Ahead of grand final weekend down under, Frank Heaven examines the ambition and resentment at the heart of Australia’s sporting franchise systems.
This Sunday is a massive occasion for one of Australia’s most controversial sporting teams.
Melbourne Storm play in their first National Rugby League (NRL) Grand Final since 2010, when it emerged that the club had been breaching the competition’s salary cap on a massive scale for over five years. They were stripped off both titles won during that time, in 2007 and 2009, and lost all points awarded during the 2010 season.
The scandal drew plenty of notoriety to a club whose arrival in the competition had in itself been controversial.
Melbourne were only admitted to the NRL 12 years ago, and are the only Australian franchise to play outside of the country’s east coast rugby league heartland. (New Zealand also has one team.)
Their presence remains a point of often heated debate in Australia, as is the franchise system for all the country’s football codes – league, Aussie Rules, rugby union, and soccer. (Apologies to UK readers for lapsing into ‘New World’ football/soccer terminology.)
A country of two halves
Australia has traditionally been split down the middle in football terms: rugby league dominated in Queensland and New South Wales; everywhere else played rules. What little rugby union existed was also played in the east, by public school ‘rah rahs’.
Soccer was played by hardly anyone – or just ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Pooftas’, as former Socceroos captain Johnny Warren named his autobiography.
Towards the end of the last century, encouraged by increasing TV audiences, both the rugby league and Aussie Rules authorities decided to launch expansion teams in each other’s ‘territories’.
League’s ambitions were checked by the ‘Super League war’, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation tried to set up a breakaway league, but when the rival factions made their peace and jointly set up the NRL, their expansion plans remained. Particularly as rugby league still had no representation in Australia’s second city, Melbourne.
Move, merge, or die?
The expansion strategies of both league and rules were promoted as being for the ‘greater good of the game’ – but it was clear that not everyone would be a winner.
Neither competition could afford to add too many teams, because the share of TV and commercial income would become overly diluted.
So hard decisions had to be made. In the Australian Football League (AFL), the poorly-supported South Melbourne Swans relocated to Sydney. Fitzroy became the Brisbane Lions. In the NRL, Balmain and Western Suburbs merged to form the Wests Tigers.
But some clubs refused to relocate or merge.
The story of South Sydney Rabbitohs will give heart to any franchise-fighter.
Souths date back to the founding of rugby league in Australia, in 1908, and are the game’s most decorated club. But as with many ‘rust belt’ football teams in America, the supporter base in their blue collar inner Sydney stronghold dwindled during the suburbanisation of the 20th century, and by the time the NRL was conceived, the Bunnies were struggling.
In 1999, the year Melbourne Storm won their first title, South Sydney were booted out.
Their cause was not lost though. Demonstrations drew 80,000 fans to central Sydney. Taxi drivers refused rides to executives from Murdoch’s News Corporation, which co-owned the new NRL competition. A costly legal battle was fought and lost by Souths fans.
And yet, surprisingly, the NRL decided that because of the huge supporter interest in keeping the club alive, the governing body would do just that.
In a rare victory for fan power, South Sydney were readmitted to Australia’s premier rugby league competition in 2002. They’re now owned by Russell Crowe, and are probably the game’s highest profile club.
The old vs the new
The case histories of Melbourne and South Sydney illustrate the different problems the expansion era has posed for Australia’s football authorities, as what were essentially suburban competitions tried to go national.
The Rabbitohs proved that supporter loyalties, particularly among older clubs, can be very stubborn and strong, often causing great embarrassment to the governing bodies. The similarity of their story to that of AFC Wimbledon is striking.
In the case of the Storm, their brief but turbulent history illustrates how much pressure there is to make an expansion franchise work once it has been established. Crowds have never been great – last season’s average of 12,685 was the competition’s fourth lowest – so the pressure to generate interest is intense.
There is, perhaps, a parallel in Melbourne’s attitude as a new kid on the block, with the less-than-sporting behaviour and general disregard for the rules shown by certain English football teams based in new towns.
It will be interesting to see who neutrals choose to follow in Sunday’s Grand Final. Canterbury are Melbourne’s opponents.
Despite the controversy caused, expansion franchises are still very much on the agenda for all football codes in Australia. The NRL plans two new teams by 2015, and the AFL recently plonked a new team in prime rugby league land: Greater Western Sydney. They are by some distance the worst supported in the competition.
Meanwhile, rugby union is also competing for space in the football market, with new teams added in Perth and Melbourne, neither of them traditional union cities.
And then there is the A-League, only seven years old, and without the star names its rival football code competitions can boast, but already drawing the punters; Melbourne Victory has higher average crowds than either of the city’s rugby teams.
The market for professional team sports down under has never seemed more crowded, with Australia’s biggest cities now having four codes of football competing for attention, where there was only one a generation ago. Whether the appetite exists for so many different games remains to be seen.