my sporting ventures this month was to the Brazil-Argentina football match at the MCG. I was among the 95,000 drawn out by Leo Messi and company, but really I was pulled along by my ten-year-old nephew, who has the kind of unsullied enthusiasm for the sport you only ever have when you are ten years old.
He has a remarkably deep knowledge of a football played on the other side of the planet, thanks in large part to the FIFA video game. As he talked non-stop about the relative qualities of Argentina’s reserve forwards – Inter’s Mauro Icardi is a favourite – it started me thinking about how different his evolution as a sports fan was to mine.
At his age, I had an equivalent passion for basketball. I subsisted on the local NBL and the one-hour highlights of the NBA that Don Lane delivered in the ’80s and ’90s. By contrast, my nephew has the world of football at the touch of an app, eschews the A-League entirely (he could only name three teams when I pop-quizzed him) and barely watches television, or entire matches, at all.
There were a lot of kids at the MCG that night, and if they’re anything like my nephew, we’ve got a generational cohort that will come to their fandom in a very different way. They won’t be constrained by the fact of where they live, or even how long the game goes for. They’ll follow the way they want to, and it will be sport that has to catch up.
This thought weighed heavily as events played out on and off the field this past month. Australian sport is trying to situate itself in the big, wide world, and it’s a factor that underlies the current haggling going on in our big leagues. Cricket is the most pointed example, a division between officials grasping to keep control and players who now have financial prospects that the sport traditionally didn’t give them.
Even the through-line of this edition tells the story: Joe Daniher signs a three-year $2m deal, almost an exclamation point on the AFL’s new pay agreement with its players. NRL star Valentine Holmes made his own celebrated re-signing earlier in the season, but not before a dalliance with the NFL – becoming near a standard move for rugby types these days. And Aaron Mooy, making less than half of his league and AFL equivalents in the A-League two years ago, recently earned a transfer value heading to the English Premier League that could fill an entire club’s salary cap for a year.
We expect world-class performance in our sport, even when we can’t pay at a worldclass level. With Aussie athletes continuing to fan out over the planet, and Aussie fan interest following suit, the contrast between the local and global becomes more profound. What does a future two-tier (dare we call it two-speed?) Australian sport look like? Or to paraphrase the old Gershwin line: how do you keep ’em at the G once they’ve seen Messi?
We expect world-class performance in our sport, even when we can’t pay at a worldclass level.
The new king of the kids, at the MCG of all places ...