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Armchair League: No Substitute For Being There

By Mike Hytner on April 23, 2013 in Other

Photo: Brad Fittler

Photo: Brad Fittler

The new rugby league season has finally kicked off, and top of my current bucket list is a trip to watch one of Australia’s premier sporting events – a State of Origin match. With two scheduled for Sydney this year – and, from what I gather, a fair-to-middling chance of NSW winning – what better time to don a sky blue shirt and make a pilgrimage to Sydney Olympic Park?

When it comes to rugby league, I cannot profess to being anything other than a fair-weather fan. Despite hailing from the north of England, with a top-flight team based within spitting distance of the street where I grew up, I’ve never had the remotest interest in the game. Not for any particular reason other than the fact that the football (soccer) bug bit first.

However, in a horizon-broadening exercise since migrating across the world, I’ve made it my business to try to get into the NRL. And I’ve found I quite like the free-flowing spectacle and raw, physical nature of the game. Certainly NRL wins hands down in a head-to-head with any of its rivals on the television on a Friday night. The Real Housewives of Philadelphia simply can’t compete.

I am, it seems, not alone in my armchair – and that’s the thing. Attendance of sporting events is very much a different beast in Australia compared to back in the UK. Over there, impassioned fans, particularly football supporters, put everything – time, money and energy – into their team.

Marriages are compromised. Savings are blown. And fans are everywhere. They are my friends, my former colleagues. They are my family.

Here, I’m yet to come into contact with any such tragics. I’m sure they exist somewhere, but they don’t appear to be as commonplace. Instead, fans seem more than happy to stay put, subscribe to pay TV, invite their mates over and spare their relationships. Hence the regularly half-empty stadiums I can see from my own vantage point on the couch.

To see so many vacant seats at so many events in what I’d been reliably informed was a nation obsessed by sport came as a shock. Recent figures highlight the point: in the NRL, attendances were up a measly average of nine fans per game last year to 16,415.
That’s pretty much the same as English football club Sheffield Wednesday’s worst crowd of last season. When they were playing in the third division.

Of course, there are some good reasons why stadiums aren’t selling out weekly: cost of tickets, poor public transport, the nation’s sprawling geography (even though nine of 16 NRL teams are Sydney-based), a small population and so on. Nevertheless, it’s a shame. Nothing beats watching a thrilling sporting event along with thousands of other like-minded people. They not only feed off what they’re seeing on the pitch, but also off each other, creating an experience that cannot be recreated on the telly, no matter how ‘close to the action’ the director will take you.

That’s why Origin stands out as a must-see-in-the-flesh event. Unlike regular season games, the game’s reputation precedes itself, guaranteeing people will make the effort to get to the stadium. An electric atmosphere is assured and, for two nights in June and July, Sydney will at least give the impression that this is indeed a sports-mad country.