The Barassi Line and the Battle for Australian Sporting Dominance


taken from wikimedia commons

Archie H (Year 12)

Rugby league and Australian rules. Or, better known by their leagues as the NRL and the AFL, are two of Australia’s most popular sporting competitions. Both leagues remain rivalled in terms of membership and viewership numbers for any Australian-based sporting league, and their long history, popularity and club and junior-based levels have ensured their dominance in the sporting landscapes. But in some respects, AFL is more popular than rugby league and in other cases, it’s the other way around, so what drives this territorial difference in sports? 

AFL has its origins in Victoria, where Tom Wills, a then cricket umpire, invented the sport as a method of keeping cricketers “fit and healthy” during the winter break. The game exploded in popularity and thus became a staple of Victoria’s sporting identity with Victoria’s local governments establishing Australian rules clubs which would go on to become AFL teams such as Richmond, St Kilda and Melbourne.  

On the other hand, is rugby league. The sport originated in England and was brought to Australia by English settlers who first arrived in NSW. The game became a staple in the state, and it eventually seeped its influence into Queensland, becoming its most popular sport.  

However, Aussie Rules was also vying for influence in the sunshine state and eventually, the board of the Queensland Schooling Directory had to decide. Do they make rugby or Australian rules the staple sport played by Queensland schools? That choice went to league, and ever since then, rugby has been the most popular sport in Queensland and their string of State of Origin success during the Meninga, Lockyer and Smith Era have ensured it has remained popular. So out of the 3 big east coast states, 2 are league, and 1 is AFL, so NRL would have the advantage in popularity, right? 

Enter the Barassi line. The Barassi Line is a figurative line split down the north, west, south and east coast of the country. The line was created by Ian Turner, a lecturer at Monash University, and named after Ron Barassi 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. 


Ron’s dream has seemed to have come true. AFL has now dominated the sporting landscape of every state west of the east coast. Teams like Adelaide Crows, Fremantle Dockers, West Coast Eagles and Port Adelaide Power have ensured AFL’s popularity in the contested states. AFL has also successfully integrated itself into the rugby states with GWS, Sydney Swans, Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast Suns all existing within the rugby league-dominated states of NSW and Queensland. The NRL only has one team existing outside the Barassi line and it exists in Melbourne. Despite the NRL’s efforts out west not working as well as the AFL’s, the Melbourne Storm have worked wonders propping up the popularity of the sport in the rival states. The Melbourne Storm, for their entire existence, has always been a top 8 side and winning in 1999,2007,2009,2012,2017 and 2020. Such the team’s success has contributed greatly to the NRLs battle against AFL. 

Now, in terms of numbers, AFL remains the most popular sport in Australia. Through years of exposure in the western states and its identity as an Australian creation is part of the mass appeal of the sport, numbers are still incredibly equal. Given the NRL’s popularity in the most populous state in Australia while also having a vast international appeal with the Rugby League world cup and the New Zealand Warriors being an NRL team.