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Crossing the Barassi Line

Edward Furst on footy preferences across Australia

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A couple of years ago, I moved from Tasmania to Sydney to begin uni, and, unsurprisingly, there were some noticeable differences between the two places. Sydney is a lot hotter, larger, and its people are generally less-friendly. But while these differences may have been expected, I observed another difference between the Apple Isle and Harbour City that was less explicable: the dominant code of football.

In Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and West Australia, the dominant code is Australian Football League, whilst in New South Wales and Queensland the most popular form of football is rugby, mostly rugby league.

With both the AFL and NRL finals played over the long weekend past, it seemed an appropriate time to investigate why Australia’s football distribution is so. After all, soccer’s popularity is fairly uniform across the country, and cricket is generally recognised as the Australian summer sport. So why is the country divided when it comes to football?

It turns out this divide is a recognised phenomenon called the ‘Barassi Line’, a term coined by Ian Turner at the 1978 Ron Barassi Memorial lecture. It originated in the 1850s with the establishment of AFL, then called Melbourne Rules, and subsequently Victorian Rules. The game proved popular in its home state and was hesitantly taken on across the country. Inter-colonial rivalries, however, lead to resistance to its uptake in NSW. The Sydney press aided its rebuke – “had it been dubbed Scandinavian rules, well and good; but Victorian – perish the thought!” wrote one newspaper. Attempts at inter-colonial games resulted in representative teams from NSW and Victoria playing a number of matches of Victorian Rules in the early 1880s, but humiliating defeats on behalf of the NSW team only energised the Sydney press’ rejection of the game.

Meanwhile, organised rugby union began life in Sydney, with three clubs: University of Sydney (1863), Sydney (1865), and Wallaroo (1870). In this early period, the sport was predominantly played by those from society’s upper echelons, and embraced by private schools and the University. The success of a number of inter-colonial contests between QLD and NSW in 1882 led to the establishment of the Central Queensland Rugby Union in 1886 and the spread of the game in the northern state.

As union’s popularity grew, aided by a number of international matches against Great Britain, its appeal broadened among the population. Union’s ultimate inability to meet the needs of the working class, however, led to the creation of the NSW Rugby Football League in 1907, codifying the split between union and league. Both forms of rugby seem to be tied to their deep geographical roots.

Despite the historical basis for each code’s distinct development, the divide today, based on game attendance, television ratings, and participation, has persisted. A study of AFL and NRL TV ratings during the period 2007-2011 shows NSW and QLD account for 93 per cent of NRL viewers, while VIC, SA, WA, TAS account for 81 per cent of AFL viewers. The division becomes more severe when narrowed down to NSW and VIC, and further, just Sydney and Melbourne.

Both codes have recognised the importance of expanding beyond the Barassi Line to grow, and have been actively doing so since the 1990s, resulting in new top tier clubs in non-Barassi areas, extending broadcasting rights, and a focus on promoting the sport at a grassroots level in non-Barassi areas. Progress has been made, with 2012 being the first year both the AFL and NRL premierships were won by teams from the other side. This year’s finals both feature teams from across the divide.

Despite this expansion, it is clear that both codes have a long way to go before either can truly claim to be an ‘all-Australian’ sport. The Barassi Line points to entrenched loyalties, and a Western Bulldogs banner displayed at their preliminary clash with the AFL’s newest team, Greater Western Sydney Giants, two weeks ago, sums up persistent attitudes: “our club was born in blood and boots, not in AFL focus groups”.