Can Australian Rules Football Rule Australia?

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Can Australian Rules Football Rule Australia?

One distinct regional difference within Australia is in preference for sporting codes, but the Australian Football League brushes off its most devoted locales to chase rugby-dominated markets.

Can Australian Rules Football Rule Australia?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite its ethnic diversity, Australia’s broader culture is relatively homogeneous. The COVID-19 pandemic may have led to an reemergence of state-based loyalties, and there is also a developing urban/rural political divide that is consistent with other Western countries, but despite minor linguistic differences, weather-based lifestyles, and of course areas where indigenous Australians are numerous, noticeable regional contrasts are limited. 

However, the one distinct regional difference within Australia is the preference for sporting codes. 

In New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland, rugby is the dominant winter sport, while in the rest of the country it is the locally developed Australian Rules Football. This divide — known as the Barassi Line — doesn’t neatly follow state boundaries as Australian Rules is also strong in much of southern and western NSW.

Despite Australian Rules being codified in 1859, and state-based leagues forming in Victoria and South Australia in 1877, the development of a national competition has only been a recent phenomenon. For most of the 20th century, the Victorian Football League (VFL) acted as the de facto elite competition, able to attract the best players from other states. 

Yet in the 1980s the VFL started to have grander designs. South Melbourne would relocate to Sydney, and clubs from Perth and Brisbane would be added to the competition. The following decade saw this vision expanded with the addition of two Adelaide-based teams, a second Perth team, and the renaming of the VFL into the Australian Football League (AFL). 

Although Sydney and Brisbane are rugby-dominated cities, they were considered large enough to sustain an Australian Rules club each. However, a decade into the new century, the AFL dispensed with the goal of sustainability in NSW and Queensland. Instead they set their sights on altering the culture of these two states, to either replace rugby, or at least put Australian Rules on a more equitable footing. In order to achieve this vision two new clubs were added to the competition — Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast. 

Given that NSW and Queensland are Australia’s first and third largest states, respectively, there has been an obvious financial incentive for the AFL to seek to convert them toward Australian Rules. However, in doing so the AFL has demonstrated an obvious neglect toward two regions of the country where Australian Rules is deeply embedded in the culture — Tasmania and the Northern Territory (NT). 

These two regions have produced some of the game’s great players and maintain highly active local leagues with strong community support. The NT has the highest participation rate per capita in the country. However, the AFL has deemed that the populations of Tasmania (540,000) and the NT (250,000) are not significant enough to make expanding elite-level competition into these regions economically viable.  

This seems to be an odd decision, given that Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast have been heavily subsidized by the AFL, with only limited success a decade into their existence. The ongoing viability of Gold Coast has recently been questioned, although the AFL has said that its continued participation in the league is guaranteed. Despite culture being an incredibly difficult thing to alter, the AFL has committed itself to the attempt.

But the health of the football culture south and west of the Barassi Line is something that the AFL should not take for granted. There is an obvious disrespect for Tasmania and the NT as the league makes a potentially futile effort to chase fans in NSW and Queensland, while ignoring those who have a more committed cultural connection to the game. These regions will continue to produce great players for the AFL, but they deserve to be represented in the league in a collective, rather than individual, capacity. 

In recognition of this, the Tasmanian government released a business case for a local club in late 2019, with the hope of establishing a team in the competition by 2025. Importantly, the proposal would be for a new football club, not the relocation of a team from Melbourne (nine of the league’s 18 teams are Melbourne-based). Given the passions, sensitivities, and loyalties people have for their football clubs this would be the best course of action. Although the relocation of South Melbourne to Sydney has proved successful, the forced takeover of Fitzroy by Brisbane in 1996 remains a bitter and unfortunate part of the league’s history. 

Following on Tasmania’s lead, in June a feasibility study into a NT team was also released. This report focused not on the financial viability of a potential team, but on the positive social impacts that a club would have for the community. Given that the NT is home to some of the country’s most structurally disadvantaged communities, this is something that the federal government should also take a keen interest in. 

But this will require the AFL coming to understand that the unique Australian game is far more than commercial activity for the people who love it. It carries with it significant community pride and social bonds that cannot be identified on a balance sheet. The AFL has proved it is willing to weather considerable costs from areas of the country which aren’t particularly concerned whether the sport thrives. Surely weathering similar costs for substantial public appreciation and social outcomes would be considered a better investment?