For as long as I can remember, football administrators and mainstream media have led us to believe that ethnicity was and is the root of all evil within football in Australia. We’ve been sold the line that it was as simple as; knock down the old ethnic structures and replace them with a generic “Australian” construct and Frank’s your uncle.
But has ethnicity played such a leading role in the image and subsequent acceptance of football by the wider Australian society? As the recent Dawn Fraser comments – and the subsequent support of them by some of the public – have shown, ethnicity and what is considered”Australian” is still an issue in today’s society. Football and it’s multicultural facets stand out like the proverbial in comparison to cricket, Aussie Rules, and the Rugby codes. To what extent though this is a negative is what I’d like to explore.
A report published in 1992 by Professor Wray Vamplew, “Sports Crowd Disorder: An Australian Survey” revealed that forty nine percent of respondents who attend football games had heard ethnic abuse at the games. Football is unmistakably a global game which connects people from different races, nationalities, sexual preferences, genders and faiths. One could consider it the ultimate equaliser of the sporting world but it can leave it a possible target for these differences by certain sections of society.
We can learn a lot about the validity of the anti-ethnic sentiment by looking at the figures we have available. For participation, the FIFA Big Count of 2006 totaled the number of registered and unregistered players in its member nations. I used these figures to calculate the percentage of the population that played football in five countries: Germany, Brazil, France, England, and Japan. I then used the most recent data I could find for Australia which was the Roy Morgan participation survey of December 2014 and compared the figures.
Current World Champions Germany have a participation rate of around twenty percent which is by far the highest of the subject group. England is second at eight percent, Brazil is next at seven percent, France is just over six percent, Australia over five percent and Japan rounding out the group at four percent. This just measures the number of adults and children who play, not non-playing roles such as volunteers or viewers on TV. The numbers though do show that Australia’s participation rate is not too dissimilar to other footballing nations.
Statistics from 1995/96 taken by the Australian Bureau of Statisitics, show even twenty years ago Australians participated in outdoor football more than the other rival football codes (Australian Rules, Rugby Union, and Rugby League). The disparity between the participation numbers gets greater at the younger ages (5-14) but it’s clear higher membership fees and the ethnic stigma attached to the game didn’t deter participation. Subsequent surveys taken over the following twenty years have shown football has continued to grow in popularity.
On a side note this is almost in line with the growth of the Internet and the impact it has had on shrinking the world around us. It was in 1995 that the privatization and commercialization of the Internet began which in turn broadened its reach.
Statistics support the fact that Australia’s interest in football has been on the ascent even before the great whitewashing of the sport in 2004. The old National Soccer League though is where most of the anti-ethnic sentiment is directed. As touched on before, people like Frank Lowy and David Hill have used ethnicity as the scapegoat to either cover their own failures or in Frank’s case to sure up their own position in the game and keep enemies under heel.
In 2002, the Professionall Footballer’s Association – seeing that the old guard were on the way out – undertook widespread market research to formulate their plan for a new league. This league was to be called the Australian Premier League. The research was important in establishing what the fans and football community as a whole found to be the issues dogging the game at the domestic level. The results were not too dissimilar to what the 2003 Crawford Report would find.
By far and away the biggest reason given by football fans for not watching the NSL live or on the television was the lack of publicity (53%). Other reasons were low standard (26%), poor administration (23%), and lack of atmosphere (19%) and all these were rated as more important factors in non-participation in the NSL than ethnicity (18%).
However ethnicity has always been the headline grabber when opponents of the game and even those within the game have taken their shots. As we’ve all heard before, “if you say something often enough, people will believe it.”
The 2002 Sweeney Sports Report revealed about 44% of Australians had some interest in football which would account for around 8.7 million people going off that year’s population. Eighteen percent of 8.7 million is 1.6 million. Now the total attendance per round in the Aleague this past season was 65,240 while the average number of viewers per week for SBS and Fox combined was around 510,000. This means a total of 575,240 fans watching the Aleague in some capacity per round. This is well short of the 1.6 million that were turned off by ethnicity.
Of course the argument above is flawed and there are numerous factors that must be taken into account such as access to pay TV, the number of minors and elderly amongst the 8.7 million who wouldn’t have the means and access to going to games, the honesty of people surveyed and so on. But as ridiculous and over simplistic as the above point was it highlights that blaming ethnicity for the woes of soccer is equally if not more so.
To take the extreme steps of creating a football civil war by demonising many of the people and clubs who gave so much in building the game in order to appease a small minority, is extremely counter-productive. Attacking ethnicity is an easy option which takes minimal effort as opposed to the monumental tasks of improving standards and providing the quality administration capable of achieving this.
Addressing the lack of publicity has really been the catalyst that has helped the Aleague achieve respectable crowds and ratings to date. However, as one of my earlier pieces touched on the crowd numbers and ratings have stagnated which has been somewhat addressed by the Friday night SBS game.
The figure of 575,240 weekly viewers and attendees to games represents thirty percent of the 1.96 million the FFA recently announced as participants in football. If we take Sweeney’s forty four percent figure from 2002 that covered “interest” in football than 575,240 would drop to 5.7 percent. With ethnicity effectively being erased at the top level, what excuses are left for the proponents of the anti-ethnic argument?
When you consider the solid numbers of participants at clubs around the nation over the years which has seen it overtake all the other rival team sports it is clear ethnicity is a minor issue at worst. The junior numbers are huge in Australia and dwarf the other sports but these juniors are not playing for the mono-ethnic Aleague franchises. They are members of National Premier League, State league, and amateur league clubs many of which have ethnic origins.
Do the people running the game and the media want us to believe that parents have no problem sending their children to ethnic clubs to learn and enjoy the game yet don’t want them to watch the same clubs play on TV? Do they seriously want us to believe that a soccer mad Victorian would not support Melbourne Victory if there was the presence of an Adelaide City in the same competition? If we are such a small-minded, insecure nation then perhaps football is not the sport for us. Ironically the National Rugby League and Australian Football League would love the type of ethnic diversity football enjoys but while they clamour for it we shun it.
It is time we put this anti-ethnic rhetoric in the past and focussed on the real issues holding the game back such as exposure, management, and standard. How to tackle these issues is a topic for another day.