The hype around State of Origin has become hysterical. More than a rugby league showpiece, Origin has become the whole damn show. Considered the key to unlocking league’s billion-dollar rights payday, the parochial spruiking around this year’s series has a shrill urgency to it. And it seems to have paid off.
Game one was a TV blockbuster played in front of a massive sea of blue and maroon. Everyone’s talking Origin, with the fracas over Robbie Farah’s foot monstering the national sporting agenda. But is it really helping the long-term growth of rugby league? Has the Origin brand become too big for its boots?
How Origin is smashing the NRL
This time every year league trumpets the Origin gospel. It’s faster, tougher and fiercer than first grade. It’s the pinnacle of the sport. Bill Harrigan once put it this way: “Say you’re in a Mini-Minor with your foot flat to the floor; that’s first grade. Porsche, foot flat to the floor; that is State of Origin.” Who wants to drive a Mini when the Origin Porsche is being revved in your face all week long?
Not only is Origin a six-week distraction that sucks valuable media airspace from the NRL’s clubs, it actually devalues the NRL brand by constantly casting it as a lesser standard competition. If Origin is faster, then the NRL must be slower. If Origin is tougher, the NRL must be weaker. If Origin is an event, another round of first grade becomes a bit of a non-event. Unintentional though it may be, the buildup to Origin continually belittles the game’s weekly bread and butter.
Aussies love their sport, but they won’t cop second-best. The A-League struggles to shake the perception that it is a second-rate league in comparison to the cream of European competition, with less than 50 percent of Australian football fans following the local game.
Public support for the AFL’s State of Origin quickly withered once the best players stopped fronting for selection. Similarly NRL crowds and TV audiences fell in the aftermath of Origin one, a trend noted by Sydney Morning Herald league writer Brad Walter in his excellent article of earlier this week. Routine rep games just didn’t seem to matter as much in the wake of Origin’s shock and awe.
In the world of branding, this cannibalisation of the rugby league audience is a classic case of line extension. A company has a product with a strong brand, so they decide to capitalise on it by launching a closely aligned spin-off product. All too often the original product suffers, with the spin-off diluting its identity and often carving into its sales.
In fairness to league’s power brokers, much larger companies who ought know better are constantly falling into this trap. (Here’s an example: a recent Coke Zero ad where a cinema audience has their regular Cokes secretly switched to Coke Zeros. No one notices. When the ruse is revealed we’re told to next time buy the Coke Zero. Just think about it… Coca Cola are spending money to stop you from buying Coke, just to prop up sales of their Coke Zero line extension. Yes, it’s as absurd as it sounds.)
Did Origin boost league in Melbourne?
One of the NRL’s poorer turnouts for round twelve was in Melbourne where 13,200 turned out on Friday night for the marquee match-up against the Storm and the Broncos. It didn’t help that the Broncos rested three of their Origin-weary guns on the night.
Yes, the NRL is now beamed live into Melbourne on GEM, and the weather on the night was bitterly miserable. But the game was played in a spanking new purpose-built stadium with ample protection from the elements. This was a heavyweight title fight, and the home team has been in inspired touch. If bringing Origin to Etihad Stadium was about growing the appetite for league in Melbourne, why wasn’t there a noticeable flow-on effect?
The attendance at Origin one was massive. 56,021 is a huge turnout, especially in a stadium with a capacity of 53,359. At home, double the Victorians watch Origin when it’s hosted in Melbourne. No doubt most viewers would have been entertained by another see-sawing Origin struggle.
But sport isn’t mere casual entertainment. The business of sport is all about creating emotional involvement; getting fans to be part of the team. You need a horse in the race before you really care about the result. The Storm is Melbourne’s team. Not Queensland, not NSW. Sure, many Victorians might have jumped on the Queensland bandwagon on account of the Melbourne–Sydney rivalry. But not many watching at home would have angrily kicked the cat had the Maroons been rolled. Origin is a novelty in Melbourne, not a passion. The Storm are working hard to make league a weekly love affair, but it’s tough when Origin’s in town to drown out the promotion around one of your biggest home games of the year.
What about weekends?
The NRL wouldn’t be quite so swamped by the Origin sideshow if Origin games were held on stand-alone weekends. Players would be better able to back up and the media post-mortem would have subsided in time for the focus to properly shift back to the upcoming NRL round. Ratings would still be strong, albeit they wouldn’t surpass the numbers currently gained by screening Origin in the black hole that is midweek programming.
There’s a strategic benefit in increasing the buffer between Origin and NRL rounds to avoid first grade being overshadowed. On the other hand there’s an economic advantage in keeping things as they are. A lot has been said about the game’s independence this year. Surely real independence is about doing what’s best for the long-term positioning of your brand, even if media interests will pay you to do otherwise.
How to really grow the game across the nation
Australians love the green and gold. No matter what the sport, the national brand pulls us in. When Australia’s playing you’re not just spectating, you’re actively involved. The Kangaroos, not Origin, are the key to really growing league’s following across the nation. What’s more Australian than a kangaroo?
Why isn’t international rugby league, and in particular the Australia-New Zealand rivalry promoted as league’s pinnacle? As it stands the ANZAC Test is reduced to an Origin trial game. It should be the other way around.
The Australia-New Zealand league rivalry has been every bit as ferocious and at times spiteful as an Origin stoush. We keep hearing how the game is going gangbusters in New Zealand. Now is the time to make international rep football the game’s number one priority. The Kiwis may not have the pedigree of the Australians, but does NSW currently have Queensland’s class? The more opportunity New Zealand’s national squad has to play together the more chance they have of improvement.
Saying that Origin needs to be put in its place isn’t to knock it. Origin is a fantastic contest full of heart, skill, hostility and a larger-than-life history. It’s miles ahead of any spineless All-Star match or the AFL’s muddled international rules malarkey.
Sometimes though your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness. Rugby league should be striving for a future where many of the game’s brightest and best stars are not Queenslanders or New South Welshmen and have no place in Origin’s sectarian storyline. Keep Origin for the heartland, but it shouldn’t be the game’s be-all and end-all. The game’s future shouldn’t be over-invested in Origin’s success.
It would be a brave move for rugby league to take any step back from the Origin hype. Some will cry that any realignment of Origin will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. I don’t know too many people who were made rich by a magic chook. But I do know of companies who found fortune in positioning the right brand in the right marketplace. Origin’s big, but as a brand it’s just not inclusive enough to carry the nation all the way with it.