I recently wrote an article where I articulated the business case for eliminating rugby league as a sport.
The piece was met with strong reaction – those vehemently in favour and those steadfastly against the idea – and, as such, I feel compelled to write a follow-up piece.
However, in this piece, I will argue, too, that there is a societal case for eliminating rugby league. And strong new evidence emerged last weekend in the form of Todd Carney’s member.
But more on that later.
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As you already know, rugby league has systemically failed in its attempts to expand its existing market. Indeed, the code is responsible for a litany of failed expansion attempts – and now clings desperately to its existing market share, which I believe will continue to decline as other products take hold.
Many years ago, back when rugby league was built upon suburban rivalries that actually meant something, the code thrived. This is before Super League changed everything. This is before professionalism changed everything.
It’s before we even used the term ‘market share’ in relation to sporting codes.
Of course, rugby league was originally borne out of rugby union. In Northern England, some clubs began reimbursing rugby players for missing work due to football commitments. This was seen as ungentlemanly by the official rugby body, leading to a schism within the competition – and eventually resulting in two separate codes.
Similar shit went down in Australia, too, I believe. Google it if you need to.
Anyway, rugby league was something of a unionist movement, if you will. It appealed to blokes who wanted to play footy yet couldn’t let it get in the way of their paycheck. Union, in contrast, was a “gentlemanly” game – a pursuit rather than a profession.
This history can be seen even today. Rugby league is, and always will be, a working class game played by working class people.
Conversely, rugby (in Australia) is mostly a middle-class game enjoyed by corporates and faux-corporates alike. Sydney private schools compete with each other to lure the next Kurtley Beale over on a free scholarship in order to boost their institutional brand. It’s an old world thing.
The game has its roots in amateurism, but is now corporate as fuck. This evolution was always inevitable given it is a game for the privileged.
This harsh dichotomy – one ‘elitist’ sport and one ‘working class’ sport – creates animosity. One-dimensional ‘Rah rah’ types like TPA adversary Peter FitzSimons can barely conceal their schadenfreude when a rugby league player does something stupid off the field, while rugby league types write union off as a “soft” game where blokes get three points for kicking a penalty.
Imagine if there was just one rugby code? If these two worlds could come together and end this Cold War?
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The rugby league target audience is not a “high-value” customer – and, you know, it never will be.
AFL supporters, in contrast, are happy to part with their dollar and spend it on a membership or merchandise. They attend games in high numbers and ticket sales are generally pretty good.
But rugby league struggles to get a live audience, let alone the backing of blue chip corporations. Why is this?
Personally, I’m not sure what rugby league “means” any more. Is it about huge hits and crushing tackles? No, because that’s a bad look in this 21st Century-PC-gone-mad context. Little Johnny shouldn’t be exposed to Paul Gallen’s thuggery, lest he unleash that same aggression out on the Armenian kid at recess in some kind of copycat Origin tribute.
Is it about the supporters themselves? Clearly not; that was established years ago. Rugby league gave a massive “fuck you” to the fans when it sold them out in an ugly battle over Pay TV rights in the 1990s. The game has never really recovered.
To me, rugby league means Parramatta Westfield, Jessica Mauboy and Jaryd Hayne. It means enduring a terrible CityRail trip to Homebush station and getting bashed on the way home by an unhinged meth addict. It is a weird combination of both The Voice and Ray Warren’s voice.
I, a 28-year-old man, am alienated – and I don’t know how I feel about it anymore.
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In Melbourne, AFL has achieved that rarest of sporting feats: crossover appeal. Go into any Melbourne workplace and you will see that 90% of employees have a “team”. They’re probably all in a “tipping comp.” And not a shitty NRL one where you lose interest after six rounds and automatically get handed the ‘away’ team. But a deadset serious thing, with extra points for individual player performances, etc.
You can wear an AFL scarf around town in Melbourne and you’re just a normal person wearing a scarf, which just happens to be an AFL scarf. It’s not obnoxious to do that. It doesn’t have gang affiliations, like the Oakland Raiders’ gear does in Southern California. It’s just a part of Melbourne life.
Socially, AFL is acceptable. Socially, rugby league has connotations.
And I know that’s not rugby league’s fault. You will see that I’m now referring to rugby league as a person who made a few mistakes as a young adult and perhaps did a bit of time, but now has his shit together (but for how long?).
Unfortunately, however, he will always be judged for his crimes of passion back in the 1990s. And he’ll probably relapse time and time again because we just can’t forgive him.
Rugby league fucked up. You can’t blame rugby league now – but it’s just too far behind, stuck in the 1980s, or even earlier. Rugby league is a sex offender whose crime – an opportunistic assault committed as an 18-year-old at a train station – now prevents it from getting a good job, or living in a nice neighbourhood among children.
It will never live it down – the shadows of the past will haunt rugby league forever.
Rugby league is like Kodak. It did not plan for the digital future – and it is now set to suffer year-on-year declines amid a competitive market.
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Sure, people watch the product on TV, which is why the code can snag a billion dollar live rights deal on a good day.
But is that a good thing? We watch Masterchef and When Love Comes To Town, too. That’s not a good thing.
And then there’s Todd Carney.
Carney’s incredible feat of indecency last weekend was a metaphor for rugby league. Carney, like rugby league, has achieved great things during his short career; however, he will be remembered for all the stupid shit he did – and that will be his enduring legacy.
As I stated earlier, one of the key difference between rugby league and rugby union is that league players, on the whole, generally come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Take the All Blacks, for instance. In New Zealand, rugby is an egalitarian sport played by all, regardless of socio-economic background. Privileged private school white jocks play alongside Maoris and Polynesians from less fortunate backgrounds – and vice versa.
Why can’t we just be like New Zealand?
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Here’s a sentence that you don’t hear every day: I played rugby league while I was studying at The University of Sydney.
I played it ironically to an extent. I graduated from a private school where we were pretty much forced to play rugby union (it was either that or ‘soccer’, which was considered gay in the 1990s, as you well know already). However, being a child of the 1990s, I had always held a nostalgic love for rugby league.
I was a Sydney University student playing rugby league for Sydney University, a really incongruous mix in postwar Australia. But I just wanted to see what it was like to experience the six-tackle game for myself.
The verdict? It was actually really fun. The people were great. I met heaps of different blokes from various backgrounds – both racially and socioeconomically – all of who had a genuine love of rugby league.
But it was fucking brutal, I kid you not. I received an elbow to the face in my first game, which required nine stitches above my right eyebrow.
I still have a scar from that incident due to the fact that I had to get stitched up at a shitty public hospital in Auburn by a doctor whose needle skills were even worse than his English (which was negligible).
As a player, the greatest part of rugby league is the final siren. The game is over and you have, inexplicably, survived. The thrill of having made it through the game unscathed is cause enough to celebrate, let alone if you’ve just posted an incredible win – like Todd Carney had.
There is nothing greater in life than an epic, no-holds-barred, fuck-I-lost-my-wallet piss up after a rugby league game. And I can certainly relate to Todd Carney on that level.
It’s a cathartic release like no other*.
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For me, rugby league was an experience. Like doing the Inca Trail or losing one’s virginity – I just had to tick that box.
But really, rugby league is an incredibly violent game where physicality trumps skill on most occasions. It’s also an incredibly awesome game for those same reasons.
Would we miss rugby league if it were eliminated from our sporting landscape? Yes, of course. Having played the game, I have experienced the camaraderie and general good times that come with being part of a rugby league team.
But our other sports would compensate for it. Rugby union would eventually incorporate the best elements of rugby league (the tackling, the playmaking, the short-kicking) and assimilate it into the code.
Meanwhile, juniors who are not interested in rugby union would look elsewhere to soccer and basketball – or even AFL – and Australia’s sporting imbalance would be corrected.
I know that I am in effect advocating an assimilation policy whereby rugby league’s culture will be watered down and eventually become non-existent – or near enough to it.
But this is not Australia’s racist White Australia Policy – and rugby league is not Indigenous Australia. This is sport. This is Australia, and we must look to the future, and leave (elements of) the past behind.**
This is the Asian Century, don’t forget. We must look abroad and seek offshore opportunities or risk fading into sporting obscurity.
Having two extremely similar sports – rules-wise – chewing up each other’s market share while thwarting our potential to dominate global sports just doesn’t make sense.
Who am I to play God, you ask?
I’m just a guy who’s looking at the big picture. And I want Australia to become the truly global sporting power that I know it can be.
By Dave Edwards
* This might be a long bow, but I reckon this might have something to do with the higher proportion of sexual assaults and rapes among NRL players, as opposed to, say, table tennis players, who probably just go home for a pot of Chamomile Tea after a three-set victory. I’m scared to make this point in the body text though, which is why I’m burying it in this footnote in the hope you haven’t read this far. I’m pretty confident you haven’t read this far.
** This sentence is a partial paraphrasing of Lindfield East Public School’s (LEPS) official school song, entitled ‘Learn and Live’. I attended this institution from Kindergarten to Year 4 (1991-1995).