Marketing the AFL: The death of State of Origin

Remember watching Paul Salmon tap to team-mate Robert Harvey? Or Brad Johnson kicking long to Glen Archer? How about Chris Grant handballing to the run of Anthony Stevens? This was State of Origin football and it gave us the best players on the same field. Champions of the game united in battle against an equal foe.

   Victoria had The Big V, a team installed with a passion above playing for mate at a club as it was football played for the pride of the state. Passion that was embodied by Ted Whitten, a leader who drove the heart of The Big V on many occasions towards victories over teams such as South Australia, the Croweaters, and the Sandgropers of Western Australia. The passion and pride of Whitten and the spirit of this level of the game was infectious.

   Even now, just the idea of the great players competing together brings excitement. Add the history of rivalry and this is something round-by-round football can not reproduce.

   Normal season club games are played almost every week. State of Origin football gave players frequently one chance per year to win, and some of these players might play for their state once in their lifetime.

   But the concept is gone from the elite AFL level.  A version has continued to be played, organised by state based Australian Rules competitions, and this might still bring those players as much pride as before, but it is not the same without the players form the elite AFL competition. So what happened?

   “I think the players enjoy State of Origin,” says John Harms from http://www.footyalmanc.com.au/. “I think the fans enjoy State of Origin. But I think the clubs don’t.”

   Between 1977 and 1999 regular AustralianRulesfootballState of Origin contests took place. Every state and territory in Australia competed at some point, with the aforementioned rivalry between Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia eventually forming the format’s centre-piece, but towards the end of the 90s debate grew over the survival of the fixture.

   Australian Rules had a national identity, with the AFL providing spectators with interstate clubs competing against each other on a weekly basis. State of Origin was seen as not only potentially redundant, but also dangerous to the national competition.

   Clubs, and even fans, did not want their best players injured in a game that was not relevant to their weekly operations. To put it simply, they pay the weekly wage of the player and they want the players to win a premiership. Consider it as being similar to overseas soccer clubs not wanting to release star players for the Australian national side when their club season is vastly more important to them.

   So, why does the NRL persist with its State of Origin fixture? In Victoria the coverage of the Rugby League State of Origin competition is minor, but in New South Wales and Queensland the games are essential.

   “It is a big thing for them,” Andrew Reszka says of the NRL State of Origin.

   Mr Reszka has worked in senior commercial roles within the sporting industry, including working in the NRL. He sees rugby league as still being a very tribal sport. The NRL clubs, games and fans are concentrated in New South Wales and Queensland. Unlike the AFL with players and teams form across the country, the NRL is still localised. Even the NRL’s Melbourne team consists of players predominantly from New South Wales and Queensland, with members such as Billy Slater, Dave Nielson and Cameron Smith all featuring in the Queensland State of Origin side.

   But apart from the tribal, NSW verses Queensland, approach of the NRL, Reszka highlights the heavy financial benefit to the NRL to continue its State of Origin series: “They could get maybe 65,000 (spectators) to a State of Origin game, were the normal game is about 5000.”

The NRL know that their State of Origin is big business. It is promoted almost all year and television rights to the three match series are possibly as important in funding as the end of season Grand Final between club teams. The fans demand the state contest and so do the financers.

   In a regular AFL season match last weekend between Collingwood and Melbourne 75,998 people attended. This number is greater than all but one of the Australian Rules State of Origin attendance figures since the concept began. While the fans might say they would like to see a State of Origin competition including AFL players, they don’t attend the games and the administrators don’t get any extra money from the contest.

   Simply put the AFL doesn’t need it. More importantly the AFL doesn’t want it.

   Since 2000 the AFL has been actively encouraging a national competition by financially helping to build clubs in various states and marketing itself as a national code. During the same time period a Rugby League team in Western Australia, the Western Reds, folded and the NRL continued its two team State of Origin competition. The marketing of these two brands has been very different.

   Francis Gardiner has worked in Brand Marketing for major corporations in Australia and overseas: “The two NRL state teams (NSW and Queensland) sends a very negative message to the other states and is detrimental to national growth. With exclusion comes a sense of elitism and arrogance.”

   The NRL is tribal and its State of Origin competition is exclusive. It knows its current market and seems unworried about promoting itself nationally.

   However, rather than praise the AFL Gardiner believes Australia Rules would benefit from a State of Origin: “If they (the AFL) truly wish to send a message to the public that it is a national game then state representation is surely the strongest way to do this.”

   Australian Rules football is played throughout Australia at a high-level. If the AFL could seize onto this and help promote the State of Origin games played between state based Australian Rules football leagues it would raise the awareness of their brand of football.

   Andrew Reszka mentions one stumbling block to this: “The other states are not competitive.” When the AFL did appear to be backing the State of Origin format in the early 90s—perhaps only out jealousy for the NRL’s success—they tried various ways of making the teams even and the games as entertaining as possible. They created teams such as The Allies and The Dream Team, both comprising of players from various states other than Victoria, but these did not have the emotional following of truly state representative sides.

   While good teams could be formed of players exclusively from NSW, Tasmania, Queensland, ACT and the Northern Territory, they were not strong enough against the sides from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Fans do not want to see their team lose regularly and despite NSW defeating Victoria in 1990 the State of Origin games ended.

   Instead of marketing the code with state sides, the AFL appears to be focusing on promoting clubs within the various states. They have established new teams in Queensland and NSW, Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney respectively, and are helping them by providing access to current and future star players, a plan to ensure that these new teams don’t regularly lose. Playing State of Origin games could overshadow these new teams and disrupt a burgeoning fan base. The AFL’s marketing of Australian Rules football as the national code appears centred on creating strong clubs to represent an area rather than single state sides.

   John Harms anticipates the increased number of teams as another reason why the AFL will not be involved in any Australian Rules State of Origin games in the future: “The calendar is going to become even more crowded as the competition expands.”

   Logistically adding an extra game of football is not just difficult for the timing of the AFL season but it also puts great demands on player’s bodies. Over the past ten years a there has been a rise in soft tissue injury, attributed in part to the increase of the pace and pressure of the game. Some players are taking mid-season recovery breaks from the game, above the club’s fixture bye, to recover from half a season of football, and young players and old are frequently omitted from teams with reports citing the player’s general soreness as the overriding factor in the decision.

   It is mid-season, the finals are not near, and concern over player fitness is already a talking point. To demand extra games of AFL players, regardless of the personal pride they might feel, seems impossible to comprehend.

   Though it would be harsh to say that the AFL has not tired to accommodate fans desire to see their favourite players competing on the same field.

   An Australia versus Ireland International Rules series has been launched and re-launched, the hybrid game consisting of rules borrowed from Gaelic Football and Australian Rules. It is a concept that the AFL would hope unites Australian spectators.

   But International Rules is a different sport to Australian Rules, and one which has had its relevance and benefit to both countries and codes constantly questioned. State of Origin is the only satisfactory competition for viewers to watch the best Australian Rules players compete, as it is currently the highest possible level of competition for Australian Rules football.

   Unfortunately the risk of injuries to players, the lack of financial incentive, and the need to market the clubs over the brand are all reasons for the death of State of Origin within the AFL. Perhaps one day, when sentiment rises and the clubs feel their future is secure, we might get to see the best players of our great national game play their professional sport on the one field. Until then we have teams playing for cities, towns and suburbs from around the nation to enjoy.

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