Football in Australia

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Aussie rules game.jpg
An AFL match at Carrara Stadium between Adelaide and Melbourne.
Brisbane Broncos vs Bulldogs 3.jpg
An NRL match featuring the Brisbane Broncos.
Crusaders scrum against the Brumbies in Super Rugby.

Football in Australia is played according to various codes including Australian football, rugby league, rugby union, association football (soccer), American football and Gaelic football. Professional football is played in Australia for four of these codes, with the leagues involved including the Australian Football League (Australian rules football), the National Rugby League (rugby league), Super Rugby (rugby union), and the A-League (soccer). Professional football has been televised for many years, with Australian rules football and rugby league being the most popular codes on television. Australia has a number of national football teams encompassing several football codes including Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Gaelic and gridiron. Australian football is the most popular sport in Australia, followed by cricket, rugby league, and rugby union.


Some form of football was first played in Australia in 1829. By the 1860s, Australian rules and rugby union clubs were established in Melbourne and Sydney. Soccer or "British Association Football" as it was referred to would arrive in the colony by 1870, with the first official match played in 1880. Intercolonial football matches were being played by 1879. Women's football matches were being organised by the 1920s. National football governing bodies were being established in the same time period. The regional football code divide in Australia was still present in the 1980s, with rugby league being the dominant code in Queensland and New South Wales while Australian rules football dominated in the rest of the country, whilst still being played throughout all of Australia and with soccer being played in ethnic enclaves. Attempts to move outside these traditional boundaries were largely unsuccessful.

The different codes attract different participation levels that reflect historical trends. In 2011, soccer had more junior participants nationally than any other football code with Australian rules the second-most played. Historically, soccer drew largely from minority ethnic groups, and rugby league and rugby union drew from populations in Queensland and New South Wales. Australian rules football attracted participants primarily from the remaining states and territories but also throughout all of Australia. Australian rules also has had one of the highest rates of participation amongst Australia's indigenous communities.


Football, as a term, may refer to several popular codes played in Australia. These include Australian rules football, rugby league, rugby union, and association football. [1] [2]

As is the case in the United States and Canada, association football is most commonly referred to in Australia as soccer. [3] [4] [5] Historically, the sport has been referred to as British association rules and British football. [6] [7] It is also sometimes referred to in the media as "the round ball game", "the world game" and "international football".[ citation needed ]

Australian rules football can be referred to as Australian football, footy, Aussie rules, AFL or football. [8] [9] [10] Historically, the sport has been referred to as Victorian rules, the Victorian game and Association football. [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17]

Rugby league can be referred to as league, footy, football, league football or rugby. [18] [19] [20] [21]

Rugby union can be referred to as union, rugby football, football, footy or rugby. [22]


According to the December 2012 data release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, soccer had approximately 489,000 participants in 2011–2012, or 2.7% of all Australians, while Australian Rules football had 241,500 participants, or 1.3%. [23]

There was historically a regional variation in the spread of Australian rules football and rugby: the Barassi Line is a rough dividing line between areas where Australia rules is most popular and where rugby union and rugby league are most popular. Rugby league participation was historically high in New South Wales and Queensland, [24] and both rugby league and rugby union continue to be popular in these states. [25] Some of the relative popularity of one football code over another in terms of participation was a result of media influence on coverage of the two major professional games, rugby league and Australian rules. This influence and their media market desires drove some of the regional patterns for these codes. [26]

Historically, soccer participation was for many years confined to Australian's newly arriving European ethnic groups. [24] Rugby league was also a relative late-comer amongst the Australian football codes, but by 1975 there were 375,000 registered rugby league players, making it for the first time the third most popular football code nationally based on participation. [24] In 1998/1999, Soccer had a 7.7% Australian participation rate. [27] In the same time frame, Australian rules had 6.2% participation rate. [27] Rugby union had a national participation rate of 5.4% in 1998/1999. [27]

According to other data collected within the last 10 years:

Indigenous Australians

Australian rules football has traditionally been one of the most popular football codes played by Australia's Indigenous community. [34] 11% of Australian Football League players identified themselves as Indigenous Australians in 2011. [35]

Rugby League boasts the highest participation of indigenous people. 12 percent of NRL-contracted players are Indigenous compared with the just 2.8 percent of Australians who identify as having Aboriginal heritage according to the latest Census in 2016. And on top of that, 17 percent of grassroots players are Indigenous.

The Rugby League Koori Knockout is the biggest single gathering of indigenous people in Australia. In 1944, the first Aboriginal rugby league club was founded in Redfern, New South Wales the Redfern All Blacks. The first All Indigenous Australian National Rugby League team was named in 2009. [34] Arthur Beetson became the first indigenous Australian to captain the national team of any football code when in 1973 he was selected to lead the Australian rugby league team.

The popularity of soccer began to grow in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the 2000s. [36] One of the first Indigenous Australians to make the national team was John Kundereri Moriarty, who was supposed to tour with the team in 1961 but the national federation was unable to hold the tour as they were facing FIFA sanctions at the time. Other notable indigenous soccer players included Charlie Perkins who played and coached Pan-Hellenic and Harry Williams who was a member of the Australian team at the 1974 FIFA World Cup. [36] [37]

Rugby Union too has a rich history of Aboriginal participation with notable indigenous athletes such as the Ella Brothers, Gary and Glen, and Kurtley Beale [38]


By 2003, there are over 60,000 registered women's soccer players. [39] In Australia, a total of 18,609 girls and women played Australian rules football in 2005 and in 2006 48,054 women played the sport in Australia. [40]


The issue of safety around football in Australia is driven by the situation in American sport. Concussions are a problem for all four major football codes in Australia. A summit was held by leadership in the big four professional football leagues to address these issues in 2011. [18]

In Brisbane, Queensland in 1980, 63% of all sport related injuries were as a result of one of the four major football codes. [41] 10.2% of football players in one medical study had a head or neck injury. [41] The most common injury for an Australian rules player is a lower limb injury, accounting for about 60% of all injuries. [41] In Australian rules, injuries as a result of contact occurred 71% of the time compared to other causes of injury. [41]


The 1908 Wallabies, Australia's first Olympic football team. Australia squad 1908.jpg
The 1908 Wallabies, Australia's first Olympic football team.

Early forms of football were played in Sydney by 1829. [42] Regular football competitions were organised in New South Wales by 1850 (an early form of Rugby), with organised competition being played in Queensland (Rugby) and Victoria (Victorian Rules football) soon after. Victorian rules football was codified in 1858. [43] [44] Australian rules football clubs still around in the current Australian Football League were founded by 1858. [45] [43] [44] Australian rules was first played in Australia in 1859. [46] A rugby union team was established at the University of Sydney in 1864. [47] Rugby union was being played in Australia by 1874 when the sport was established in Sydney. [26] :175 Soccer was being played in Australia by the 1870s, [48] [24] [26] :175 with the game's early base in Australia found in Sydney. [49] with the first team formally being organised in Sydney in 1880 that was named the Wanderers. [50] [51]

During the 1890s and 1900s, Australian rules football did not gain much traction in New South Wales in this period, where rugby union was the predominant code. The major exception was the Riverina area of New South Wales close to the Victorian border, and closer to Melbourne than Sydney. [52] In 1900, a soccer league was established in Tasmania that would continue for ten years until being disrupted by the Boer War. [7]

In 1914 and 1915 an amalgamation of rugby league and Australian rules football was considered and trialled. [53] [54]

In 1922, a committee in Australia investigated the benefits of physical education for girls. They came up with several recommendations regarding what sports were and were not appropriate for girls to play based on the level of fitness required. Football[ clarification needed ] was completely medically inappropriate for girls to play. It was medically appropriate for all girls to be able to participate in, so long as they were not done in an overly competitive manner, swimming, rowing, cycling and horseback riding. [55]

In 1928 Australia national rugby league team adopted the national colours of green and gold for the first time, having previously used blue and maroon, making the Kangaroos the first national football team of any code to do so. [56] All others have adopted the colours since.

During the 1930s, rugby league, which had gone professional, began to overtake rugby union in popularity in Queensland, with the league being the dominant spectator code by 1937. [57]

The 1951 French rugby league tour of Australia and New Zealand saw the first tour of Australia by a French football team of any code.

The 1954 Rugby League World Cup saw the first time that any Australian national football team participated in a World Cup tournament. The Australian rugby league team then won the cup in the following tournament in 1957 which was held in Australia. This was also the first World Cup tournament for any code of football to be hosted in the country.

The regional football code divide in Australia was still present in the 1980s, with rugby league being the dominant code in Queensland and New South Wales while Australian rules football dominated in the rest of the country. When codes went outside of their traditional geographic home, they had little success in gaining new fans and participants. [58] During the 1980s and 1990s both Aussie rules' and rugby league's major peak governing bodies changed their names to reflect a more nation-wide approach and added expansion teams outside their traditional areas.

During the 1990s, soccer faced a challenge in attracting youth players because of the ethnic nature of the sport at the highest levels of national competition. The sport's governing body made an effort to make the game less ethnically oriented. At the same time, rival football codes were intentionally trying to bring in ethnic participants in order to expand their youth playing base. [59]

In 2006, both Sydney's and Melbourne's grand finals featured teams from interstate, reflecting the shift in professional football in Australia. [60]

In the late 2000s, Karmichael Hunt made history by becoming the first professional footballer to change codes from rugby league to rugby union to Australian rules football.

Professional football

The first professional football leagues in Australia were the Australian Football League, and the National Rugby League. [61] [62] Up until the late 2000s, there were three major football codes competing every weekend, which included Australian rules, rugby league and rugby union. [63] Unlike in Europe and the United States, professional clubs tend to be member run organisations instead of single owner, for profit businesses. [64] The major football codes and professional leagues in the country all watch what their competition does in order to improve their own strategic picture in the Australian sporting landscape. [62]

Australia is unique among major sporting markets in having four football codes competing for market share. The irony is that the two international games, football (soccer) and rugby union, are getting trounced by the two parochial codes, rugby league and Australian Rules, which are both fast and furious, and both built on deep tribal roots.

Paul Sheehan, 2010 [65]

The Australian Football League saw money pour into the sport during the 1990s and 2000s. In 1993, total player payments were A$24 million but reached A$95 million by 2003. [66] In 2007, the Australian Football League had the greatest financial stability of all the leagues in Australia with turnover of A$280 million, with the National Rugby League coming in second with A$120 million. At the same time, the AFL had highest level of corporate support with major national and international sponsors such as Air Emirates, Vodafone and Toyota. The AFL also beat the NRL in terms of geographic spread of their teams, with the AFL having teams in five states while the NRL had teams in three states in 2007. In 2007, the AFL was also spending A$30 million in youth player development compared to the NRL's A$15 million. [67]

The National Rugby League traces its roots back to the 1890s when rugby league split from rugby union as the code went professional. By 1908, the professional New South Wales Rugby League was created. [61] Collective player bargaining came to the professional game by 1982, with 95% of all played having joined the player union by 1991. [68] Media access to the sport was one of the main reasons for a split in the sport in the 1990s that resulted in the New South Wales Rugby League facing competition from the Rupert Murdoch backed Super League, and the "Super League war" in 1997, which ended with the founding of the National Rugby League which had become a national, not state based, professional competition. [69]

Football codeMain governing bodyNational competitionAustralian clubs
Australian rules football AFL Commission Australian Football League 18
Rugby league Australian Rugby League Commission National Rugby League 15 (+1 in NZ)
Association football Football Federation Australia A-League 11 (+1 in NZ)
Rugby union Rugby Australia National Rugby Championship 7 (+1 from Fiji)


Australian sport fans have historically attended events in large numbers, dating back to the country's early history. An early football game played in Melbourne in 1858 had 2,000 spectators. [70] Australian sport fans have behaved unruly at times, with police being required at football games dating back to the 1860s. [70] By 1897, tens of thousands of spectators attended an early Australian rules football match at a time when top level soccer matches in England would draw six thousand fans. A finals match between the Carlton Football Club and Collingwood in 1938 drew 96,834 fans. [71] In 1909, at a time when rugby union had not yet become professionalised, 52,000 people in Sydney attended a game between New South Wales and New Zealand. The spectators accounted for 10% of the total population of Sydney at the time. [57] In 2000 during the Bledisloe cup opener, rugby union drew its largest ever crowd in Australia for what many have since labelled as "the greatest Test ever played" with 109,874 crowding into stadium Australia. [72] The 1914 Great Britain Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand included a match in Melbourne, the first rugby league game to be played in Victoria. The match between England and New South Wales drew 12,000 spectators. [73]

Total average game attendance for the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League increased between 1970 and 2000, with the AFL going from an average attendance of 24,344 people per match in 1970 to 27,325 by 1980 to 25,238 in 1990 and 34,094 by 2000. The National Rugby League had an average per game attendance of 11,990 in 1970, saw a decrease in 1980 to 10,860 but increased to 12,073 by 1990 and improved on that to 14,043 by 2000. [74]

73,811 people attended a gridiron National Football League game between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers at ANZ Stadium in Sydney in 1999. [75] In March 1999, 104,000 fans attended a double header match in the National Rugby League at Stadium Australia four days after the venue formally opened. [76] A National Soccer League game was held in Launceston, Tasmania in 2002 between Perth Glory and Melbourne Knights at Aurora Stadium. The match was a 1–1 draw and attracted a crowd of 5324 fans. [77] Aurora Stadium in Tasmania hosted two A-League pre-season games, attracting over 8000 spectators at the 2007–08 match. [78] FFT is actively pursuing the possibility of an A-League club based in the state. [79] Australian rules football was the most popular football code by attendance in Western Australia in 2004 with over 1,030,000 spectators attending WAFL and AFL matches in 2004. [80] In the 2006/2007 season, the A-League Melbourne Victory averaged 27,728 people to their home matches throughout the season. The 2009–10 regular season was considerably lower. [81] In 2011, the Australian Football League had a cumulative attendance of 7,139,272, a record for the competition and an average attendance of 36,425. [82] In 2010, the National Rugby League's premiership set a record for regular season attendance to NRL matches. [83]

Australian Bureau of Statistics survey Spectator Attendance at Sporting Events, 2009–10 reported the following findings regarding female attendance at football sporting events. Survey found that an estimated 3.3 million females attended one or more sporting events as spectators. This represented 37% of females aged 15 years and over in Australia and 54% of females aged 15–17 years. The top football sports in attendance were: Australian rules football (1,171,100), rugby league (594,700), soccer (354,800), and rugby union (209,300). [84]

Leagues/tournamentsTotal spectatorshipAverage match attendanceYearRefs
A-League1,522,77010,8772018-19 [85]
Australian Football League7,517,64736,3172019 [86]
National Rugby League3,175,87115,8002019 [87]

Media coverage

There is a long history of television coverage of football in Australia. From 1957 to 2001, the Seven Network was the network for the Australian Football League. The only year that Seven was not the network for the league was in 1987 when the AFL was on the ABC. An exclusive deal was agreed upon by Seven in 1976 for a five-year deal worth A$3 million. [88] Not all football television deals have been good. The deal made by Ten Network to the New South Wales Rugby League was worth considerably more, worth A$48 million for a five-year deal that also included broadcasting rights for the State of Origin and the Australia national rugby league team. This deal was terminated early because the network could not afford to pay out. [89] The 1967 NSWRFL season's grand final became the first football grand final of any code to be televised live in Australia. The Nine Network had paid $5,000 for the broadcasting rights. [90] Rugby league, which includes NRL, State of Origin and national team matches, had the highest aggregate television ratings of any sport in 2009 [91] and 2010. [92] Also, in a world first, the Nine Network broadcast free-to-air the first match of the 2010 State of Origin series live in 3D in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. [93] [94]

There are few Australian film which incorporate Australia's football codes. [95] When football is depicted, the primary codes presented are Australian rules football and rugby. The sports often appear in the background in an attempt to make a film more authentically Australian. [95] [96] They include The Club . The film was based on a play produced in 1977, in Melbourne. It has been in the senior English syllabi for four Australian states for many years. [96] The film was written by David Williamson, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring John Howard, Jack Thompson, Graham Kennedy and Frank Wilson. [97] The Final Winter , released in 2007, is another Australian film incorporating football. It was directed by Brian Andrews and Jane Forrest and produced by Anthony Coffee, and Michelle Russell, while independently produced it is being distributed by Paramount Pictures. It was written by Matthew Nable who also starred as the lead role 'Grub' Henderson. The film, which earned praise from critics, [98] focuses around Grub who is the captain of the Newtown Jets rugby league team in the early 1980s and his determination to stand for what rugby league traditionally stood for while dealing with his own identity crisis. [99] Other Australian films incorporating football include Australian Rules and Footy Legends . [100] [101]

National teams

National football teams include the Australia national soccer team ("Socceroos") who compete in FIFA World Cup / AFC Asian Cup / Olympic Football qualification and finals tournaments, the Australia national rugby union team ("Wallabies") who compete in The Rugby Championship and the World Cup while the Australian rugby league team ("Kangaroos") compete in various Ashes, ANZAC, Four Nations and World Cup rugby league test matches. The Australia international rules football team is composed of players from the Australian Football League and compete against the best Gaelic football players from Ireland in a hybrid International Rules Series.

American football Men's Australian Outbacks [102] [103]
International rules football Men's
Rugby union Men's Wallabies [104]
Men's 7's Australia
Men's Under-20 Junior Wallabies
Men's Under-18
Women's Wallaroos [105]
Women's 7's Australia
Rugby league Men's Kangaroos [106] [107] [108]
Men's Reserve PM's XIII
Men's Under-20 Junior Kangaroos
Men's Under-18
Women's Jillaroos [109] [110]
WheelchairSteelers (official) Wheelabies (unofficial) [111] [112]
Soccer Men's Socceroos [113]
Men's Under-23 Olyroos
Men's Under-20 Young Socceroos
Men's Under-17 Joeys
Men's Futsal
Men's Beach Beach Socceroos
Men's Paralympic Pararoos
Women's Matildas
Women's Under-20 Young Matildas
Women's Under-17 Mini Matildas
Women's Futsal

See also

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