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Globalised Sport - Challenge and Opportunity for Australian Football

  • Tuesday, June 06 2006 @ 01:30 am ACST
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General News

With FIFA World Cup action drawing near and the Socceroos having qualified for the first time in 32 years, Australian sports fans are turning their eyes towards Germany in anticipation of the global sporting tournament. However going a few steps further some Australian journalists and soccer officials have proclaimed the demise of the indigenous game in favour of the world game. Dutch coach of the Socceroos, Guus Hiddink, recently said the world game will be number 1 in Australia ahead of "the other games you try and invent" referring of course to Australian Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. However there is plenty of evidence that Aussie Rules has a great future, which we look at in this article.

As for "inventions" maybe nobody told Guus that Australian Rules football was codified in 1858, 5 years before the Football Association of England codified the rules of soccer in 1863 by banning use of hands in field play apart from the "mark" (banned in the 1870s) and 30 years before the start of soccer in The Netherlands.


Perhaps coincidentally the AFL released statistics showing Australian Football to be the number 1 sport in Australia – both in participants and popularity with the independent statistics firm Sweeney showing a rise of interest in Australian Rules from 54% to 59% of the population in the 6 years to 2005, at the same time as Soccer increased its interest rating from 35% to 41%.

No doubt this year the 41% figure will skyrocket. But there is a difference with following one’s national team in the World Cup and following a sport for its own sake. Also perhaps Guus and others could also reflect - it is not an either/or situation – probably most of the 41 and 59 percent include the same people.

The AFL enjoys perhaps the biggest domestic fan involvement in the world

A little known fact is that per capita the highest ground attendances for any national league in the world - of all the world's football codes - is.....the AFL. More than the English Premier League or any European league including the powerful German league, more than America's NFL, more than all the South American leagues – see Sports Attendances. If Soccer were truly a more entertaining game than a small (in global terms) indigenous game like Australian Football, then it is unlikely (despite Aussie sports fanaticism) that the AFL could lead the world attendance league in this way. There must be something about Australian Rules that makes people come back time and again to watch it live (rather than just keep an interest via the media). That Australian Football is more entertaining to watch is commonly described as a reason why the indigenous game can cope with the world game even in an era of globalisation, one sports fan puts it bluntly in The Age.

Comparison with Ireland

Ireland is a case in point – Gaelic football with its similarities to Aussie Rules was put under enormous pressure by the Republic of Ireland's qualification to 3 FIFA World Cups since 1990, including second round progression in '94 and '02. The Irish soccer hierarchy spoke of their game becoming number 1 and the demise of the GAA, and were reported in Ireland as singing "you can stick the GAA up your a..." on the plane home after their qualification match in '93. 13 years later Soccer is much stronger in Ireland and the national team enjoys virtual universal support, but paradoxically Gaelic football crowds are larger than ever and continue to dwarf the local Irish soccer league. That an amateur sport like Gaelic football, played in a country with a population less than Sydney and next door to the English Premier League can outdo soccer is a fact worth mulling over.

There are other factors to the Irish situation, but a main one is probably a higher scoring, faster, more athletic game is over time more interesting to watch...though on the patriotic fervour front nothing can beat watching your nation playing the “World Game”.

In terms of standard of play it is only fair to compare the AFL directly with the A-league, as no AFL club has anything like the player talent pool or coaching resources that a national soccer team of Greece or even the Socceroos have. If the field action is the factor then the AFL is likely to always outperform the A-league, whilst the Socceroos rightly gain the nation's respect and firm following.

Surely many if not most of the 95,000 at the MCG to see the match against Greece, also attend the MCG to see Collingwood, Carlton etc. As in Ireland with the following of their relatively successful national soccer team but supporting their parish club and county teams in Gaelic football and Hurling, it can be just the same here.

Junior participation

It is a valid point that numbers of junior soccer players are a threat to the indigenous game if it means less footy players. But a lot of kids play both codes or switch between the two over the years. Parental concern over injury and the problems of field size and getting enough players for 18-a-side teams are factors that sway many primary schools towards the round ball game. The Auskick program is a great successful introduction to Australian Football but the AFL could probably build on that with a primary school 9-a-side brief version similar to AFL recreational footy (which is a belated but welcome addition to the social sports scene), and then many kids could still also have time for soccer or footy in a main weekend club game.

The AFL could make globalisation work in its favour

A long term insurance to participation numbers would be exporting the code. Australia did it successfully with the wine industry when nobody knew Australia made wine. The forces of globalisation work both ways - the “world game” puts pressure on a native species, but Aussie Rules only needs a fraction of 1% of the world's soccer, rugby, basketball or American football players to take up footy as a minor code in many countries - to multiply the talent pool for the AFL clubs several fold, thus raising the standard of play considerably. It is worth pondering that whilst we will probably see Soccer at its ultimate best in Germany, we are yet to see what level of play Australian Football (or International Rules for that matter) can rise to. A widening participation rate around the world will lead to developments in Australian Football as a skilful sport that can probably only be imagined now.

Soccer spread on the coat-tails of the British empire and Britain's proximity to Europe at a time Australian Rules football could only be seen after months of sea journey or poorly deciphered from a newspaper article. The world is a different place today and the internet, global TV, videos and DVD's make promotion of Australian Football a completely different proposition to the past.

If local footy leagues around the world led to increased interest in televised AFL for sports fans (the USAFL and AFANA have lobbied hard and successfully to keep some AFL football on American TV), then the AFL's current internet rights (they want $100million) could be multiplied several times over, especially with the rollout of TV quality broadband to much of the world.

At present most foreigners don’t know Australian Football even exists, the market is completely untapped as it were. As an example almost everyone this author has ever met at an international conference has never heard of the game, but those I have introduced it to via attendance at an AFL match or on TV have been highly impressed with what they see as an “exciting, full bodied, non-stop” sport.

The Melbourne FC seems to be thinking along these lines with its proposed push to China (that Melbourne Lord Mayor John So is supporting - realising that an interest in AFL amongst the people of the world's emerging superpower can only mean future economic benefits for Melbourne ) – see China Exhibition and AussieRulesChina.

The Demons are also going to promote the 9-a-side version – which in several places (USA, EU Cup, Bali Nines, Touch Aussie Rules UK) already offers a quick to put together league that can be played on existing soccer and rugby pitches. The Demons have joined with the Melbourne City Council to also sponsor a full-time development officer which is a key for any amateur footy league over-reliant on the dwindling spare time of volunteers. Full-time development officers or administrators can do much to hasten the spread of the code as is being demonstrated in PNG, South Africa and with juniors in the UK. There are 180 development officers in Australia all doing great work, but AFL clubs and the AFL Commission may wish to consider investing a portion of the increased TV revenue in the big field overseas, much of it perhaps through partnerships with government like the one with the Melbourne City Council.

Australia is a multicultural country. For too long ethnicity was a barrier (real or just perceived) to some new immigrants to taking up the indigenous code, whilst also being a source of friction and sometimes violence within Australian Soccer. However the restructured A-league and the national support for the Socceroos hopefully will see ethnic divisions a thing of the past for Soccer. At the same time the AFL Multicultural Program is now embracing the need to include all cultures in Australian Football and the Multicultural Cup showed the untapped potential to involve Australians of differing origins in globalising the indigenous game.

Room for both codes

We Australians can be proud of our native game and proud of our Socceroos playing the imported game. The kangaroo shouldn't give way to the sheep because the rest of the world only has sheep. Pushing the metaphor further, Australia has a world class wool and lamb/mutton industry but kangaroos thrive in foreign zoos and their healthy meat and high quality leather is now a large export industry for Australia. Aussie Rules, as nearly 700 articles on this website shows, is a new export industry in the making.

Following and playing both Australian Football and Soccer is possible and common. But at the same time more globalisation of the local game would only add to the fun.

Go the Swans! Go the Socceroos!