What do the clubs say they stand for?
Gold Coast Suns
North Melbourne Kangaroos
Port Adelaide Power
St Kilda Saints
West Coast Eagles
Australia's Battle of the Codes -Predicting the Winner
Code rationalisation is inevitable in Australia. Human history has shown that diverse groups of people eventually assimilate into relatively homogenous units due to the actions of the powerful, a desire to express an identity, or a desire to conform to the dominant position. 100 years ago in Australia this was seen at a state level. In NSW, WA, and Queensland, footballers had the choice to play Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union or soccer. One code eventually emerged to dominate others. Code rationalisation never occurred at a national level because Australia's tyranny of distance preventing the formation of a national football competition until commercial flight became economically viable.
The first to fall
Union's Super 14 can't last forever. The inclusion of South Africa makes it television unfriendly and difficult for fans to develop a tribal following or find a routine. An ideal competition would include Australia's top rugby league clubs with New Zealand’s five Super 14 provinces in a season-long competition.It is debateable as to whether such a competition would be able to stem the loss of rugby union players to European clubs or offer a worthwhile television alternative to European rugby. If Australia and New Zealand maintained test rugby as the pinnacle of the code and didn’t downplay the national jumper with “developmental” squads, it is possible that it would. It is also possible that a season long rugby union competition in which there was no competitor in rugby league could challenge AFL.
Unfortunately for union, on current trends, the first code to fall is likely to be rugby union. The struggles of union were perhaps best reflected in the crowds of the ACT Brumbies. In 2004, they had an average home crowd of around 21,000 and 28,750 watched their home final. In 2019, average attendance at dropped to by almost two thirds to 8,332. Only 11,112 turned up to their home final. Admittedly, super rugby is largely funded by pay TV rather than crowds but in 2019, ratings for super rugby in Australia fell below the A-league with an average audience of only 71,000 in Australia. It was about a third of the audience for NRL and AFL. Overseas matches involving Australia teams averaged only 23,000 viewers per match. The figures were particularly bad considering that, unlike the NRL and AFL, there is not a free to air option to watch Super rugby.
Pay TV is itself an industry under threat from internet streaming services. Super rugby is currently funded until 2025. After that, Australia’s time within it may well be at an end. The competition itself may struggle to survive without Australia. Without a national league to fall back on, rugby union would return to the private schools and suburbs.
The only way that union could survive as a dominant code would be if rugby league will adopted rugby union rules. Given its union's weakness in Australia, this will not happen.
The second to fall
The second code to fall is lkely to be soccer. In 2008 on Total Football, A-league commentator Robbie Slater said,
Four years later A-league crowds had fallen by almost half, most of its clubs were bankrupt, three clubs had either had their licences revoked or handed them back, its summer time niche received renewed competition from a 20/20 cricket league, and soccer fans continued to watch European leagues on TV instead of their own.
By 2017/18, average attendance hovered around 10,000 for most clubs. Pay TV audiences also slumped from a high of over 74,000 in 2012-13 to only 51,000 in 2017/18.
And then there were two
Things become more complicated when trying to predict the winner out of the NRL and AFL. Both currently seem to be in a holding position. This can be attributed to the failure of each code, particularly the AFL, to leverage some kind of national narrative to unite people. Furthermore, the AFL has not been able to use its financial superiority to its advantage. In 2006, AFL revenue was almost double NRL revenue and almost triple the revenue of rugby union and soccer. From 2005 to 2009, total attendance for the AFL was more than double the NRL, more than six times that of the A-league and more than 12 times that of the Super 14. Despite these advantages, the state of play seemed to be in stalemate.
The addition of new teams on the Gold Coast and West Sydney could be seen as attempts by the AFL to leverage its superior financial might into national appeal and so break the stalemate. Ultimately though, unless it can make a nation-wide State of Origin football work, the AFL will struggle to create a national narrative to give it victory. Admittedly, the national league is meant to be the national narrative like the NFL is to America, but with so many teams in Melbourne the AFL as a competition will take too long to shed its Melbourne image. If all goes to plan, the addition of new teams will increase junior development in each state and make State of Origin representation possible. The war would then be won.
Rugby league is defending its line but has few resources to attack the line of others. Ultimately, you need more than good defence to win a game. If there is no attack, it is only a matter of time before the line is breached. The Melbourne Storm is their sole avenue to attack.
State of play
The AFL is clearly the most advanced in becoming a national competition. The one advantage for the other codes is that the AFL is relatively weak in the states that have the most television worth. As outlined in table 1, TV ad revenue in NSW in 2007 was almost 6 times as much as revenue in South Australia and more than Victoria and Western Australia combined. Queensland revenue was more than Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania combined. The advantage for rugby league is that it dominates in both states. On the downside, this has meant that it has needed to defend itself against soccer, rugby union and AFL that have concentrated much of their attacks on rugby league supremacy in NSW and Queensland.
Figure 1 charts the average crowds of the Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Lions and Sydney Swans from the years 1998 to 2009. The four teams are key markers of the success of the AFL and NRL in expanding into enemy territory. All have won premierships in the period. Alternatively, the AFL culture of attending games may have influenced local NRL fans who likewise started attending games.
The graph appears to show solid growth from the Brisbane Broncos; however, this result is slightly skewed because its initial low base can be attributed to residual damage caused by the Super league War of the mid 90s. In what may be considered unexpected, the success of the Brisbane Lions seemed to spark a recovery in Brisbane Broncos crowds. Perhaps the fear of Queensland becoming an AFL state motivated rugby league fans to forgive the Broncos.
The significant year-to-year fluctuations by the Sydney Swans can be attributed to the fickle nature of their supporters. Of concern for the club would be that their average crowd in 2008 was similar to that in 1998.
The Brisbane Lions showed a steady upwards climb that peaked in the years of its three consecutive premierships. The years since have seen a slight fall away, but they are reasonably close to Broncos’ crowds.
The crowds of the Melbourne Storm have remained dismally low. The one ray of sunshine is that they have recovered slightly from the lowly years of 2002 to 2005.
Overall, the administrators of both the AFL and NRL would be concerned at the relative stagnation over the last five years. Although it means neither code is losing ground, it means neither is gaining either.
Population – In 2005, the population of Queensland officially reached 4 million.
Prediction - AFL
Clearly rugby league has the greatest artillery in Queensland with three NRL clubs, a state of origin team and a national representative team. With a second Queensland team on the Gold Coast, the AFL is increasingly its artillery but is still a significant way behind.
A potential game changer would be the loss of the Gold Coast Titans. This would leave both the NRL and AFL with only two teams in Queensland, but the AFL’s teams would be the best placed to form a strong rivalry with each other because of their close proximity to each other. Because of the strategic importance of the Gold Coast, the NRL will probably do everything it can to ensure an NRL team remains on the Gold Coast if the Titans go bankrupt as projected. The danger would be that it bleeds too much money trying to stop the AFL and then loses its star players in a raid by rugby union.
Because rugby league is defending but only has limited resources to defend, while the AFL is attacking, and has committed almost $100 million to the attack, it is probable that the AFL will keep putting the scores on the board until it has become number 1.
Soccer looks most likely to fall. It had three A-league teams but is now down to one.
Rugby union looks would be the most likely to fall next if it didn't have a national body to prop it up. One state team that plays for half a season is likely to get drowned by three NRL teams, and two AFL teams.
In 2007, the population of New South Wales was 6.89 million
Prediction - AFL
Historically, NSW is a rugby league state but it has been under serious attack. On the positive side, it has been holding its line. In Newcastle, the cash-strapped Newcastle Knights were seeing their corporate and fan support leaking towards the Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets. A billionaire subsequently bought both the Newcastle Knights rugby league team, and the Newcastle Jets soccer team. He then folded the soccer club.
In Sydney, rugby league has plenty of artillery but it is so close together that damage is caused by friendly fire. If there were less teams, there might be sufficient support to draw big crowds in the centrally located stadiums instead of the smaller grounds in the hard-to-get-to suburbs.
Because around 30 per cent of Sydney's population are migrants, the population is not as rusted on to rugby league as heavily as some media commentators propose. If soccer were to win a state, the high migrant population combined with the high number of soccer teams makes a NSW victory seem its best chance. Soccer's prospects; however, do not look likely. It's "glamour" team, Sydney FC, have seen their crowds steadily head south.
Union in NSW has the same problem as union in Queensland. One team isn't capable of going up against the combined forces of soccer, rugby league and Australian football. Union is likely to go the way of basketball in Sydney.
Australian football has historically done poorly in Sydney. Its main brand has been the Sydney Swans; which were relocated from Melbourne 30 years ago. The ballerina and Melbournian associations have never really captured the imagination of Sydney siders. In order to have any chance in Sydney, the AFL would have to come up with a better brand. The GWS Giants seem to be on the right track. By basing themselves in Blacktown, the Giants are based on one of Sydney’s largest municipalities and one which is not represented by any rugby league team. Its membership numbers are low by AFL standards, but reasonable by Sydney standards.
Even though Australian football is stronger in Queensland, the AFL has more chance of winning Sydney than Queensland. Sydney's high migrant population combined with soccer's attacks on rugby league present the AFL will plenty of opportunities if it can develop the right brand to exploit weakeness in rugby league.
In 2007, the population of Victoria was 5,205,200
Prediction - Australian footballA safe Australian football state. Rugby union has no serious presence, and rugby league has a weak presence. Only soccer has threatened in any shape or form.
10 AFL teams in Melbourne is a problem, although ground rationalisation has ensured they have avoided some of the ground accessibility problems suffered by rugby league in Sydney.
In 2005, the population of Western Australia was a little over 2 million.
One A-league team – Pay TV
Prediction- Australian football
A safe Australian football state. Rugby league has no team, the soccer team is going backwards, and the rugby union team has not proved itself in any way across time.
Population – In 2005 the population of South Australia was around 1,542,000
Two AFL teams- Pay TV and free to air
National team – Pay TV and sometimes free to air
Prediction - Australian football
A safe Australian football state. Neither rugby union nor rugby league has a meaningful presence.
Population – In 2005, the population of Tasmania was estimated at 485,300 persons
Prediction - Australian football
No football code has a team playing out of Tasmania. Historically, the state plays Australian football and until another code challenges that dominance by establishing a team, nothing will change.
Australian Capital Territory
In 2006, the population was 333,667
Prediction - rugby league
The only region where rugby union dominates over the other codes. Unfortunately, the small size of the population means holding the ACT is like holding Old Kent Road in a game of monopoly. Mayfair it is not.
In 2006, the population was estimated at 212,600
Currently, the population likes both rugby league and Australian football. Nothing much will change.
Prediction: AFL wins nationally.