Long the dominant player in Australia’s crowded sporting market, the fast-paced and bruising sport of Australian Rules can be bewildering to the uninitiated, but that has not stopped the game’s custodians from dipping a toe in foreign waters.
The Australian Football League (AFL), the indigenous game’s top-flight competition, played its first championship match in rugby union-mad New Zealand last year, bringing top-flight teams St Kilda and the then-defending champion Sydney Swans to Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.
Drawing a respectable crowd of more than 22,000, the game was hailed as a landmark by the AFL and a long way from the scrappy season-ending exhibitions in London that often struggled to draw half that number.
A dose of realism set in after the second match earlier this year between the Melbourne-based St Kilda and the Brisbane Lions, when only 13,000 turned up to the stadium on the two countries’ shared ANZAC Day public holiday.
Local media reported half the tickets had been given away for free while the Wellington City Council, which paid a large part of the marketing budget, was unimpressed with the economic return and said “hard questions” were being asked about the viability of future matches.
St Kilda are to play a third match next year on the same public holiday, which commemorates Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in World War I.
Organizers hope the daytime scheduling of the match, dove-tailing on the back of traditional ANZAC Day services in the morning, which draw thousands of people, can bring the crowds back and ensure the AFL retains an international bridgehead.
“We just think that our game is one which, when people see it live and get involved in it, we think we’re capable of converting New Zealand sports lovers into fans of Australian Rules football,” St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis told reporters. “If the Saints are the face of Australian Rules football we think that’s a good thing. Success won’t just happen, we’ve got to continue to invest in that and bring people along on that journey so that’s something that we’re really keen to do. For us, this is a long-term investment. You don’t look at things each year, you look at it over a longer period of time.”
Rival AFL clubs have taken matches to the Australian hinterlands, including reigning champions Hawthorn, who defend their title in the season-ending Grand Final in Melbourne today, and each season play a handful of matches in Tasmania, part of a lucrative deal with the local government.
The Saints, who finished the season at the bottom of the 18-team league with a record of four wins and 18 losses, are the first to stake AFL in a foreign country on a multiyear deal.
Australian media have reported the terms are lucrative for the Melbourne-based strugglers, who also run training camps and support grass-roots clinics in New Zealand, where thousands of children have been introduced to the high-impact sport, a mixture of rugby union and Gaelic football that pits two teams of 18 on a field the size of a cricket ground.
The club hopes to keep the deal running until at least 2018, while Finnis told reporters earlier this year he hoped to have 10,000 New Zealand members by the same year.
He declined to elaborate on the club’s return on investment other than they had at least broken even.
New Zealand stakeholders are less enthused by their cut and more guarded about the game’s long-term future.
“It would be safe to say that there has been a renegotiation [of the terms]. The parties sat around the table,” a Wellington city council spokesman said. “We are seriously committed to 2015, though.”
“While I think it would be safe to say that it’s still very much a minority sport, interest does appear to be growing and we would look forward to a bigger crowd next year,” the spokesman said.
The AFL, in the latter half of an Australian record A$1.25 billion (US$1.1 billion) broadcasting deal, is set to showcase its sporting dominance in Australia at least, when 100,000 people are expected to turn up to the Melbourne Cricket Ground for today’s final between Hawthorn and the Swans.
The AFL has long fought a tough battle with the country’s top-flight National Rugby League competition for hearts and minds, but have this year struck a huge blow in their rivals’ heartland of Sydney.
The Swans’ success has knocked rugby league off the back pages of Sydney dailies this week and the decider could test the AFL’s record TV audience set in 2005, when about 3.4 million people tuned in for the Swans’ Grand Final win over the Perth-based West Coast Eagles.
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