Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lessons from other codes: ARU over-stretch

Up to the mid 1990s the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) had not threatened Aussie rules and rugby leagues domination of the gate take for top level Australian winter sport. Then came the rugby leagues stumbles. The cat fight for media control through News Corp's super league. Player off-field misbehaviour at last being found unacceptable. The allegations of corruption. The Australian Rugby League's mixed results in spreading their game beyond its club's geographic heartland including its failed first Gold Coast move. And the clubs' own financial mis-endeavours (Bulldogs and others). Aussie rules strategic moves were for some fans just as painful but perhaps more successful.

The ARU, always backed by the well to do in New South Wales, took its opportunity to make its game more accessible. World Cup success and founding of the tri-nation super 12 gave Australian's upper crust the opportunity for regular international sporting holidays and world class competition for the masses in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. However, the attractions of the top level detracted from the interest in the local club competition where the gate take faded.

Unlike other sports, the inter-change between countries is limited for union players. So for around two thirds of super matches fans can cheer their team and their country. Things were going well. Brisbane recognised that coaching was its critical area to improve to make the top four and it focused on enticing recently deposed national team coach Eddie Jones.

Success encouraged the sport of CEOs to expand from 12 to 14 super teams. In South Africa and New Zealand, where union is the number one winter sport, filling another team may not be a huge challenge. But Australia's decision to spread to Aussie Rules obsessed Perth, albeit with its large ex-British population, would stretch the game.

Perth had few local players. Drawing players from the successful Canberra and Sydney teams would prove expensive, and therefore had to focus on quality. For the rest of the pack, young relatively lowly paid Brisbane based players would be targeted. Queensland Reds were caught with their eyes, and expectations, on a new coach and had the depth in its side robbed. This came at the time the Reds were completing their risky move from its own 20,000 seat Ballymore ground to the more expensive Land Park - that required 20,000 patrons to breakeven.

Overall for Australian union, the early route was to buy players from rugby league. But it takes a unique player to successfully cross-over mid career, and many players have used offers as an opportunity to go back to their home club and ask for more (Joey for one). Rugby league also rightly saw losing its stars as a foundamental threat. And now the league players that did make the move are being tempted back as rugby league lifts its game and wins its fans and corporate dollars back from union.

Last year, in the Western Force's first year, both sides paid the price. The Force looked inexperienced and the Reds lacked depth. The super league impact on the local competition appears to have limited the new stars coming through. And four teams look too many for Australian union. This year the Reds have lost game after game, their pack looks injury prone and crowd numbers at home have fallen to a loss making 17,000. Its ability to buy new players next year looks challenged. As their squad matures, the Force are fairing better. However, no Australian side looks likely to make the top 4. The introduction of the fourth team has forced up player prices, particularly for the small number of Australian game winners, and weakened teams. Then poor performances in the tough super 14 international competition has turned the crowds off.

Thus clubs have been weakened before taking the next step, poaching from New Zealand, South Africa, England, South America and the European clubs. And in union, few want to play for the enemy.

I feel sure Frank Lowy foresaw these lessons when he limited the A-League to 8 teams.


wayne said...

Rather foretelling of you talking about the ARU john with the resignation of matt carrol today. Lowy seems to recruit from the most organised code at the time - O,neil and carrol from union back in 2004, Buckley from aussie rules in 2006-7. A sound strategy I think. Ive just read "Shoot Out" by Ross Solly chronicling 30 years of Nsl and soccer australia- absolutely horrendous. Union still has a way to go to fcuk up that bad, but the link between junior development and the top flight is crucial to the ongoing health and quality of a code. I for one can cope with an eight team comp for a few years yet. said...

agrh, Wayne. Why torture yourself?

It’s hard to be anything but impressed with the way Australian football has been run under Lowy, even if you don’t agree with every little administrative detail.

Hopefully he finds someone in the Ben Buckley mould to replace Matt Carroll. Buckley talks about the potential for football in the region being enormous, but the potential for him personally is equally large and hopefully we can entice more great administrators.

Great article.