The reason why Melbourne is the sporting capital of Australia, and quite possibly the world, can be summed up in one simple word: economics. This one word masks a lot of complicated history and social progression.
Organised sport is a very recent phenomenon. Before the industrial revolution, the vast majority of people lived in absolute poverty, where the struggle to avoid starvation took up much of their time and energy, and what little rest time was left was devoted to worship.
There is a good reason why horse racing is called the sport of kings. Maintaining any horse, such as those for working the fields or for warfare, is an expensive proposition. Having specially bred horses which are not suited for work or warfare is even more expensive, as it is the sort of leisure practice only open to the very rich, and which does not yield any productive return, except in conspicuous consumption.
And so it is that organised sport started to develop with the industrial revolution, where, for the first time, an increasing volume of people had sufficient means above the mere struggle for subsistence to have both the leisure time and the energy to regularly compete together, albeit in sports where the equipment required was minimal, such as those vaguely related codes we call ‘football’.
From the 1850s when the Gold Rush occurred through to the 1890s, Melbourne was one of (if not THE) wealthiest cities on Earth. This transformed society in the colony in many ways. One was that the relative wealth available and the value of the labour of most of its denizens meant that they could all bargain more competitively for higher wages, and hence led the world in better working conditions and the development of trade unions. Education, of an increasingly universal nature, flourished in the colony, as it could afford to keep children in school for longer and invest more in making them more skilled future members of the work force.
And the increased leisure time meant that organised sport could emerge much sooner in Melbourne than in most other places in the world. The Melbourne Football Club, started in 1859, is much older than any of the great English Premier League soccer clubs. [Even my own club, the Footscray Football Club – aka the Western Bulldogs – dates to 1883, giving it an ancient lineage.]. The immediate predecessor to the Australian Football League, the Victorian Football League, spun off in 1896 from the somewhat older Victorian Football Association.
Need I mention as well that Melbourne, in 1877, was the birthplace of Test Cricket? And that the wealth our city had meant that the Melbourne Cup horse race started in 1861 (remember what I just said about horse racing being very expensive). [Other famous races are often either younger, like the Kentucky Derby in the USA merely started in 1875, or not much older, like the Grand National in the UK in 1839.]
That Melbourne currently celebrates two public holidays dedicated exclusively to sporting events is probably unprecedented in the world, and indicative of the significant wealth which drove the establishment of the unique sporting culture in Melbourne during the Gold Rush.
The AFL home and away season, driven by the 10 Victorian based clubs, usually has the 4th highest average attendances in any domestic sporting competition in the world, and the AFL Grand Final, when held at the MCG, is the most highly attended domestic sporting completion final in the world.
The AFL, under that name, has existed since 1990, but it had been 8 years in the making, starting from 1982 when bankrupt VFL club South Melbourne relocated reluctantly to Sydney and became the Swans, followed by the inclusion in 1987 of the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears as expansion clubs. The Adelaide Crows joined in 1991, followed by Fremantle in 1994, and Port Adelaide in 1997 on the demise of Fitzroy (I doubt any Victorian based Lions supporters will disagree too vehemently there). The inclusion of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney circa 2012 took the competition to its current 18 teams.
Horror in Melbourne greeted the first time, in 1991, a non-Victorian team played in the AFL grand final, and even more so the following year, when West Coast won it. But that was nothing as compared to the period from 2001 to 2006, where six successive premierships were won by non-Victorian teams, and where, in the latter 3 seasons, no Victorian team even made the grand final. By then, a team in each mainland state had won the AFL premiership at least once, and you could could say that the league had become a national competition in fact as well as name.
However, Australian Rules Football, as we used to call it, has never been very widely supported north of the Murray River prior to the expansion of the AFL. NSW and Queensland have mostly been devoted, albeit in a half hearted way, to Rugby – mostly the League variety which is almost unique globally in its degree of support in Sydney, and to a lesser extent Union.
I intentionally say that the support for Rugby League and Union in NSW and QLD is half hearted. They do not have the same sporting culture as Melbourne or Adelaide (which is like a smaller more concentrated version of Melbourne in all the things that we like). Take for example club membership figures. South Sydney Rabbitohs, in 2015 (the most recent year I could find figures) had a membership of 35,000 – and they are one of the most successful and popular NRL clubs. In 2015, the Western Bulldogs (one of the least popular and most unsuccessful Melbourne based AFL clubs) had a shade under 36,000 members. The Sydney Swans had 49,000 members in 2015, and now have over 60,000.
And so we come to October 2020. The AFL Grand Final was played at the Gabba in Brisbane last night. Most of the AFL season has been played in Queensland this year, with the remaining games played in WA and SA. The AFL has left its cradle in Melbourne and established itself, for the time needed for the competition to survive, outside its home state, and indeed in Queensland, a state where AFL is almost a novelty sport, rather than a part of its sporting culture, a place where they supposedly prefer Rugby League.
That the AFL has been able to do this represents the maturity of the competition and its importance to Australian society on a national level. It has shown now that it can survive outside Melbourne, and that there are political and business leaders elsewhere willing to support it.
It is now an opportunity for the AFL to build on this, as it has progressively done so in the 39 years since the decision was made for South Melbourne to relocate to Sydney, to consolidate greater support for Australian Rules Football in Queensland and NSW. I believe that soccer (ugh!), and the two forms of Rugby do not offer much competition – the conduct of NRL players makes AFL players look like saints, and Rugby Union is in a state of growing chaos both nationally and within this hemisphere.