The "Barassi Line" is a term which was first used by Ian Turner in his "1978 Ron Barassi Memorial Lecture" to refer to an imagined line in Australia which divides areas where Australian rules football is the dominant winter code of football from those where rugby league and rugby union, are the most popular. Overall attendance rates, media coverage and participation are heavily skewed in favour of each sport in its traditional areas and against the sport from the opposite side of the line.
Despite Australia's relatively homogeneous culture, the dichotomy existing in the country's sporting culture as represented by the line has endured since the founding of Australian rules football in the 1850s. Australian rules football is the most popular football code played to the west and south of the line, with centres in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, while rugby league and rugby union are more popular on the other side, with centres in Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane. Each side represents roughly half of the Australian population, due to the concentration of population on the east coast.
At the time the term was first used, there were no professional teams or leagues located on each code's opposite side of the line. However, in the years since, the Australian Football League (AFL) in Australian rules football and the National Rugby League (NRL) in rugby league have expanded their domestic competitions to include teams from both sides of the line. In addition, the multinational body SANZAR, which organises the Super Rugby competition in rugby union, has expanded its Australian presence on the opposite side of the line.
The line runs from the Northern Territory-Queensland border, south through Birdsville, Queensland, through southern New South Wales north of the Riverina, through Canberra and on to the Pacific Ocean at Cape Howe on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. The exact location of the division may be disputed and the stylised straight line is not particularly accurate in representing the division. No areas of Queensland favour Australian rules football over rugby league and, in the Riverina area in southern New South Wales, both codes vie for dominance. In the Canberra area, there is one professional team playing rugby union, the Brumbies, and one rugby league team, the Canberra Raiders, whereas there is no AFL side in Canberra, and only a few matches are played there each year, even though many Australian rules football teams compete in Canberra at levels lower than the AFL.
The Ron Barassi Memorial Lecture was a series of lectures given between 1966 and 1978 by Ian Turner, a professor of history at Monash University, that were named after Ron Barassi, Sr.. Barassi played a number of Australian rules football games for Melbourne in the Victorian Football League (VFL) before enlisting to fight in World War II and subsequently dying from shrapnel wounds.
The Barassi Line itself was named after Ron Barassi, the former Barassi's son, who was a star player for Melbourne and Carlton and a premiership-winning coach with Carlton and North Melbourne. He believed in spreading the code of Australian rules football around the nation with an evangelical zeal, and became coach and major supporter of the relocated Sydney Swans. He foresaw a time when Australian rules football clubs from around Australia, including up to four from New South Wales and Queensland, would play in a national football league with only a handful of them based in Melbourne, but his prognostications were largely ridiculed at the time.
Primarily due to the distances involved, the leagues of Australian rules football and rugby league were based around city competitions, not inter-city national leagues as is the case in most countries. Each major city had one league as the highest profile with the greatest interest and attendance. In Sydney and Brisbane, the most followed competitions were rugby league's New South Wales Rugby Football League and Brisbane Rugby League premiership. In Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin, the Australian rules football leagues of the Victorian Football League, South Australian National Football League, West Australian Football League and Northern Territory Football League respectively were the most popular. Tasmania had three separate leagues; the Tasmanian Australian National Football League, Northern Tasmanian Football Association and North West Football Union. In most cities, the non-dominant sport had amateur leagues that operated for many years.
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The pursuit of national exposure for sports is influenced by the ratings systems used by Australian television. By the late 1980s, the main football codes in Australia realised that in order to garner the desired high national ratings, and increase the value of their product for television broadcast deals and corporate sponsors, they needed to maximise their national exposure. This meant heavy investment in grassroots development and in the support of clubs on the "other" side of the Barassi Line.
Australian rules football
The first club to cross the Barassi Line was the Victorian Football League's South Melbourne Football Club, which relocated to Sydney and became the Sydney Swans in 1982. The Swans endured limited success and a series of wooden spoons in their first decade in Sydney before rallying for a series of good years in the mid-1990s onward, culminating in premierships in 2005 and 2012. The Brisbane Bears were founded as an expansion team to the VFL in 1986 and also had poor results, with back-to-back wooden spoons until they were the beneficiaries of a forced merger with the Melbourne-based Fitzroy Lions in 1996. The Brisbane Lions were formed and became the first triple-premiership winner in 43 years, winning in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
In 1990, the Victorian Football League changed its name to the Australian Football League (AFL) to pursue a more national focus. By 1997, six of sixteen AFL clubs were based outside of Victoria, with two on the Rugby League side of the Barassi Line. A gradually increasing number of players have been produced from the Rugby League side of the line, mostly due to interstate migration trends and developing grassroots participation in the sport, especially from Cairns, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and, more recently, Sydney. The AFL has increasingly scheduled matches in Canberra, Cairns and the Gold Coast in order to increase its visibility on the Rugby League side of the Barassi line.
The next wave of expansion by the AFL was on the opposite side of the line. A second Queensland team on the Gold Coast joined the competition in 2011, and a second New South Wales team, based in Western Sydney, joined the AFL in 2012. With the establishment of these clubs, Ron Barassi Jr's prophecy of a national Australian rules football league with four teams in New South Wales and Queensland has been fulfilled.
In 1995 the Australian Rugby League (ARL) created four new expansion teams including one in Perth, resulting in the first major rugby league club based on the Australian rules football side of the Barassi Line, the Western Reds. By the time the breakaway Super League started in 1997 a second club on the opposite side of the line was created, the Adelaide Rams. A third club on the opposite side of the line, the Melbourne Storm, was due to be created in 1998 to play in the second season of Super League but, in the meantime, the opposing leagues made restitution and established the National Rugby League (NRL). Part of the agreement to form a new league included a reduction of clubs in the league, especially those recently established in difficult markets, resulting in the disbanding of the clubs in Perth and Adelaide. The Melbourne Storm continued with success in the new competition, achieving their first premiership win in 1999.
The Super League War backed by Rupert Murdoch led to the establishment of the Super League. The Super League ran one parallel season in the 1997 Super League season alongside the 1997 ARL season backed by Kerry Packer. The Super League season included the Perth Reds and Adelaide Rams as teams on the AFL side of the Barassi Line.
Rugby union has also attempted to expand on the Australian football side of the Barassi Line, with mixed results. Shortly after the sport went professional in August 1995, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) joined forces with the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (now NZRU) and South African Rugby Union (SARU) to create the Super 12 competition. It began in 1996 with five regional franchises from New Zealand, four provincial teams from South Africa, and three state/territory teams from Australia. The three Australian teams were all on the traditional side of the Barassi Line—the Brisbane-based Reds, the Canberra-based Brumbies and the Sydney-based Waratahs. The league expanded by two teams, one each in Australia and South Africa, for 2006, with the competition then becoming Super 14. Significantly, the new Australian team, the Western Force, was based in Perth on the opposite side of the line.
The following year, the ARU sought to create a national domestic competition, launching the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC). It launched with eight teams, with the Melbourne Rebels and Perth Spirit based on the opposite side of the line. However, the ARC lasted only one season.
Neither the Western Force or the Melbourne Rebels have qualified for the finals series in either the Super 14 or Super Rugby, while the Brumbies, Waratahs and Reds, from the traditional areas have all won championships.
Four professional Australian football clubs, two rugby union Super Rugby clubs and one rugby league club, exist on the non-traditional side of the Barassi Line. All codes continue to seek opportunities to expand their presence on the other side of the line.
In 2012, the AFL completed the creation of two new teams on the opposite side of the line, the Gold Coast Football Club and the Greater Western Sydney Football Club, becoming the code with the most clubs operating on the opposite side of the line. In 2011 they also inaugurated the North East Australian Football League (NEAFL), a second level league comprising the reserve teams of the four AFL teams based in Queensland and New South Wales, along with high-level teams from the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
In the aftermath of the Super League war, the NRL is very guarded when it comes to expansion for rugby league. Despite this, there are official bids for expansion teams on both sides of the line; in Brisbane, the Central Coast, Rockhampton, Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and Wellington in New Zealand on the home side, as well as from Perth on the other side. The only NRL club on the non-traditional side of the Barassi Line remains the Melbourne Storm.
A study conducted from 2007 to 2011 shows a traditional divide remains evident between the two sections of the Barassi Line. The NRL remains dominant in its broadcast across the eastern divide of the line with 93.3% of the audience where it is simulcast with Australian rules football. The overall market represents 61.98% of the national viewing audience. For the AFL 81.5% of its total audience where free to air television is available remains located in the market dominant areas of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, representing 42.4% of the national viewing audience.
The distinct separation in these markets show that there is very little penetration of either sport in its opposing areas, even as a secondary sport.
Australian rules football east of the line
|State & Territory||Australian Capital Territory||New South Wales||Queensland|
|Governing Body||AFL NSW/ACT||AFL NSW/ACT||AFL Queensland|
|Greater Western Sydney Giants
|Gold Coast Suns
Rugby league west of the line
|State & Territory||Northern Territory||South Australia||Tasmania||Victoria||Western Australia|
|Governing Body||Northern Territory Rugby League||South Australia Rugby League||Tasmanian Rugby League||Victorian Rugby League||Western Australia Rugby League|
Rugby union west of the line
|State / Territory||Northern Territory||South Australia||Tasmania||Victoria||Western Australia|
|Governing Body||Northern Territory Rugby Union||South Australia Rugby Union||Tasmanian Rugby Union||Victorian Rugby Union||RugbyWA|
(Super Rugby: 2011–present)
Melbourne Rising 2014 -
National Rugby Championship
(Super Rugby: 2006–present)
2014 - National Rugby Championship
- Referenced in Hutchinson, Garrie (1983). The Great Australian Book of Football Stories. Melbourne: Currey O'Neil.
- 4174.0 - Sports Attendance, Australia, 2005-06; Australian Bureau of Statistics; 25 January 2007: Notably, the states and territories which had low attendance rates for rugby league had the highest attendance rates for Australian rules football.
- Cat. No. 4174.0 2005-06 Sports Attendance, Australia, Table 6. Persons Attending Main Sports, By State Or Territory
- D. B. Waterson, Turner, Ian Alexander Hamilton (1922 - 1978), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, Melbourne University Press, 2002, pp 424-425.
- Hess, Rob and Nicholson, Matthew. Beyond the Barassi Line: The Origins and Diffusion of Football Codes in Australia
- Boyd, Christopher (30 September 2009). "NRL grand final countdown No.3: 1999, Melbourne Storm v St George Illawarra".
- "Flo casts doubt on Perth NRL bid". 15 February 2012.