Geography of Rugby League and Australian Rules

I have recently returned to the US from my second trip to Australia. My previous trip was in 1993. During that trip I came to believe these stylized facts:

  1. In Queensland and NSW, the sport of choice was Rugby League.
  2. Whereas in Victoria, the sport was Australian Rules Football. (I don’t remember learning much about the preferred sport in W.A., N.T., S.A. or Tasmania)
  3. Rugby Union was a New Zealand thing.
  4. The NRL teams were mostly from Sydney area
  5. The AFL teams are mostly from Melbourne.

After this trip, it seems to me that 4 and 5 are still true, but the Melbourne Storm is currently the leader of the NRL, and the AFL has teams from Brisbane (Qld) and Sydney (NSW).

I was in Sydney on Sat. night, July 28, and I wanted to watch the NRL game with the Auckland Warriors at Newcastle Knights. It was not shown on the TV channels carried by my hotel, but the next night an AFL game was shown.

I was in Auckland when the Wallabies came over to play the All-Blacks, and the downtown streets were full of people in Wallabies (Australia’s National Rugby Union) colors.

So I want to ask…
Has there been diffusion of these sports across state boundaries since 1993, with more people in Qld, NSW enjoying AFL and people in Victoria NRL?

Was I just misinformed earlier, and this was the case in 1993 the same as in 2007?

What demographic in Australia is most interested in the Wallabies? Is interest higher than usual because of the upcoming World Cup of Rugby?

I don’t know the exact answer, but I can assure you that Australia have had an excellent Rugby Union side for several decades. They play New Zealand in the Bledisoe Cup and also face both New Zealand and South Africa in the Tri-Nations.

But I think it’s only the third most popular sport in Australia (behind Aussie Rules and Rugby League). I’m not sure where cricket (Australia are World no 1) ranks.

I was under the impression that in terms of the AFL, the West Coast Eagles of Perth, WA got their start sometime in the 1980s, and the Fremantle Dockers date from some time in the 90s. Certainly, the Eagles were playing at Subiaco Oval in Perth in 1995; I was at one of their games that year.

Speaking mainly for Victoria/Melbourne (I’m sure that other states will have different viewpoints) :-

Australian Rules/AFL is the number one game in town in Victoria - even in the off season, there are stories on it every day in the major newspapers. WA, SA, Northern Territory and Tasmania are strong AFL states, with WA and SA each having two teams in the national league, and NT and Tasmania providing lots of great players for other teams.

Although NSW has had a VFL/AFL team for over a quarter century, AFL is still a minority sport there. Queensland has some interest for AFL, but not as strong as in the western/southern states.

Rugby League is still very much a minority sport in Victoria. I can’t comment about other states. Here, it’s probably about as popular as soccer - maybe even less so, as soccer has a long tradition here with ethnic based clubs going back many years.

Rugby Union has no profile in Victoria outside of World Cup times, when the typical Victorian sports nut just gets excited about for the sake of it (much like any other sport where Australia has a chance).

Cricket, in my experience, is universally loved by sports lovers, but not so much by the general public as the various football codes. Having said that, there are a hell of a lot of sports lovers here.

What you have to remember about the AFL is that it didn’t even exist before 1990. Before that it was the VFL (Victorian Football League) (cite).

I’m not sure when the first non-Victorian team came in - the above link mentions the Brisbane Bears in '87 but doesn’t say when the South Melbourne Swans moved to Sydney (I think mid-80’s).

Anyway, it seems that the AFL is pretty keen to market itself to the rest of Australia but, yeah, it’s still seen pretty much as a “Melbourne” thing, I think. Maybe in another 20 years it might be more generally “Australian”

OK, this involves my somewhat dodgy knowledge of US sport, but my understanding is this:

Australian Rules and Rugby League remained amateur competitions much longer that American ones did (even a few years ago, many big names in both main types of football in Australia were laying bricks or tending bar to pay the bills). This is an important point - without huge salaries being paid, an Australian city could support an entire competition, whereas market forces would result in an American city fielding one or possibly two teams only. So a national type of football was inevitable in America, but here, each city could play its own wacky type of game, and it didn’t matter if the rest of the country couldn’t care less about it. And so the traditional Melbourne = Rules and Sydney = League was maintained for nearly a hundred years.

When the money got big, and our sports became more professional and US-style, then some clubs were inevitably going to fold, some were going to ride the wave of success, and the media were going to spend their dollar very carefully, resulting in much greater national coverage of previously state-based sports.

The process was underway in 1993, but there was much more of the old feel about both games then. Many people I know here in Sydney now might still prefer League to AFL, but they will be able to give an answer when asked “Which AFL team do you support?”, and it won’t be “Feck off back to Melbourne and take your Aerial Ping Pong with ya!”

Most sport-minded people here would be interested in the Wallabies, as a national team, but the real interest would probably come from the middle classes (traditionally private schools were the bastion of Rugby Union in Australia), or from New Zealand ex-pats (Union is a more working class game in NZ).

Of course, I might be wrong. I’m more of a cricket person.

When I last looked in on Rugby League, Mal Meninga, Brad Fittler, Ettinghousen, Lazarus, etc. were playing. Now some of them are becoming coaches.

A couple of points:

(1) The football boundary between NSW and Victoria does not follow the Murray River (the normal political boundary) – it lies somewhere north of the Murrumbidgee River. The main football code south of that boundary is Australian Rules.

(2) Rugby Union is traditionally an amateur sport, though in recent years it has become somewhat professionalised.

(But I don’t follow sport very closely).