By STEVE MASCORD
EXPERTS in sports marketing often contend that from the moment the printing press became capable of thousands of impressions an hour, no dominant sporting code in any part of the world has been overthrown.
The theory is that mass media enshrined whatever was popular at the time and was the single most significant factor in ensuring soccer ruled England, American Football and baseball hoarded America and Australian rules and rugby league captivated their respective markets in Australia.
Rowing used to be a massive sport in Sydney. Had technological advances occurred a few years earlier, Paul Gallen could be wearing tights to work and rugby league would be up the creek without a paddle.
So in light of the debate this week surrounding the worth of the World Cup, it’s timely to extrapolate this theory to address the question: can we really create a new international superpower in a professional sport?
If the preferences of the masses across the world are, indeed, set in stone, then is it realistic to expect the United States to suddenly become strong in rugby league, or for Australia to be a top soccer nation, or for Argentina to make the step to regularly beat the All Blacks?
How do we fight this trend and create a fourth ‘big’ rugby league country?
It’s apparent that if you were EVER a superpower at a given sport, you can be again. The Home Nations, for instance, had a poor period in many sports but are enjoying success once more.
Similarly, in rugby league, France have fallen on hard times but history suggests all is not lost for them.
Discord will stop here and make one point: sport, like any business, must have an aim. Otherwise it has no administrative focus. And any sport’s aim should be to maximise the number of participants and spectators.
So even if we conclude that we cannot create a new great rugby league playing nation, we should still play internationals because it is OK to be a minor sport. The vast majority of sports are minority concerns EVERYWHERE they are played.
It doesn’t embarrass them and it shouldn’t bother us if we are tiny in MOST places we conduct matches. Why do we have a God-given right to be dominant and internationally competitive everywhere? That’s nothing but arrogance.
But I digress.
In answering the question posed above, let’s take into account the media revolution currently taking place to match that of the printing press over a century ago: the digital revolution.
The digital revolution is the reason rugby league – and everything – is spreading. It’s why there are fans of Underbelly in Hungary and Latin American soap operas in New Zealand.
Rugby league in Greece, for instance, is using very specifically targeted Facebook advertising to get boys and young men to come to training. They pitch the advertising to men who like wrestling and extreme sports; they promise them a bit of biff.
Those in Australia saying the World Cup is a waste of time come from an age of populist culture where there was more or less one set of interests and pursuits in given geographical areas and this was perpetuated and promoted by the traditional media – which is now dying – driven by a profit motive.
That is old thinking. You might as well carry around a pager and send faxes.
We increasingly live in a niche era where all the world’s sports, movies, music and theatre is available to us and where we live (and what sports are popular there) are becoming irrelevant.
Rugby league is already capitalising on this. I have heard several stories about people setting up a facebook page called, say, ‘Bhutan Rugby League’ and doing absolutely nothing else – before being contacted by someone in that country and a competition subsequently popping up. This is happening in Asia and Africa in particular and could not have occurred in any previous era.
Rugby league can further capitalise on this revolution by using social media to target regions where the traditional media-reinforced local sports are not particularly strong. Lebanon is a great example – basketball is reasonably big there but there is a gap to be filled.
The answer to the question “can a new rugby league super power be created” is, I believe, “yes”.
But we have to hit other sports in their weak points: in the Pacific, where rugby union takes talent but stages few games, in the Caribbean where most of the foreign investment is in tourism, in nations that are relatively new to capitalism and democracy and have no pro sports superstructure.
Rugby league rode the previous media revolution by accident but there’s no reason it can’t deliberately embrace this one.
These are the sort of things the AFL look at, planning strategically over generations. Rugby league can be a massive beneficiary of the digital age if it thinks in similar terms.
The next rugby league super power will not be an industrialised European or North American nation. It will be from the Middle East, Africa, Asia or the Pacific where other sports can’t be bothered to look.
Actually, it will be Fiji.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD