Are We Be­ing Played?

The com­pe­ti­tion in our na­tion’s sport­ing mar­ket, a.k.a. the Code Wars, has turned into open con­flict. Can’t we all like more than one game?

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - BY MATT CLEARY

THIS NA­TION HAS BEEN TOUTED AS THE MOST COM­PET­I­TIVE SPORT­ING MAR­KET IN THE WORLD–AND THAT’S PURELY OFF THE FIELD. AUSSIE FANS USED TO BE ABLE TO LOVE MORE THAN ONE SPORT, BUT NOW FIND THEM­SELVES DRAGGED INTO THE MU CK OF A PH ON Y, PROXY CODE WAR. JUST WHY IS THAT?

INTHESE in­creas­ingly in­ter­con­nected, yet in­su­lar, mod­ern times in which many of us wan­der about heads-down “con­sum­ing” what­ever im­per­a­tive has just pinged up into our tele­phones, the way you know a thing is a “thing” is if it has a hash­tag. If some­thing has a hash­tag, that makes it a thing, makes it part of our cul­tural zeit­geist.

Aus­tralian sport has one. It’s called “#code­wars” and it’s what hap­pens when­ever some­one bags or sup­ports a sport, or says any­thing about a sport at all. And like the damnable squawk­ing bloody phones, it’s be­come a pain in the bloody arse.

#Code­wars de­notes the petty squab­bling and dis­tance-wee-wee com­pe­ti­tions Aus­tralian sports fans, play­ers, ad­min­is­tra­tors, me­dia, mar­ke­teers – the whole blessed job lot of us – en­gage in on be­half of “our” pre­ferred sport. It’s like we have to den­i­grate the other guys’ game to high­light the pri­macy of “ours”. And we’re dashed com­bat­ive and sen­si­tive about it in equal mea­sure.

They don’t this in other coun­tries. Not in Bel­gium or Be­larus, Kenya or Canada. Not in the dear, sweet, in­sane United States. Not in Eng­land or Ire­land or the Isle of Skye. Even our clos­est fam­ily, the Ki­wis, our funny lit­tle cuzzy-bros, don’t en­gage in this te­dious bick­er­ing about which sport has the big­gest dick.

We don’t do it with other stuff. We don’t get de­fen­sive about the mer­its of the iPhone over the Black­berry over the Sam­sung Galaxy S8+ with the 802.11ac MIMO. Peo­ple watch Net­flix or Stan, eat at Mc­Don­alds or KFC or a Bondi kale house. You can drink a beer, play a pokie or smoke what­ever brand of cig­a­rette that will one day kill you, and you won’t feel the need to stand up for the damned things if some­one has a crack at them on the in­ter­net.

Granted the na­ture of said world-wide “web” of com­put­ers known as the in­ter­net has a bit to do with it. Peo­ple say things on­line they wouldn’t say in per­son. Many seem to have a re­flex to knock some­thing, to take the di­a­met­ri­cally opposed “al­ter­nate” view­point, to make ad­vo­cacy for the devil him­self. And thus they can come across as, how can one put this … they come across as fuck­wits. See: Mark Latham.

Hell, you could tweet about your love for sunny spring days and some nark would high­light the dan­gers of skin cancer. Day­light sav­ing is like this. Con­text and nu­ance can be lost in 140 characters even with all the emo­jis in in­ter­net Chris­ten­dom.

The me­dia plays its part, of course. Colum­nists know which but­tons to press. You want a bunch of “hits” on the pa­per’s web page? Want to get the pun­ters jiggy un­der the line? Knock out some pithy prose about why “soc­cer” should be called “foot­ball” or “rugby” should be called “union”. Tell us why rugby league can’t be “the great­est game of all” or that Aus­tralian rules is lesser for booing a black man. They’ll pour over the parapets like beer­gar­gling Visigoths.

Con­sider beer. Dear, sweet beer. Once

TELL US WHY RUGBY LEAGUE CAN’T BE “THE GREAT­EST GAME OF A LL” OR THAT AUS­TRALIAN RULES IS LESSER FOR BOOING A B LACK MAN. THEY’LL POUR OVER THE PARAPETS LIKE BEER GARGLING VISIGOTHS.

upon a time you drank Tooheys in New South Wales, XXXX in Queens­land, and Swan in the great golden west. Vic­to­ria Bit­ter was ev­ery­where (and ap­par­ently Australia’s “favourite” beer be­cause a mar­ke­teer, prob­a­bly John Sin­gle­ton, told us) which for some rea­son you couldn’t get it on tap but you could get Fos­ter’s. Ad­ver­tis­ers played on parochial­ism un­til they worked out it was bet­ter for one’s prof­its if they sold the stuff to ev­ery­body rather than a state-based sub-sec­tion. To­day Fosters is in Europe and XXXX Gold is ev­ery­where.

Pro sports have gone the same way for the same rea­son. Af­fec­ta­tions to a “na­tional” com­pe­ti­tion are the new black. It was an ar­gu­ment for re­tain­ing West­ern Force, for a “foot­print”. Even be­fore the Force was punted, the league journo Steve Mascord lamented that: “No one at League Cen­tral seems in the least bit in­ter­ested in jump­ing into the gulf.” The NRL an­nounced a dou­ble­header for 2018 round one at Perth Sta­dium.

There’s 1.8 mil­lion con­sumers in Perth. Ad­min­is­tra­tors and TV types want a bit of that ac­tion for the same rea­son they’ve plonked Gi­ants in the greater golden west of Syd­ney and not in Tas­ma­nia, which is mad for the game but con­tains less eye­balls.

Of course it comes back, as ev­ery­thing does, to money. If you want to know why tele­vi­sion talk­ing heads and pun­dits will talk about one sport and den­i­grate an­other, cock a cyn­i­cal eye­brow and ask where the buck stops. Super League was naked for it. The Daily Tele­graph was once a flatout cor­po­rate brochure for the com­pany’s ex­pan­sion­ist vision.

It rolls on to­day. Ru­pert Mur­doch said he’d favour Aussie rules when the NRL signed a deal with Chan­nel Nine. But he’s no fool. The AFL might get a big­ger push here and there but Bris­bane’s Courier

Mail and Syd­ney’s Daily Tele­graph are league pa­pers, just as the Her­ald Sun is for Aus­tralian rules. Mur­doch isn’t go­ing to prej­u­dice cir­cu­la­tion.

Why do we, the peo­ple, con­tinue to ar­gue that “our” code is bet­ter than some­one else’s? Why do we go into bat, of­ten vo­cif­er­ously, for a sport? Why are we fight­ing a proxy war for codes and clubs and me­dia barons about which game is “the best”?

Why can’t we like more than one thing? Why, in the sports-lov­ing coun­try of Australia, must we pick and stick, and then fight for that brand over an­other one? Are we fools for love? Are we pawns in a pow­er­strug­gle be­tween bankers and lawyers and ti­tans of me­dia who fight to the death for spon­sor­ship, spec­ta­tors and the sweet pump­kin pie of TV rights rev­enue? Are we all be­ing played? ˜

WHEN David Hill came to Australia from Eng­land as a 12-year-old in 1958, he was in­stantly struck by how much more ag­gres­sively and com­pet­i­tively Aus­tralians played sport than they did in Eng­land. “I was fas­ci­nated by how Aus­tralians played sport. It was so much more com­bat­ive and hard,” he says. “And it was ev­ery­where. And I loved it.”

Hill came on a boat and was put into an or­phan­age in Mo­long out­side Or­ange in cen­tral west NSW. He moved to Syd­ney, worked hard in a num­ber of me­nial jobs and played ju­nior rep footy for the North Syd­ney Bears. He be­came head of NSW State Rail (aged 33), then went on to run the ABC, Soc­cer Australia and the Bears. To­day he’s the au­thor of The Fair And The Foul – In­side Our Sport­ing Na­tion. So we ask him: “David Hill. #Code­wars. What’s do­ing?” “I think it’s the na­ture of Aus­tralians

and sport; we’re more com­bat­ive gen­er­ally,” says Hill. “As peo­ple sup­port their team in any par­tic­u­lar foot­ball code against all other teams, they sup­port their code against other codes. I think it’s con­sis­tent with the Aus­tralian ethos.”

Hill nods along to the journo’s hy­poth­e­sis that such striv­ing, thrust­ing com­bat­ive­ness could be part of our con­vict roots. But Hill points to a later time, in the mid-to-late 19th cen­tury, when Aus­tralians be­gan playing games en masse. Hill says we’d in­her­ited sports from the Brits and in­vented one of our own. And we be­gan playing them in an egal­i­tar­ian way. The Aus­tralian way.

“Sport un­til then had been played by up­per-class English gen­tle­men, men of leisure,” says Hill. “But Aus­tralians took elit­ist sports and made them pop­u­lar, and made them ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­body. A higher pro­por­tion of Aus­tralians were playing sports than they were in the UK. It’s part of the Aus­tralian egal­i­tar­ian spirit.”

An­other Brit, Si­mon Hill (no re­la­tion) is a foot­ball an­a­lyst on Fox Sports and au­thor of Just A Gob On A Stick – The Voice Be­hind The Mic. When he came to Australia in 2003 to take up a gig talk­ing sport on SBS, he boned up on Johnny Warren’s book Shielas, Wogs And Poofters to ac­cli­ma­tise him­self with the lay of the Aus­tralian sports land­scape. It gave him “a bit of an inkling,” smiles Hill about where soc­cer stood. Hill didn’t know the half of it.

“When you come from a coun­try, as most peo­ple do, where foot­ball is king – or at the very least a well-re­spected part of the sports land­scape – it’s baf­fling to walk into a coun­try where not only is it not num­ber one, but peo­ple are openly hos­tile to­wards it. You can’t get your head around it. You think, ‘Hang on a minute. This is not cul­tural war­fare, it's sport!’”

Hill points to “iden­tity pol­i­tics” in Aus­tralians’ his­tor­i­cal an­tipa­thy to soc­cer/ foot­ball/”the world game”/”wog­ball”, call it what you will, and we have. “Rugby league and Aussie rules devel­oped as ma­jor sports be­cause Australia wanted to see it­self as be­ing dif­fer­ent to the UK. [Quite where cricket fits into that, I have no idea!] But there was al­most like a de­lib­er­a­tion: we are not go­ing to be a ‘foot­ball’ coun­try. And that prej­u­dice is still sort of quite strong to­day.

“Ob­vi­ously it’s changed, it’s wa­tered down an aw­ful lot, even since I ar­rived in the coun­try. But I’ve still been told a mil­lion times that ‘proper Aussies don’t play soc­cer’; that ‘this is not our game’.”

As re­cently as new year’s eve in 2016, Hill was at a flash party in Syd­ney’s CBD and chat­ting to a lady in her 50s who asked what he did. “I’m a foot­ball com­men­ta­tor,” said Hill. The lady replied: “Oh, ‘soc­cer’, you mean?”

“So that’s the first thing: you have to know your place,” says Hill. “It has to be ‘soc­cer’.

“I said, ‘Look, you can call it soc­cer if you want, I don’t have a prob­lem with that as long as I can call it foot­ball. She says ‘No, you’re in Australia, you have to call it soc­cer.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have to call it any­thing.’

“Then out she came with the usual di­a­tribe of hooli­gans, div­ing, eth­nic­ity, blah blah blah. It was just the usual stere­op­typ­i­cal stuff that’s re­peated ad nau­seum and which has be­come part of peo­ple’s ac­cepted wis­dom. Prej­u­dices are re­ally hard to shift.”

§

CON­SIDER Can­berra. Peo­ple knock it still: cold, ster­ile, all that. But it’s be­com­ing al­most cool, Can­berra. And for a sports-mad kid, it was mag­nif­i­cent. Sure, it was cold. But there were four sea­sons. And you didn’t know any bet­ter. Didn’t ev­ery­one play footy on crusty, white frost? And didn’t ev­ery­one play and fol­low all the sport they could eat?

Aged six, I played rugby for Hawks. Aged seven, I was left-wing for West Wo­den

WHEN YOU COME FROM A C OUNTRY, AS MOST PEO­PLE DO, WHERE FOOT­BALL IS KING, IT’S BAF­FLING TO WALK INTO A COUN­TRY WHERE NOT ONLY IS IT NOT NUM­BER ONE BUT PEO­PLE ARE OPENLY HOS­TILE TO­WARDS IT.

Ju­ven­tus. Year later, I was ruck-rover with Wo­den Bul­lants. Sum­mer was cricket. Year­round you’d tool about with golf sticks, ten­nis rac­quets. On the BMX we were Evel Knievel to a man.

In 1977, a team turned up called Can­berra City, which played in the NSL. Johnny Warren was coach. The mass roar of 10,000 voices at Bruce Sta­dium when Ivan Gruicic slammed a penalty into the net is my ear­li­est, strong­est mem­ory of watch­ing sport. Can­berra was Sport Town.

We’d go to see David Cam­pese run­ning around for Quean­beyan Whites. We’d watch Michael O’Con­nor – a lo­cal boy, from our sub­urb, a Hawk! – play for Roy­als and the ACT and Australia. We’d go down to Phillip Oval and watch Kevin “Cow­boy” Neale play full-for­ward for Ainslie, this bril­liant, mous­ta­chioed, bor­der­line-im­mo­bile beer- bar­rel of a man who’d played for St Kilda back in the day, and now stood at full­for­ward for Ainslie tak­ing strong pack marks and kick­ing goals which we’d catch be­hind the sticks in packs of 20 kids. He was a beauty, Cow­boy, and Can­berra was an ACTAFL town.

Then the Raiders turned up in ’82 and we were all aboard the Green Ma­chine. I still played Aus­tralian rules for the Bul­lants, and played league and union at school, and cricket in sum­mer be­cause that’s what you did. Can­berra City be­came the Ar­rows and Frank Fa­rina played for them, and Can­berra Can­nons won the bas­ket­ball with Phil Smyth as the Gen­eral, and there was a bloke called Andy Camp­bell who had to duck to get through the doors of the pub we learned to avoid the many fights at, The States­man, which I can guar­an­tee has never con­tained any states­men.

Then I ac­quired drink­ing age and played rugby for Roy­als be­cause some mates did and they went on tours to Syd­ney and New Or­leans and Ar­gentina where they made love with Ar­gen­tini­ans and drank rather a lot of beer, and won all the time. And they were re­ally good times.

And the Raiders con­tin­ued to win and that was grouse and I kept playing union and nip­ping up to Syd­ney to watch the Bombers play the Swans. Then Super League rooted rugby league, be­fore ACT Brumbies played ad­ven­tur­ous “run­ning” rugby. Then I went to Lon­don and watched Man U and Arse­nal at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium, and drank in a pub in High­bury in which beer dripped from the roof when Arse­nal won the FA Cup 2-0. And I watched Australia win cricket’s World Cup at Lord’s and the Wal­la­bies win the ’99 World Cup in Cardiff, and didn’t watch rugby league for maybe five years.

Then I came home and I did. And I still do, and the Raiders are up and the Brumbies are down, and there are no Ar­rows or Can­nons, and Gi­ants have staked a pole in Manuka Oval and … here we are. And you’re won­der­ing if I’ll get to the freak­ing point.

Which is this: why can’t we like more than one sport? Why must we pick holes

in the ones we’re not that flash on? Why the re­lent­less fo­cus on neg­a­tive stereo­types? Why the in­cessent prej­u­dices? Why do we chip each other so? Why must we let the me­dia over­lords and mar­ke­teers and the money men twist us?

Aren’t we sunny, op­ti­mistic types? Who ac­tu­ally are we? I once emailed a Queens­land Reds me­dia per­son to re­quest an interview with their cap­tain, James Hor­will. And I sug­gested, for some­thing dif­fer­ent, colour­ful, to en­thuse and build rap­port with the man in a re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment, that we con­duct our chat in a pri­vate box at Sun­corp Sta­dium while watch­ing State of Ori­gin.

Sound good to you? Of course it does. How good would that have been? Drink beer, talk rugby, watch league, call it work. It would’ve sounded good to Hor­will, too, if he’d ever been in­vited. In­stead the me­dia per­son replied “Is he kid­ding? He wants our cap­tain to pro­mote rugby league?” (She’d done “Re­ply All” and for­got­ten to take my email ad­dress off.) So yes, such a sug­ges­tion was anath­ema. She was a sol­dier in the code wars tak­ing things se­ri­ously. These peo­ple fight it. It’s about brand­ing, per­cep­tions and eye­balls on screens. It’s about money. And it’s all very te­dious.

We’re al­ways be­ing told Australia has the world’s most “com­pet­i­tive sport­ing mar­ket” be­cause there’s four codes of foot­ball and cricket. Ten­nis and golf eke out lit­tle “win­dows” of op­por­tu­nity and suck on a month in the sun. The V8s get Bathurst. Horse rac­ing gets a spring. Bas­ket­ball does its best, clam­our­ing like ev­ery­one for me­dia, for time in the sun. And when me­dia ef­fec­tively ig­nores a sport, it can in­fu­ri­ate the foot soldiers.

Ten­nis’s col­umn inches are taken up by dopey rich chil­dren be­ing naughty over­seas. Horse rac­ing is pop­u­lar be­cause of Aus­tralians’ dopey mug love of the punt. Swim­ming lives through tax­pay­ers’ lust for qua­dren­nial gold medal­lions. Golf gets noth­ing in the news but does have a pod­cast. Club rugby ex­ists be­cause it’s more than the sum of its parts and be­cause wealthy peo­ple.

David Hill, though, be­lieves we can all get along. “A fun­da­men­tal point I make in the book is this: Aus­tralians can’t get enough sport,” he says. “The growth and vi­a­bil­ity of one sport doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean a loss to the other, be­cause Aus­tralians are con­sum­ing sport more now than ever.

“They’re not go­ing to the games, Aussie rules aside. In rugby league cities, Syd­ney and Bris­bane, even with huge pop­u­la­tion in­creases, there hasn’t been a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease in the size of the crowds.

“But there has been a huge in­crease in tele­vi­sion num­bers. And this is where the money’s come from.

“The defin­ing fea­ture of Aus­tralian pro­fes­sional sport has been the growth in tele­vi­sion rights. This year Aussie rules will get $500 mil­lion from tele­vi­sion rights. I bought the 1987 rights [for the ABC] for $1.5 mil­lion.

“So now you’ve got free-to-air com­pet­ing

with pay TV. Ev­ery game of all four foot­ball codes is shown live on tele­vi­sion. Now that can only hap­pen if peo­ple are watch­ing it. So sport is still driv­ing subscription tele­vi­sion in Australia. And that’s why it’s pos­si­ble for soc­cer to con­tinue to grow and not nec­es­sar­ily be a threat to the supremacy of Aussie rules or, to a lesser ex­tent, rugby league.”

But can we, the peo­ple, the Aus­tralian sports fans, walk and chew gum and flick down a Coca-Cola Yo-Yo to “walk the dog”? Can we fol­low, sup­port – ver­ily con­sume – Wan­der­ers and Brumbies and Bull­dogs of both stripes? We can, ac­cord­ing to Hill. To an ex­tent, any­way.

“Each per­son can only con­sume a cer­tain amount. When I said Aus­tralians can’t get enough sport, I don’t think they’re go­ing to fol­low four foot­ball codes.

“But I do think you’ll find a lot of peo­ple fol­low more than one and I think that will in­creas­ingly be the fu­ture. Par­tic­u­larly be­cause most of the foot­ball codes have gone na­tional.

“Look at Aussie rules. It was the VFL for a hun­dred years and it was the most col­lo­quial, back­ward-look­ing, in­su­lar, re­tarded com­pe­ti­tion in Australia. And now of course the AFL has at least two teams in most states of Australia.

“So yes, it’s pos­si­ble to be a Bron­cos sup­porter and also sup­port the lo­cal AFL team, or Bris­bane Roar. I think you’ll find a lot of peo­ple do sup­port more than one. I don’t think many would sup­port four.”

The good news for sport is that con­sumers – you, me, all us fans – are driv­ing the de­mand. And as long as we want to watch sport, want to pay for sub­scrip­tions on tele­vi­sion, and buy news­pa­pers and crack­er­jack glossy na­tional sport­ing jour­nals de­liv­ered straight to your door, and lis­ten to com­mer­cial ra­dio – and all the rest – sport in Australia will con­tinue on the up-and-up. As Roy & HG will tell you: Too much sport is never enough. We bloody love it.

But we should bloody love all of it. Now, not to come over all Grampa Simp­son shout­ing at a cloud, but we should stop bag­ging other sports. We should stop with the neg­a­tiv­ity. All sports have good bits and bad bits. Fo­cus on the good. Aus­tralian rules’ high mark­ing is per­haps the most spec­tac­u­lar ath­letic feat in world sport. Leaguies? See it live. It’s un­be­liev­able. Mel­bourne Storm have trot­ted out the great­est league play­ers there’s ever been, owned a dy­nasty of win­ning. Get over to AAMI, Mel­bur­ni­ans. Are you mad?

Spend a Satur­day af­ter­noon with a tin­nie on a hill at Rat Park or Coogee Oval or Bal­ly­more. See the Port and Crows derby game. See the Bledis­loe Cup. Sit among 60,000 singers at Wan­der­ers and Syd­ney FC, at Vic­tory and Mel­bourne City and tell us “soc­cer’s bor­ing”. You flat-out won’t be able to.

When Si­mon Hill ar­rived in Australia 15 years ago he says he was open to all sports. He’s from the north of Eng­land and used to watch rugby league. He didn’t know any­thing about Aussie rules but was cu­ri­ous about it. He says he was quite happy to watch all sports. Within 12 months he was down and dirty in the trenches, writ­ing feisty col­umns, fight­ing code wars with ev­ery­one else.

“I be­came en­trenched in these code wars be­cause there was so much dis­re­spect shown to the sport that I loved,” says Hill. “So it al­most be­comes a de­fault po­si­tion. You bed your­selves in be­hind the lines and fight your cor­ner. Which is ridicu­lous, ju­ve­nile, child­ish. But it’s hu­man na­ture, un­for­tu­nately.”

Ka­t­rina Gorry's young fans can ac­tu­ally fol­low soc­cer AND sup­port both the AFL's [ ] and NRL's Tigers [ ­€ ]. ­ƒ „…†‡ The Force faith­ful on the at­tack.

With new sta­di­ums to fill such as Perth's ( ) and Gi­ant stakes in Syd­ney's west (  ), the bosses of the var­i­ous codes ( ­€‚ ) are locked in Origin­like com­pe­ti­tion.

Pick a foot­ball, but only one ... with the codes urg­ing us to join up ( ), will there be enough of us to watch?

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