Rugby Union faces a tough scrum for coverage

18 August 2017

Written by: Fraser Stewart

Australian rugby struggles to be heard in Melbourne's mainstream media.

When it comes to sport media coverage in Melbourne, only one game gets everyone talking – the Australian Football League. But in the media there’s a deafening silence surrounding an international game played in over 100 countries and celebrated with a world cup every four years – Rugby Union.

On 10 June 2017, a new era dawned for the Wallabies when they played Fiji at AAMI Park in Melbourne in the first of three matches between Fiji, Scotland and Italy for the June internationals.

It was a beautiful sunny winter’s day, with the sun beaming down on the hallowed AAMI Park turf, making it a great spectacle or so the crowds thought.

The rugby itself was a bit scrappy,  as it was essentially a new Wallabies team expecting to hit the straps from the get-go. Star Wallaby, Israel Falou, broke his try-scoring drought by scoring two tries, a feat he hadn’t achieved since 2014. The Wallabies romped away with a 37-14 win.

The attendance for the Fiji game, 13,583 , was the lowest recorded attendance during the June internationals despite being held in Melbourne, the reportedly ‘sporting capital of the world’.

The distinct lack of advertising and media hype surrounding the Wallabies (twice winners of the World Cup) is one of the main factors for the low attendance. It was clear that the majority of sports-loving Melbournians didn’t know the game was on.

New Daily sports editor, James Willoughby, believes it is always tough to attract a big turnout in Melbourne during the winter no matter what code is playing. Another reason might be the lack of success on field from the Wallabies.

“I do remember thinking there was a real lack of promotion [about the Wallabies, Fiji match],” Willoughby tells upstart.

“It was a 3 pm kick off on a Saturday, which I know, rugby people prefer a time slot like that, a more traditional time slot.

“You have a lot of people not only watching sport, but playing sport on a Saturday afternoon so that would detract a lot from attending I suppose.”

The ongoing saga of the Australian Rugby Union looking to cut a Super rugby team from either Melbourne or Perth is another reason for the low attendance, as is the Melbourne Rebels not performing up to standard and the dominance of the AFL with it’s high-profile media landscape.

Herald Sun journalist Matt Windley believes one of the key factors for the low crowd was the fact that Fiji isn’t a tier 1 nation with enough status to capture the attention of the Victorian sporting community.

“ I suppose it was the perfect storm,” Windley tells upstart.

“I mean Fiji is not a big opponent, there’s a good Fijian expat community that came out for the game but in terms of everything else it wasn’t a tier-1 nation, like England, Wales or Scotland.

“Australian rugby is in a state of flux. It was just that with everything combined, it meant the crowd was low, I still think it was lower than what they expected.

“It just shows the work that needs to be done to capture the hearts of the Victorian rugby public.”

In terms of being in the mainstream media spotlight in a city like Melbourne, rugby union doesn’t even come close.

In April this year, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) dropped a massive bombshell on the Super Rugby competition with their plans to cull an Australian-based franchise.  This received very little attention from the papers and on TV.

“I think a lot of that comes down to what people want, so there’s a reason why a rugby union story may be 14 pages into the sport section.” Willoughby tells upstart.

“That’s because there’s a cross section of Victorian society and people that are more interested in this state about Jack Riewoldt’s eye or a  suspension to Luke Hodge.

“AFL is an incredibly powerful beast in this state.

“Strategically, if your talking about coverage in Melbourne, I think it’s difficult for any sport that’s not AFL in this state to generate a lot of mainstream media attention in the winter.”

Meanwhile, Windley believes the small demographic of rugby followers in Melbourne is a hard “slog” to sell to the mainstream media.

“I think it’s just a lack of general interest in the game,” Windley tells upstart.

“When it comes to mainstream media, stories will get a good run, they’ll be both on websites and in the paper and on TV if there is an appetite for them among the broader public.

“I can only speak for newspapers and our website, it’s just that the numbers aren’t there when it comes to Rebels stories and that’s why they don’t get a run…unfortunately people are more interested in the AFL

“Unfortunately for the Herald Sun and The Age audience the appetite is just not there for day-to-day coverage, and that’s the stark reality of it.”

Melbourne prides itself on sporting success, and if rugby union can be heard even louder than it already is in the mainstream media landscape, that will mean success both on and off the field.


Fraser Stewart is a third year sport journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @F_Stewart95