The 14th Annual Tom Brock Lecture – David Hill

Abridged Lecture – by David Hill via SMH

Can rugby league survive as a dominant, mainstream sport, or will it eventually be eclipsed?

League now confronts a far more competitive market than ever before. Only 20 years ago the four types of football played in Australia – Australian rules, rugby union, rugby league and soccer, as it was then called – were all part-time professional or amateur.

Now, Australia must be the only country in the world that has four full-time professional codes and it raises the question: is the market big enough for all of them?

The late Mark McCormack, creator of the international sports rights and marketing conglomerate IMG, once said only the global sports would flourish in the 21st century because of the need to appeal to big TV audiences.

I think he got it wrong. American gridiron, Gaelic football and sumo wrestling, for example, continue to have appeal. However, he was right in saying that sports with a broader support base had the best prospects.

The potential to expand the current, relatively small rugby league support base is limited. The game is the undisputed number one football code in only one country, Papua New Guinea. In Australia, league is the dominant code in only two states and attempts to expand in the others have mostly failed, particularly compared with the phenomenally successful interstate expansion of AFL.

AFL is now a dominant player in all Australian capital cities, including the rugby league citadels of Sydney and Brisbane. The average crowd is more than double that for a league match and they attract more women and more children. The AFL clubs are also financially bigger. According to Business Review Weekly all of the AFL clubs are wealthier than all of the NRL clubs – except for the Brisbane Broncos, which just pips the poorest of the AFL teams.

There are also a number of other factors that threaten league. For decades we have been witnessing a corrosion of its traditional support base, which was historically strongest in the now declining blue-collar workforce. Nowhere has it been more apparent than in the Sydney junior leagues, which have historically been the big nursery. League has been trying to address this problem and boasts a big increase in the numbers of five- to 12-year-olds playing the game in recent years. However, it has not been able to arrest the long-term decline in the number of teams and clubs for juniors above 12 years of age. In the 1970s, the Penrith district boasted 32 junior league clubs. It now has 22.

The number of league players in Australia is below practically all other team sports, including soccer, basketball, netball, volleyball, Aussie rules and cricket. At least it is higher than for rugby union.

Attracting youngsters to the game has always been hard because parents – particularly mothers – think league is too rough and their children might get seriously injured. But in recent years parents are increasingly worried about a culture of anti-social off-field behaviour. League administrators may be sighing with relief that there have not been any screaming front-page headlines for some time about heavily tattooed league players involved in alcohol-fuelled incidents, or being charged with physical or sexual abuse, involved in betting scandals or defecating in hotel corridors. But to many parents the image of league is still tarnished.

League clubs also face increased financial pressures as one of their big sources of revenue declines – profits from poker machines.

For many years, some of the biggest Sydney clubs have been financially unviable in that the money earned from football has not been enough to cover the cost of their football operations. The money from poker machines has not only kept them afloat but has been their largest single source of revenue – bigger even than gate receipts.

But the goose cannot keep laying the golden eggs. Already the NSW government has significantly increased the tax on what they see as excessive poker machine profits.

And there is growing political pressure that I am sure will result in further restrictions on problem gamblers – despite the resistance of the clubs and their supporters at Channel Nine and elsewhere. With all these challenges it would be reasonable to expect rugby league to be on its knees. But it isn’t. In many respects it is flourishing. Why is that?

Well, most of all because the game is an attractive spectacle; witness the recent huge new television deal. Much credit must go to the code’s administrators, who for more than 40 years have radically altered the game with a succession of rule changes aimed at making it better to watch. No other code has changed as much.

A huge influx of players from Aboriginal, Maori and Pacific islander backgrounds, the struggle between the big free-to-air networks for ratings supremacy, and the advent of pay TV have also helped the game flourish. The five games a round on pay TV alone each attract an average audience of almost 250,000 viewers.

All this does not make the future safe for rugby league. AFL has the wind in its sails and is doing better at expansion. And don’t write off soccer. The so called ”sleeping giant” of Australian sport is not quite awake.

But even though league is unlikely ever to be a global sport, and it is unlikely to become as big a national mainstream sport in Australia as AFL, if it continues to evolve as a spectacle, it should be safe – because enough people still feel it is ”the greatest game of all”.

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