* This post was originally published yesterday on The Footy Almanac. It is about the experience of being at the St Kilda vs Sydney match, and the chances of AFL growing as a sport in New Zealand.
“Go the Bombers!”
That was my abiding memory of AFL before last night. I had previously been to one, and only one match, about ten years ago. Collingwood were taking on Essendon, and more than the match itself I remembered the passionate supporters. Apparently there was some kind of rivalry between the two teams too.
That isn’t really how we do sport in New Zealand. We don’t do carnival atmosphere, we don’t do much dressing up, we might be passionate but we are very bloody grim about it. We don’t enjoy watching rugby, we endure it.
It even extends to our representative teams. The All Whites are famous for their wall of defenders approach, and their ability to get 0-0 draws. The All Blacks and Breakers are ruthlessly competent, without being spectacular. The Warriors and the Phoenix are the exceptions that prove the rule. After every sloppy loss, pundits up and down the country call for them to be more clinical, dour, grim.
So how would a sport like AFL do in New Zealand? Grim is the last word you could use to describe the game, or the fans who watch it. The game is fast, free flowing and exhilarating in a way that rugby, league or football simply aren’t. We aren’t used to sport like this, and the vast majority of New Zealanders have never experienced a live match.
There is the sporting language barrier to get through. In a culture dominated by rugby, the sight of players whacking the ball to each other, repeatedly knocking on, getting offside and kicking when they are right there to score a try is bemusing. For the last few days the newspapers have been full of AFL rules and guides, necessary in a country far to the east of the Barassi Line.
The visiting supporters too were different to what we are used to. Clad entirely in team colours, huge clumps of fans started up chants, especially for St Kilda. In front of where I was sitting there was a large group behind the goalposts. Throughout the night they were whipped into a frenzy by what appeared to be the matriarch of the St Kilda supporters club. Even when they were twenty points down, nothing diminished their urgency and passion in willing their team onwards.
Contrast that with the home crowd, a generally fairly sedate bunch. Sports in Wellington are often low-key events. Almost the only example of raucous crowd behaviour in the capital is the Yellow Fever, the supporter club of the Phoenix. They push the boundaries by removing their shirts late in the second half. During last nights game a few local fans appeared to get kicked out of the ground for attempting to start an admittedly unpopular Mexican wave. Party animals, we are not.
The overall crowd numbers ended up exceeding expectations, with around 22,500 people attending. Out of context, that may seem an insignificant sum for the historically well-supported AFL. However, for Wellington, that is a fine tally. The Black Caps get about 20,000 through the doors on a good day, the Hurricanes slightly less. The Phoenix struggle to crack 10,000. Only the All Blacks have been a bigger drawcard than last nights match at the Westpac Stadium in recent years.
Does that mean that AFL has a future in New Zealand, particularly St Kilda in Wellington? The club has plans to play more fixtures here over the next few years, and all the evidence suggests that they will be well supported. While the novelty factor won’t exist next year, intrigued locals will have either seen for themselves, or will hear about from others, how much better the game is to watch live rather than on TV. As for Wellington adopting St Kilda, sports fans in the capital are used to barracking for lovable losers.
The future for AFL as played by actual New Zealanders is also looking bright. Thanks to a series of programs run by AFLNZ the sport is now well known in primary and secondary schools. Of course, its called Kiwikick, reflecting New Zealand’s traditional unwillingness to brand itself with anything remotely Australian. The NZ Hawks can foot it with any other country that isn’t Australia, and 9 a side social leagues are becoming very popular. It is still a niche sport for sure, but one with a steady, loyal and growing constituency.
But there are always the obstacles presented by the current behemoths of the New Zealand sporting landscape. Rugby towers across the nation, a colossus that devours resources directed towards sport. Football is very popular among children and teenagers, and Rugby League dominates in the Maori and Pacific Islander communities. For AFL to become a genuine contender among those other sports, it must continue to make progress, both domestically and in terms of being an attractive destination for competition matches. Yesterday’s match, whilst it was successful, has to be just the start.