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?
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 [ ]. 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?