For sports fans outside of the country, it generally comes as something of a surprise to learn what the most popular sport in Australia is.
Most would anticipate the love of rugby – with both codes feverishly followed – to be reflected in huge attendances and TV viewing figures but it is actually Australian rules football that remains the most popular sport Down Under.
The AFL broke its own attendance record for a third consecutive year in 2019, with some 6,984,771 attending games in the competition.
That is a positive headline in itself, however the reality is that those numbers are actually stagnating somewhat. In 2005, the total AFL attendance was 6,283,788, so perhaps the competition isn’t moving forward as quickly in popularity as its organisers might like.
'AFL Grand Final' by Flickerd (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Will that manifest itself in the other sports gaining in numbers? Well, looking at the attendance figures of the Australian A-League, the country’s leading soccer tournament, the answer is perhaps not.
In the 2017/18 season, the average attendance at A-League matches was down to 11,322 per game after hitting a high of 14,610 just a decade prior.
One sport that is bucking the trend for fan participation is rugby league, with the NRL enjoying a 2.29% increase in attendances from 2017 to 2018 – in real terms, that was some 60,000 or so people.
So why is rugby flourishing, whereas Aussie rules football and soccer crowds are, at best, flat-lining?
Stars Who Shine
As far as soccer is concerned, a lack of major Australian stars is clearly hampering the growth of the game Down Under.
In the past, the likes of Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka have gone on to star in the English Premier League and the Champions League, helping to foster a bit of respect for the country’s ability to produce world stars.
That generation of players has helped the Socceroos gain some traction too, with the whole country getting behind the teams that qualified for the World Cup in 2006, 2010 and 2014.
In 2018, they finished bottom of their group and barely raised an eyebrow at the tournament, and once more it seemed as though soccer was slipping out of the nation’s consciousness.
An inability on the part of the A-League to attract world-class talents – the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Robbie Keane have strutted their stuff on Aussie soil in the past – also means the scramble for popularity is a battle that is largely being lost. 'Australian A-League' by Roke (CC BY-SA 3.0)
As far as football is concerned, one of the major issues is that the sport hasn’t expanded outside of Melbourne to the extent that most expected. And so attendance figures are skewed: the AFL grand final generally attracts an audience of 100,000 to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Both soccer and football have extensive TV deals that may just have an impact on the number of people getting up off the sofa to attend a game, and today many bookmakers offer live streaming services to go with their A-League as well as Aussie rules betting odds, meaning that games can be watched on smartphones and tablets with ease.
This is a tough time for sport in Australia: there has ever been as many distractions as there are today, and people are generally voting with their feet.
And while rugby attendances continue to grow, A-League and AFL chiefs have to find a way to future-proof their sports before the decline becomes terminal.