australian sport

After a devastating Test series loss to India, the besieged Australian men’s cricket team have hit back in a tense one-day international (ODI) series against India. Accustomed to emphatic victories, Aussie fans have rarely been subjected to such a nail-biting summer.

As a cricket fan, I’m enthralled. Yet as a non-Foxtel subscriber, I’m pissed off. Because the limited-overs games have been cordoned off by News Corp from those unwilling to shell out over $800 dollars a year for a sports package.

Crikey has noted the cynical collusion of Cricket Australia, Foxtel, Seven and the federal government to sidestep anti-siphoning laws and erect commercial barriers around a public spectacle of national significance. Loyal fans must submit to News Corp’s gouging or simply miss out. For many lower- and middle-class households, the price of dedicated fandom is now prohibitive. Last summer’s 50-over games averaged over 1 million viewers. This summer, locked behind the paywall, the first ODI against South Africa garnered only 277,000 viewers, beaten five-fold by the reunion special of Spicks and Specks.

Sports fans are sadly accustomed to corporate capture of institutions that were once community-spirited. Australian sporting leagues are not truly corporations in the way KFC or Commonwealth Bank are. They rarely have shareholders or a profit-maximisation requirement. They are also protected from corporate tax by antiquated exemptions, and receive hefty government subsidies. But they increasingly mimic the corporate realm in rhetoric and action, reducing fans to mere consumers of products, with little attention given to their social obligations as the most impactful non-government organisations in Australian society.

Corporate culture is increasingly instilled in teams. Cricket Australia introduced “business strategies” to improve performance, including linking players’ pay to KPIs, which encouraged a team culture permissive of shameful cheating. A damning review of the Cape Town ball-tampering incident found that “Cricket Australia has a clear sense of the price of its product (known to you and me as the game of cricket); it has lost sight of its ‘value’”.

Fans are given little to no input. Corporate leaders wager that true fans will not revolt, for their dedication is too strong. Yet soccer fans in Britain have recently protested the English Premier League’s request that clubs chip in for the outgoing CEO’s multimillion-dollar bonus, when local teams struggle to maintain pitches for the under-12s to play on. Fans’ patience is finite.

Indeed, lovers of all public spectacles are increasingly disillusioned by elite aloofness, and they’re fighting back. The Opera House/Everest horse race fiasco was the high-water mark of corporate encroachment on Australian public culture. “You don’t own this,” said proud Sydneysiders. “We do.” When will Australian sport have its Opera House moment?

When such a moment arises, I propose a radical policy demand: the nationalisation of Australia’s major sporting codes. Though not foolproof, public ownership of institutions makes them more responsive to the concerns of citizens. The Opera House would have remained a trammelled billboard without the principled stand of its public servant CEO Louise Herron.

Governments foster public and community presence in other realms of cultural importance. As Steven Wells wrote to British PM Gordon Brown in 2009, “Leaving (sport) in the hands of unregulated capital makes no more sense than letting entirely profit-motivated private companies run the environment, the arts, transport, broadcasting, banking, the mortgage industry or architecture. They will strip-mine it, pollute it, dilute it, debase it, rape its corpse and then sell its bones for cigar money.”

For clubs themselves — many equally absorbed in big-money sleaze — fan ownership and community control would return disconnected behemoths to their roots, particularly for those supposedly embedded in a city or region. German and Spanish soccer clubs, including world-beaters Real Madrid and Barcelona, have a strong history of fan ownership.

Journalist Paul Sakkal proposed a model for “communitising” the AFL for Labor-aligned think tank The John Curtin Research Centre. Fans would elect board representatives, ensuring administrators must appeal to the concerns of ordinary fans. Such de-corporatising is imperative for an organisation that will soon commence a pre-season tournament reconfigured around Marvel superhero branding. Sakkal’s model also has broad applicability across sporting codes in Australia, and would undoubtedly improve fans’ experiences.

Sporting leagues must remember their roots, and must engage with the lived experience of fans. Otherwise, working-class supporters unable to fork out $12 for a meat pie at half time will simply stay home, disengaging the next generation of players and followers who will sustain our sports long after any TV rights deal expires.