2

The Barassi Line is an imaginary line that divides Australia into two parts based on the popularity of Australian Rules Football vs the rugby codes.

Essentially, Aussie Rules is more popular in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, whereas rugby is more popular in New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland. Does this hold true even today, with AFL teams in Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and an NRL team in Melbourne?

Also, is it true that for most rugby fans in Australia, rugby league would be more popular than rugby union, and that the latter is only really followed during the World Cup and other similar international events?

2

Does this hold true even today, with AFL teams in Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and an NRL team in Melbourne?

Yes.

Out of the 18 AFL teams, four of them are north of the Barassi Line - Sydney, GWS, Brisbane, and Gold Coast. Let's look at the common metrics of popularity used for sports teams to see how they fare:

Crowds

Average home crowd in 2019 [1]

  1. Richmond (VIC), 59,987
  2. Collingwood (VIC), 58,975
  3. West Coast (WA), 53,513
  4. Essendon (VIC), 47,733
  5. Carlton (VIC), 46,730
  6. Adelaide (SA), 44,514
  7. Fremantle (WA), 40,896
  8. Port Adelaide (SA), 33,950
  9. Geelong (VIC), 33,405
  10. Hawthorn (VIC), 31,077
  11. Sydney (NSW), 31,070
  12. Melbourne (VIC), 28,968
  13. Western Bulldogs (VIC), 26,747
  14. St Kilda (VIC), 25,401
  15. Brisbane Lions (QLD), 24,741
  16. North Melbourne (VIC), 20,808
  17. Greater Western Sydney (NSW), 12,267
  18. Gold Coast (QLD), 11,417

All four teams above the Barassi line are in the bottom half of the competition for attendance, including three of the four worst-attended clubs in the league. Even Sydney, one of the most consistently strong teams over the last decade and a half, is significantly behind the league average attendance of 35,122.

Notably, Gold Coast's highest ever "home" crowd actually occurred in Perth, as part of a scheme where they hosted a "home" game interstate while their actual home ground was being renovated for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Membership

AFL-audited membership numbers for 2020. Some clubs self-report much higher membership figures by including things like their email lists, but this list is for paying memberships only. [2]

  1. West Coast (WA), 100,776
  2. Richmond (VIC), 100,420
  3. Collingwood (VIC), 76,862
  4. Hawthorn (VIC), 76,343
  5. Carlton (VIC), 67,035
  6. Essendon (VIC), 66,686
  7. Geelong (VIC), 60,066
  8. Adelaide (SA), 54,891
  9. Fremantle (WA), 51,577
  10. St Kilda (VIC), 48,588
  11. Sydney (NSW), 48,322
  12. Port Adelaide (SA), 46,820
  13. Melbourne (VIC), 40,571
  14. Western Bulldogs (VIC), 38,876
  15. North Melbourne (VIC), 38,667
  16. Greater Western Sydney (NSW), 30,841
  17. Brisbane Lions (QLD), 29,277
  18. Gold Coast (QLD), 16,236

This is even worse reading for the clubs north of the Barassi Line. Sydney is in the same spot and still a fair chunk off the league average of 55,159, but the other three clubs occupy the lowest three spots on the leaderboard, and by a very large margin. And this is despite GWS and Gold Coast both recording club record membership figures this year, in a year that had a slightly more than 6% downturn league-wide (likely due to economic hardship)!


The NRL

The NRL is much less interesting to look at, with only one team south of the Barassi Line, Melbourne Storm. Melbourne does admittedly draw very good crowds (18,230) and membership numbers (22,221) - 4th in the league for each - but both of these figures are lower than the worst Victorian-based team in the AFL, despite 10 AFL teams splitting the attention in Victoria, while Melbourne Storm has the Victorian NRL market all to itself. [3] [4]

It's also telling that this there's more clubs in a different country (New Zealand) than in NT, WA, SA, and Tasmania combined. In the 1990s the Adelaide Rams went defunct after two seasons in the NRL, and the Western Reds (based in Perth) lasted only three. I live in Adelaide, and anecdotally I can tell you that most people here are barely even aware that the NRL exists, let alone that we ever had a team participating in it.


League versus Union

is it true that for most rugby fans in Australia, rugby league would be more popular than rugby union, and that the latter is only really followed during the World Cup and other similar international events?

Yes, but with slightly more of an asterisk.

It's unequivocally true that League is more popular in Australia as a whole, and you're right that Union typically only receives mainstream coverage during the Rugby World Cup. Unfortunately I'm not quite familiar enough with Union to get the most reliable sources for this, but most of the dodgy sites I'm finding with Google seem to suggest that League has about 3x the participation and viewership of Union in Australia as a whole.

However, you may see minimal differences outside of the eastern seaboard, particularly in Perth where the Western Force participated in the Super 14/Super Rugby competitions for over a decade during a period where there was no local presence in any League competitions of note.


Sources

[1] AFL Tables - Crowds 2019
[2] The Age - AFL club membership tally falls for first time in 20 years
[3] RL Tables - Attendances 2019
[4] League Unlimited - 2020 NRL Membership Tracker

| improve this answer | |
  • Great answer! So going by your last para, I would assume that in the rugby strongholds of NSW and Queensland, League rules the roost. However, this may not hold in the small pockets of rugby fanhood that exist outside these places. Perth may be one example, could the ACT be another? See here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_in_the_Australian_Capital_Territory – Student Sep 14 at 16:11
  • Would it be correct to say that cricket is the only sport that unites the country? Though I met someone from Perth who didn't know who Steve Smith was. Whereas everyone in a truly cricket-mad country like India would know who Virat Kohli is. – Student Sep 14 at 16:12
  • 1
    @Student The ACT is probably the only place in the country where it's hard to answer that question. All three codes have a fairly large cultural presence in the territory, but Union probably holds the best claim to the region on account of the Brumbies existing. As for a sport that unites the country, cricket is absolutely the top pick there (and your friend who doesn't know who Steve Smith was is seriously out of touch with the national sporting scene), but multi-sport events like the (Summer) Olympics and Commonwealth Games fit the bill as well. – Sellyme Sep 14 at 16:17
  • Right....and again in NSW/QLD overall, Union may still have an edge over the AFL even domestically (i.e. not counting the Wallabies popularity as mentioned), despite neither being too well-followed. – Student Sep 14 at 16:36
  • Also, going by your comments about the Melbourne Storm.....the high figures are interesting....this would imply that there are teams in NSW and QLD who have lower attendance figures than a team in VIC, wonder why that is the case. – Student Sep 14 at 16:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.