I have been lucky enough to visit Australia to travel in 2012 and this month as part of the Masters in High Performance at ACU and have been fascinated in the differences within sport between the UK and Australia.
It does not take a visit Down Under to realise that football (or as I’m often corrected soccer and “socca”) is bigger in England, where it is the undisputed national sport. What about Australia? Of course it depends on which marker you use to determine popularity but according to a private report Australian Rules Football (AFL) tops the lists:
|1) AFL||1) AFL|
|2) Cricket||2) Rugby League|
|3) Tennis||3) Soccer|
|4) Rugby League||4) Cricket|
|6) Rugby Union|
When you drill down into this it is really stark how regionalised the popularity of some sports is across Australia. Of the 18 teams in the Aussie Rules (AFL) league, 10 are based in the same state of Victoria. A quick flight to Sydney and you will find Rugby League (NRL) is the major sport. Below are colour coded images of sport popularity according to the electoral federate in Victoria and Queensland from Ozzie Sport:
Other than the bias of Rugby League in the North of England, I think there is little evidence of regionalised popularity across our country.
Club vs Country (vs State)
The contentious club vs country debate often rages in football at home. In Australia it is widely accepted that the pinnacle of Rugby League is not representing your country but competing in a state competition. State of Origin is an annual three match playoff between Queensland and New South Wales in which players adopt the state in which they first played senior Rugby League (controversially not always representing their state of birth). It is often described as Australia’s greatest sporting rivalry. Whereas, when the National team were winning their 10th world title at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup there was much less coverage, even in the New South Wales area.
Apparently being top of the league after a whole season is not enough to crown a champion in Australia; AFL, Rugby League and A League Soccer all culminate in a playoff based Grand Final. Perhaps in England we are spoilt with multiple league and cup based competitions and this is a compromise to experience the excitement of both. Or perhaps it is something to do with the television audience of 2-3 million! The AFL Playoff involves the top 8 from the 18 team league and the A League an even greater proportion of 6 from 10, which from a performance perspective surely alters how you plan and period use your season. There can even be a replay in the Grand Final, imagine an FA Cup Final replay?!
Another difference in the competition setup is the lack of relegation in AFL, Rugby League and Soccer. So there seems to be no major consequence for finishing bottom, although I will not name and shame the teams with that recent record! This of course is very different to the pyramid structures of league systems seen throughout England, maybe due to having a larger population over a much smaller area of country as well as a longer national history. This may explain why some Aussies cannot grasp the concept of primarily supporting a lower league sports team.
Interestingly in AFL the teams are paired with a feeder club from the second league level (VFL) and they can send players to play for them on ‘conditioning assignments’ or sign their players on short term injury replacement contracts.
A stand out difference is the youth setup. Most Aussies I spoke to were astounded to hear in football you can sign a child at Under 9 and school and train them full time from Under 15. Perhaps this again comes down to geographical, demographic, historical and financial differences.
There is some existence of youth teams in Australia and state based talent scholarships, but often they only train one to three times a week. There is a Youth league in Soccer but over age players can be involved in matches so sometimes players as young as 15 play against senior players. In AFL they adopt the draft systems as used by American sports. Therefore, the challenge of developing youngsters and bridging the gap in loading and intensity of senior sport is even greater in Australia, especially considering the physical demands of these sports.
And Finally… The Role of Sport Science
This should probably a post of its own but without experiencing enough first hand yet I will just summarise my first impressions. I feel Australian sports have a more structured Sport Science support setup within some of their team sports. A formal ‘High Performance Model’ is more prevalent in Australia and the role of High Performance Manager is a recognised career aspiration. A High Performance Manager, who can come from Sport Science, Strength and Conditioning and Physiotherapy background, often reports directly into the Head Coach of the team with all streams of science, fitness and medicine reporting into them. Although this is certainly not perfect and does cause ethical issues.
Of course some English football teams do use similar structures but perhaps the challenges in our sport make it more difficult to adopt this setup. Perhaps the nature of regular change makes consistent structures less consistent. The reporting structures can be blurred within football, for example a Doctor leads the Sport Science and Medicine setup but the Fitness Coach may follow a Coach or Manager from Club to Club so the fitness department falls outside of the Science and Medicine remit. Does Performance Analysis fall into science and therefore medicine, or fitness, or even coaching?
With a salary cap for players in some Australian sports a greater proportion of funding can sometimes go into the external support of the players, perhaps why there is a greater emphasis on the Performance setup. This can of course go too far at times and Sport Science has taken a hit in Australia with the Essendon doping scandal but I am certain there are enough good practitioners to restore respect and trust in our field.
There also seems to be a real community across the team sports in terms of Sport Science, with experts across AFL, Rugby League, Soccer as well as the Australian Institute of Sport and other sports all known to each other and sharing ideas. Although there are some English teams with multiple PhD holders and candidates working, there seem to be particularly strong research links between the Academic and Applied worlds in Australia.
What can be concluded is that both countries have something to offer the other in terms of learning and progression of our sporting setups. Special thanks to all the Aussie who put up with my endless confused questioning!!