The last 10 years have been a very interesting time in Australian sport.
Over the last ten years we have seen Rugby Union, Boxing and AFL all covet star power of Rugby League players.
Rugby Union was the first. Flushed with funds from its new found professionalism, it was a sport that was very much a niche’ sport in Australia. The ARU felt as though Rugby League players were the best way to crack the mainstream, and to the untrained eye, at times, it looked like it may have been working.
Boxing came called to a lesser extent. The Australian Boxing scene is small time, a lot of blokes who Fight in RSL clubs across Australia. Then Anthony Mundine took the sport up, and with a few of his Rugby League playings mates, they managed to help the sport draw tens of thousands to bouts.
The AFL felt the best way to break into markets in Sydneys western suburbs and on the Gold Coast was to get Rugby League players. So they made two Rugby League players, one of which had never played the sport in his life, the two highest paid players in the history of the AFL.
If you were a neutral observer you’d look at all of this and say “What type of sport is this Rugby League?”.
When you look at the effects we have seen on these other sports after they have had their Rugby League player buying experience, I think its interesting to see if they got the desired effect.
For Rugby Union, the short term interest they gained faded over time. Last year the ARU lost $8 million dollars, the “Super” Rugby Union teams in Australia all run at a loss, and the sport itself has fallen right off the radar.
Television ratings for Rugby Union in Australia are catastrophic. In fact the ARU was forced to give the ABC the rights for club competitions in NSW and QLD to free!
One interesting thing I think we have seen though is that, ten years ago, a die hard Rugby Union fan would not have had any time for Rugby League.
These days, its different. Even the most die hard Union types are up to speed on the goings on in the NRL. Where once they would be loathed to mention the sport, now they actually causally follow the progress of a club.
They openly admire players and things like the State Of Origin and Grand Final. These are things that would never have happened 20 years ago.
For boxing, its links with Rugby League continue to gather momentum. From the Careers of Anthony Mundine and Sonny Bill Williams, to Carl Webb having a very poor bout, to other Rugby League players being lined up for potential bouts.
Hell even Danny Green has strong links to the Parramatta Eels, training with them and even mentioning them after his fights.
For Boxing, the links with Rugby League have meant headline acts. That has translated into bums on seats and that has been a benignity to every level of the sport in Australia.
So now, its the AFL’s turn.
I live 5 minutes from the AFL training ground built at Blacktown. When their West Sydney team is eventually up and running, it will all be done at Homebush, this team has no connection to Blacktown at all.
I can tell you, there is no buzz at all about AFL in Western Sydney. No one cares. Take that from someone that lives here…not from some old bloke that lived in Melbourne for 60+ years!
So will the AFL’s experiment with Rugby League players works? It sure has attracted attention, but before Hunt and Folau have even played a game, attention is falling off fast.
Rugby League has always had a capacity to produce incredible youngsters who come in and replace stars that have left the game. You just had to look at some of the youngsters the Brisbane Broncos brought from no where last year to see, new champions get born every year.
However, in every AFL game Hunt and Folau participate in, the AFL audience will get the constant reminders that, these are two Rugby League players. Every single week, every game they play, they will be the two Rugby League players.
With the insular world of Melbourne sports journalism talking more about Rugby League players over the last 12 months than they ever game….is the Trojan Horse going to have the same reverse effect it had in Rugby Union?
With markets in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth getting treated to the spectacle of “The Rugby League players”, won’t that just raise the profile of Rugby League with traditional AFL fans in those cities, one of which will receive an NRL expansion club in 2012?
In trying to market their sport to Rugby League fans, The AFL has come up with the idea of getting Rugby League players to play AFL. Rugby League fans will no doubt take a look, but at the end of the day, they want to watch Rugby League players playing Rugby League.
For AFL fans, many of which don’t differentiate between Rugby League and Union, the shop front just opened. Now, they will have some interest in where these Rugby League players come from.
I think of you asked the ARU about their experience trying this, they would say it was a mistake. The short term game was replaced by long term heartache.
Interest in the sport didn’t rise long term and yet because of the crazy amount of money they started throwing at players, their costs did. Traditions of a century were tossed out the window for glitz and glamour, and so now the ARU is in a position where its players will forgo Test jerseys for big pay days overseas.
If it didn’t work for Rugby Union, who had more to game and less to lose, how is it going to work out for the AFL in the long run?
The northern states in Australia have had an open sporting market since the country was colonized. Rugby League, Union, Soccer, AFL, Cricket……every sport has always got a run. That has never been the case in southern states where its been Cricket and a stranglehold on AFL from any foreign sports.
The tide is changing, and now, the Trojan Horse is about to be pushed through the gates. When their defenses are down, out will run a couple of Rugby League players entering a new market to try and get new fans to their game.
Welcome to pulling power of Rugby League…