By NICK CAMPTON:
Not for the first time in Australian history, there’s a stampede heading west. This current gold rush may not be as dramatic as the frantic clamoring’s for gold that dot Australian history, but the prizes are greater and the stakes are higher. Instead of the pickaxe or the shovel or the gold pan, this rush is being contested by men and women carrying soccer balls, Sherrins and Steedens.
The four major winter codes, rugby league, rugby union, AFL and soccer, are all converging on the Western regions of Sydney in war that could prove to be a Rubicon for the future of footy.
Traditionally, western Sydney has been dominated by rugby league. The Parramatta Eels, Penrith Panthers and Wests Tigers have all carved out chunks of the region, and remain the dominant professional clubs in the area. Rugby Union has deeper roots in the West than anyone, with the Parramatta Two Blues first taking up the pigskin in 1879, before being joined by the Penrith Emus in the 1950’s. The shiny new Greater Western Sydney Giants fly the flag for Aussie Rules, while the Western Sydney Wanderers are the latest soccer team to make a claim to the millions of dollars – and the thousands of supporters – that are up for grabs.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the sporting scene in Western Sydney is so congested. A little over two million people call the West home. That is just under half of the total population of the Sydney Metropolitan area. But according to recent projections made by the Parramatta City Council, in the next 20 years the Greater Western Sydney population will outnumber the rest of the city. The current population is also considerably younger than most other areas.
So what does this mean? First off, it means more consumers, with more money to spend. This means more people who can come to games, more people who can buy jerseys, more people who can become members and more people who can become beer drinking, and money spending, “fair dinkum” footy fans.
But what kind of footy will they support? Which code will they call their own?
Rugby league has been king of the west for decades, and to a certain extent it is still the biggest sport in the region. League has lower participation rates at junior level than both soccer and rugby union, but has a far greater track record of converting junior participation into senior support. While the Wanderers and the Giants are the sole presence for their codes, the Eels, Panthers and Tigers all view one another as competitors in the crowded market place. Rugby league is still in the box seat, but according to Penrith Panthers player Shaun Spence, there’s still work to be done in holding on to one of the codes heartlands.
“Recently, I think crowd numbers have been pretty poor, Campbelltown got 6500 to the Tigers game recently and that’s just not enough.”
“But as far as I can see, the NRL is trying, we’ve done a heap of blitzes around schools and have been making a serious effort to make the Panthers a bigger part of the community”
It doesn’t help the cause of the National Rugby League when one considers the lack of recent success for Parramatta, Penrith and Wests. All three clubs missed the playoffs in both 2013 and 2012, but have made a strong comback this season. The three teams have reported increased crowd numbers, including an astronomical crowd of 50, 668 for Parramatta’s clash with Wests Tigers.
It’s difficult to quantify or statistically prove such a statement, but rugby league is in the lifeblood of Western Sydney. Like AFL in Melbourne or rugby union in New Zealand, league is part of the fabric of the local communities. The Eels have ranged from dire to pathetic in the past few seasons, but still, they are averaging relatively healthy crowds. Penrith is still the greatest junior nursery rugby league has ever seen, the Wests Tigers presence in Campbelltown is nominal at best, but junior participation rates in the Camden/Campbelltown area continues to grow. Rugby league is in the lifeblood of the area, and while other codes are shortening the distance, it remains the dominant force in western Sydney.
Public relations representatives and well-dressed officials might spit out buzzwords about fostering community links and appealing to families, but the number one weapon in any code war is on field success. People want to go and watch a winner; it’s as simple as that. Therefore, the spectacular rise of the Western Sydney Wanderers should come as no surprise. The club has reached two Grand Finals in their first two seasons of play. From the get go they have enjoyed strong crowds (an average attendance of over 14,000 was the best in the west last year) and good community support
Often referred too as a “sleeping giant”, soccer has always enjoyed participation rates that dwarf the more established codes, particularly at junior level. But the problem, according to Bonnyrigg Eagles assistant coach, Scott Wheeler, has always been converting that advantage.
“Heaps of kids play soccer, but not all of them become soccer fans. For ages it was much more entertaining to watch an English Premier League (EPL) game than it was to go and sit in the cold and watch a bunch of local nufties run around”
“People would be Manchester fans or Chelsea Fans or Tottenham fans, they wouldn’t give a shit about Sydney FC or anything like that”
“But that’s really starting to change. The Wanderers give the closest thing possible to that European football experience that all the fans crave”
The “football experience” Wheeler talks about is provided by the ominous and hugely populated Red and Black Bloc, the official Wanderers supporters group. Numbering at roughly 2500 strong, the RBB chant, cheer and sing their way through Wanderers games, providing an atmosphere that many believe is unmatched in Australian sport.
However, the support and media attention that the RBB generates is a double-edged sword. Football Federation Australia (FFA) is terrified of a repeat of the old National Soccer League days, when violent incidents between supporters were alarmingly frequent.
A large quantity of Australian soccer fans trace their heritage back to European countries where the round ball game is king, and part of the sports success in Western Sydney depends upon capitalizing on this population. However, in the past, different ethnic factions aligned themselves with various clubs. This led to heightened decades or century old conflicts that originated in the old country. For example, Marconi FC was predominantly supported by the Italians, while Sydney Olympic had a large Greek following. The Bonnyrigg White Eagles were supported by a large Serbian community and clashed regularly with the creatively named Sydney Croatia.
Wheeler doesn’t expect a return to the bad old days, but said that it was important that the FFA remain conscious of the issue.
“They won’t let it get as bad as it was, they’re way stricter in their policing of fans”
“The RBB is a great weapon for soccer to have, so it’s important they get managed and used properly”
The Wanderers were established on limited capital, and have already provided healthy profits for the FFA. This is in stark contrast to the Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS), the newly formed AFL club who have cost tens of millions of dollars for little discernible return.
But the AFL differs from the other sports by treating the dash for dominance as a marathon, rather than a sprint. The AFL is the only major sport in Australian to utilise a rookie draft, a practice that is meant to ensure the proper distribution of young talent. The Giants have received a slew of high draft picks, and talent development officer Alex Sneddon believes that this will ultimately prove a shrewd move.
“They might be getting smacked now, but just wait. They’ll come good, some of them already have”
“Jeremy Cameron, Toby Greene, Tom Boyd, Jonathon Patton, these guys will be household names once they take off. Cameron is already starting to take off”
“You saw them beat the Swans the other week? They’re getting there. It’ll take time, but once they start winning people will come around”
As the most profitable and financially stable code in the country, money is no object for the AFL. High profile and expensive failures, such as the Israel Folau experiment, are viewed as necessary steps on the path to dominance.
The Giants recruited Folau, a high profile rugby league player with no AFL experience, as a foundation player in 2011. The widely criticized move was an attempt to foster population with the large Pacific Islander communities in Western Sydney who predominantly follow the rugby codes. Many viewed the Folau experiment as a failure, but Sneddon believes that the game did benefit from his participation.
“The thing with Folau was never about him as a player, it was about getting publicity. It didn’t matter how he went, the fact that people were talking about GWS was enough.”
“Sure, it might have been better to try and get Buddy Franklin or Joel Selwood, like the Gold Coast Suns did with Ablett” (Universally regarded as the best player in the AFL, Ablett has played for the AFL’s other expansion team on the Gold Coast)
“But the Folau thing worked, just in a different way”
The code-hopping Folau fled his failure with GWS and found a new home with Rugby Union’s New South Wales team, the Waratahs, where he’s been a smashing success. But in the war for the hearts of the West, Rugby Union remains a distant fourth.
The only sport of the four without a professional team in the area, union is already at a significant disadvantage. The Parramatta Two Blues and Penrith Emus both play in the semi-professional Shute Shield, which was downgraded into a feeder league for the Super Rugby Tournament in 1995. New South Wales is represented by the Waratahs, who are based in Moore Park and play out of the Sydney Football Stadium.
This singular centralization of rugby union has resulted in a serious fall from grace by the Two Blues, with the one-time powerhouses struggling to survive and remain competitive against the wealthy inner city teams. Former Wallaby and Two Blues stalwart Andrew Leeds believes that rugby’s neglect of the west will only be changed when the Wallabies begin to feel the pinch.
“I don’t think the ARU (Australian Rugby Union) and the representative sides will look to foster those clubs until the teams at the top of the pile start suffering and they realize they’ve got to look elsewhere for talent.”
“ Change will only come from failure on the top level”
The ARU has at attempted to rectify the issue, with a newly revamped second-tier competition later this year. Dubbed the Australian Rugby Championship, the Greater Sydney Rams will be one of the 10 competing teams. A similar competition was set up in 2007, but was scrapped after one season and huge financial losses.
Leeds, who also played for rugby leagues Western Suburbs Magpies for several seasons, believes that revamping the ARC is a serious mistake and the Australian Rugby Union should instead focus on fostering and developing the Shute Shield.
“Why not? Why not put more effort into the Shute Shield? You’ve already got a second tier, just waiting to be used; they just need to foster it better”
“The biggest trouble with the ARC was there was no identity for any of the teams, you had the Rays and the Rams or whatever.”
“Surely you’d be more inclined to support a Parramatta or a Penrith or an Eastwood than a team no one has heard of before. That little bit of tribalism and pride that’s already there can make the difference.”
So who wins this code war? Who becomes the king of the West? I can pontificate about junior numbers and grassroots support as much as I like, but the fact of the matter is simple: people want to watch a winning team. It’s easy to support the Wanderers or the Eels or the Giants when they’re flying along and snapping off seven game winning streaks. It’s much harder to support them when they win 3 games in a season. That’s the bottom line.
The search for the fastest gun in the west is far from over.