Can Melbourne Handle the Stark Realities of Rugby League Laid Bare?

I last lived in Melbourne in 2009, when studying a post-graduate course.

The world was different then. Kevin Rudd was dolling out stimulus packages like they were TAFE certificates. The standard price of a café latte hovered around the A$3.00 mark. MasterChef was in its debut season – and its triumvirate of hosts, Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, weighed in at a combined 500kg.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the past five years, however, is Melbourne’s dominance of rugby league – and the people of Melbourne’s complete indifference to that fact.

I now live in Melbourne again. And I have discovered that rugby league is still yet to capture the imagination of the Melbourne audience, save for the occasional token State of Origin fixture.

When I lived down here last, Melbourne Storm games were screened on free-to-air at midnight – assuming, of course, it was a the Friday night or Sunday afternoon game to which Channel Nine had the rights.

But now that the recent digital switchover has taken place, lucky Melbourne viewers with a set-top box or digital TV can watch games on Channel Nine’s digital affiliate Go at the same time as their Sydney counterparts.

Former comms minister Stephen Conroy, presided over the digital switchover
Former comms minister Stephen Conroy: presided over the digital switchover

However, I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing for rugby league in Melbourne.

Why, you ask?

Because it exposes the Melbourne audience to awful rugby league fixtures such as the game I witnessed last Sunday: Canterbury vs St George.

The Melbourne populace doesn’t know much about rugby league. And frankly, the less it knows, the better. The code is possibly best served in Melbourne by showing Storm games and nothing else.

Expertly edited montages of Billy Slater scything through helpless defensive lines. Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy thrusting premiership trophies into the air. Those glorious images are what the Melbourne audience has become accustomed to. The occasional reminder that, yeah, the Melbourne Storm is good.

But that’s only if the NRL is content to keep things as they are. To hold onto the market share it does enjoy in Melbourne, rather than attempt to make serious in-roads into AFL’s true heartland.

I do fear the stark realities of rugby league laid bare may be too much for the AFL-loving Melbourne public to swallow. A depressing Bulldogs v Dragons game? That’s like forcing them to read Sylvia Plath’s greatest hits.

A North Queensland v Canberra game at Dairy Farmers? There is no more alienating experience in the world than sitting through such a fixture on a Saturday night as you gorge yourself on a box of Arnott’s Pizza Shapes, wondering what the fuck your life has become.

Dairy Farmers Stadium, a bleak, soulless piece of architecture
Dairy Farmers Stadium, a bleak, soulless piece of architecture

Sure, Melbourne-based Foxtel subscribers will have experienced a greater depth of NRL coverage, including the aforementioned Super Saturday fixture. But those free-to-air viewers will have only ever known rugby league as described by Ray Warren.

Like the federal Labor Party, Rabs is undeniably in decline. In fact, he has quite possibly been in decline since the 1970s (ditto Labor Party), we just didn’t know any better.

But Rabs’ decline seems to be more evident in these latter years as he cascades into an irreversible state of senility. He alone cannot grow the game in new pastures. Ray Warren is weary; Ray Warren has done enough.

But the Channel Nine coverage is frankly terrible – as reported by TPA senior editor Alasdair McClintock last month – and will not help to grow rugby league in foreign cities.

So is Melbourne a no-go zone for rugby league, save for the isolated success of the Storm? Why, despite the NRL looking to expand the competition after a year in which it achieved a A$50 million profit, is no one is talking about putting a potential second team in Melbourne?

Melbourne is a huge market. Thing is, the appetite is strong for the incumbent product, AFL. Why? Because they don’t know any better. Culturally, emotionally and logistically, AFL is the only game in town.

Melburnians are weird.
Melburnians are weird, culturally.

That said, rugby league was the number one code in Western Sydney 10 years ago. Since then, the A-League and the AFL have both sauntered in and achieved immediate success – from both a commercial perspective and, increasingly, on the pitch.

If I know anything about Melbourne people, it’s that they appreciate a good live sporting event. However, they won’t settle for anything second rate. AFL clubs are run in the corporate manner of an ASX 500 company. Money is invested and returns are made. Profits are generated. The product is good. And the shareholders are happy.

Melbourne will remain a strong rugby league side for years to come. But if the rugby league brains trust continues to under-invest in a market of some 5 million people, then perhaps the game will continue to leak overall market share to its major rival, AFL.

So perhaps the time has come to take a chance on Western Melbourne, just as the AFL and A-League took a chance on Western Sydney? The Storm’s success alone will not grow the game in Melbourne – and the NRL can’t rely on Smith-Slater-Cronk montages forever.

Or I guess we could just put a team in Ipswich and tell ourselves we’re helping grow the game.

By Dave Edwards

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