,573 528 (3.8%)
New South Wales

74,274 78,088 3,814 (5.1%)

49,489 50,805 1,316 (2.7%)
Western Australia

8,518 14,471 5,953 (69.9%)

7,876 8,685 809 (10.3%)
Northern Territory

1,832 2,257 425 (23.2%)

1,027 3,383 2,356 (229.4%)
South Australia

2,479 4,108 1,629 (65.7%)

176,655 193,382 16,727 (9.5%)

(with thanks to Stuart Pearson of Sydney Australia who is a Rugby tragic.)

Super 14 crowds

NSW Waratahs

2006 average crowd - 29,929
2007 average crowd - 21,872 ( down 27 per cent.)

2007 "grudge match" between NSW and Queensland - 21,872

Queensland Reds

2006 average crowd - 23,154
2007 average crowds - 18,101 (down 21 per cent)

ACT Brumbies

2006 average crowd 21-22,000
2007 average crowd - 17,813 (down 22 per cent)

Western Force

2006 - 28,385
2007 - 27,000 ( down five per cent)


Rugby League Development

"The Australian Rugby League’s concerted effort to develop the game within Victoria has resulted in a 138.7% increase in total participation in the region (20,495 participants in 2006, up from 8,587 in 2005), while Victorian school registrations alone have risen 161%."

"The NSW Country region enjoyed similar success, with total participants in 2006 reaching 108,518, compared to 98,983 in 2005 – an increase of 9.6%."

"The Australian Rugby League’s schools program continues to flourish, with the total participation rate in schools nationally rising by 16.8%, while junior club registrations have also enjoyed a national growth rate of 3.6%."

"Significantly, an increase of 37% in total participation rates – i.e at junior and senior levels - within the ARL’s Affiliated States (Victoria, Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia) has contributed to a national total participation rate rise of 11.2% (371,557 in 2006, up from 223,204 in 2005), and shown that more kids are experiencing Rugby League than ever before."

"Other figures of importance include the success of ARL Development’s Smaller Steps Program, which has resulted in 110,250 children participating in 22,874 clinics held in 2006, and a total of 190,649 taking part in Rugby League Gala Days such as the Legends of League competition and ARLD Cup.

Overall, a total of 874,258 kids received a rugby league experience of some capacity in 2006."

source: (Accessed 2006)

AFL - Revenue and Development

$215 million in annual revenue

3.94 million – average weekly television audience

5 year television deal worth $780million

5 year internet deal worth $60 million

3 year radio deal worth $8 million

Players in NSW - up 37 per cent

Players in Queensland - up 11 per cent

Source – 2006 Annual AFL report

AFL and NRL comparison

Television ratings - AFL vs NRL

2003 AFL - An average between 2.9 million and 5.3m viewers each weekend (five games a week)
2003 NRL - An average of 2.1m (two games a week)

Grand final ratings - NRL vs AFL

2006 - 903,000 -- NRL Grand Final audience in Melbourne
2006 - 765,000 -- AFL Grand Final audience in Sydney

Crowds- NRL vs AFL

AFL crowds 2006: 176 games for a total of 6,204,236 (average 35,251)
AFL Finals 2006: 9 games for a total of 532,178 (average 59,131)
NRL crowds 2006: 180 games for a total of 2,808,235 (average 15,601)
NRL Finals 2006: 9 games for a total of 307,466 (average 34,163)

Pay TV - Average week

From week ending June 11 2006

1 NRL Panthers V Dragons (FOX Sports 1) 158,000
2 NRL Cowboys V Sharks (FOX Sports 1) 145,000
3 NRL Rabbitohs V Brisbane (FOX Sports 1) 136,000
4 NRL Panthers V Sea Eagles (FOX Sports 1) 135,000
5 AFL RND 11 Richmond V Kangaroos (FOX Footy) 130,000
6 NRL Warriors V Broncos (FOX Sports 1) 117,000

Of the top 100 programs of all types on pay TV in 2006, 73 were Rugby League. The NRL had eight in the top 10.


Market worth

TV ad revenue for the 6 months to June 30 2007
New South Wales.................684,563,230
South Australia....................119,238,350
West Australia.....................156,194,242
Northern Territory / Tasmania...33,507,686