Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Rugby League, the Manchester/Liverpool Urban Agglomeration, English Soccer, and Me

I grew up in the industrial/coal mining city of Wollongong in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. This place is as sports obsessed as most places in Australia. And, as is the case almost everywhere in the world, there ultimately tends to be more passion for sports played in winter than sports played in summer.

When you look at Australia from elsewhere, this fact is not obvious. Abroad, the most famous Australian sportsmen are the Australian cricket team, and one or two individual sportsmen, be they tennis players, golfers, or even competitive swimmers. Cricket is a unifying factor: it is played everywhere in the country and with considerable passion. However big a bunch of idiots they are capable of being, we in Australia love our cricket teams. But, as far as life and death loyalties go, it is the tribal loyalties towards sporting clubs that are play in winter that count.

What do I mean by this? Well, what I mean is "football". However, the question as to what is meant by "football" is, in Australia, long and complicated. In the southern and western states of Australia: Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart - there is the game of Australian Rules football. This game appears to have been invented by Irish miners on the goldfields of Victoria in the 1850s. This is the peculiar, extremely fast game played on huge ovals by enormous teams (18 players each) that you may have seen on cable or satellite television in off peak hours if you live in the US or UK. Amongst its followers, which make up about half the population of Australia, this game inspires stronger passions than any other game played in Australia. This probably means that it inspires passions as strong as any other game in the world. Next to supporters of the Collingwood club in Melbourne, Arsenal supporters , even including Osama bin Laden, look like a miserable bunch of wimps.

However, growing up in Wollongong, this did not affect me much. Because there, the game was different. Wollongong was (and is) a Rugby League town.

The sport of Rugby League was invented in 1908. Prior to that the game of Rugby was played in the public (ie private) schools of the south of England, and the industrial towns of the north. In 1908, the northern clubs wished to pay compensation for lost wages to players who had to miss work in order to play Rugby. The southern clubs, who wanted the game to remain amateur, would not allow this, and the northern clubs broke away from the sourthern dominated governing body (the Rugby Union) to form their own body (the Rugby League), which specifically allowed players to be paid for playing.

Quite soon after the split, the rules of the games governed by the two bodies diverged, and although the games remain similar, they are different and separate games. The split spread south to Australia, and a Rugby League competition was set up in Sydney in 1909. Rugby in Australia, like in the north of England, was played largely by working class people who needed to be compensated if they were going to play the game. Australians in Sydney (and Brisbane, but not Melbourne) largely took to the game of Rugby League. Both games endured in Australia, but Rugby Union became a game played at private and other exclusive schools, at universities, and in certain of the more posh parts of town. Whereas in England, the division between Rugby Union and Rugby League was certainly a class based division, but was also a geographic division between north and south, in Australia it was almost entirely a social class based division. Both games were played in Sydney and Brisbane, and surrounding areas, although League was more pervasive.

In my coal mining and industrial town of Wollongong, the key sport was Rugby League. At the schools I went to, there would be spontaneous games of Rugby League played at lunchtime, and organised school games on a Wednesday afternoon. Really enthusiastic people would also play club games on the weekend, and train for this several days a week. I didn't do this personally, but for some people Rugby League was close to being life and death.

But, of course, it wasn't called Rugby League. As the most popular winter sport, It was called simply "football" or "footy". The sport that is known as football in much of the world was known as "soccer". (In Australia, soccer will be sometimes somewhat offensively referred to as "wog-ball", because it is perceived as being followed mostly by immigrants from southern Europe. In Sydney or nearby, Australian rules football will be sometimes disparagingly referred to as "aerial ping-pong). Even at age seven I had woken up to the fact that this usage was ludicrously parochial, and so I cannot recall ever using it myself. But it was normal. (I have at least one memory of being made fun of at length by a classmate for referring to soccer as "football", however).

But that's childhood parochialism for you. You are not exposed to or aware of the wider world. In those days, when at the start of the telecast of the Australian Rugby League grand final the commentator would mention that "This game is being watched by a billion people around the world". The sport was taken so seriously locally that it was almost possible for some people to believe this.

And that was where I was when I went to school. Rugby League was clearly the most important game in the world. The fact that other games were played elsewhere was something I was only barely aware of. As I got older, I became aware of the existence of Rugby Union. (In Australia, Rugby Union is referred to simply as "Rugby", although it is the less popular of the two sports. This may be because Rugby League uses "football"). One peculiar thing about Rugby Union in Australia is that many of its players play Rugby League as juniors but switch to Rugby Union as they get older. This switch is particularly common amongst the upwardly mobile. Capable people from relatively humble backgrounds will go to university to become professionals, and will discover that there is much enjoyment to be gained and many contacts to be made through belonging to rugby (union) clubs, and so they will switch sports. I didn't do this myself, but I associated with many people that did, so this was something I became quite aware of.

In any event, one of the highlights of the game of Rugby League in Australia was the "Kangaroo Tour" that occurred once every four years. In this case, the national Rugby League team would tour Great Britain, play a lengthy series of matches against the best British clubs, and then three test matches against the national side of Great Britain. (It's worth observing that of all the various Australian sporting teams, it is the Rugby League team that is named after the most famous Australian animal).

By the 1980s, all the matches on such a tour were televised back to Australia. The clubs came from exotic sounding towns with names like "Wigan", "Widnes", "St Helens" and "Warrington". Like most Australians, I had no conception of where these places were, other than "somewhere vaguely north of London". By the 1980s, the Australian Rugby League team was stronger than the British team, and Australia won most matches. In fact, Australia has won every series against the British in the last 25 years. This fact hides the real level of competitiveness, however. Whereas Great Britain have not won a series against Australia in 25 years, they have often fielded a competitive side in that time, and they have often won matches. There have been some extremely exciting and memorable matches played in that time. However, Australia have always prevailed at the end of the series.

In any event, that is where I was. When I came to Cambridge in the 1990s, I still deep down had the gut feeling that Rugby League was an important sport, and that Rugby Union was something less important played by toffs and that soccer was a minor sport. (Deep down, I still feel this way). In Cambridge, though, I can recall mentioning the game of Rugby League to someone and getting the response.

That's a lower class game, isn't it?

and on another occasion, I had the following conversation with an Englishman with a very public school accent.

(Me) In Australia, Rugby League is a much bigger game than Rugby Union
(Him) No it isn't.

I also once recall a South African friend of mine (a very good friend of mine in fact) refuse point blank to listen to me attempt to explain the finer points of the game, on the basis that the game clearly didn't have any finer points. (Rugby League is played in Australia, but for some reason if not played seriously in South Africa or New Zealand. Rugby Union is dominant in both places).

In around 1996, I attended a Rugby League test at Wembley stadium between Australia and Great Britain. Amusingly, all the people near me in the crowd seemed to also come from Wollongong. However, on the train and tube, I heard lots of northern accents. Much fun was had by all (especially, for them, because Britain won the match). I noticed that the northerners simply referred to the game as "Rugby". Presumably they two games were separate enough in England that supporters of both games could refer to them as "Rugby" and there would not be any confusion. In any event, I suppose that calling Rugby League "football" is not really a possibility in Wigan or St Helens.

Because, in my little trip to Manchester and Liverpool on the weekend, I actuall visited a couple of these towns, or at least passed through them on the train. Warrington, Widnes, Wigan, St Helens and more are all traditional working class towns between Manchester and Liverpool. (There are other Rugby League towns that are not between Manchester and Liverpool - the game is also widely played in Yorkshire - but there are a concentration in the Manchester - Liverpool area. And whereas it is (or at least was) possible to grow up in Wollongong believing that Rugby League is the most important game in the world, and that it should therefore be called "football", I suspect that it is somewhat harder in Wigan, or St Helens, or Warrington. In any of these places, you are within 50 miles of the home bases of both Manchester United and Liverpool soccer clubs, two of the most rich, famous, and powerful sporting clubs in the world. (Manchester City and Everton are not quite in that rank, but are not very far behind either). "Football" is always going to be soccer.

But still, the difference in games is an indication that these towns are, or at least traditionally were, culturally quite different from the larger cities. A difference in the games played was clearly traditionally part of this.

People who study the growth of cities are these days quite fond of talking about "urban agglomerations". Basically, old cities have had large suburban areas grow into each other, so that you have continuous development going from one old city centre to another. Given that most people live in suburbs rather than old cities (particularly in the US) and given that "city" is defined in different ways in different places, it no longer makes sense to compare populations of cities defined in traditional ways. Instead, an urban agglomeration is defined as an area of continuous developed land and surrounding areas from which significant numbers of commuters travel into the continuous area. The best list of the urban agglomerations of the world and their size is found here. (For instance, on the list, London is listed as having just under 12 million people. This is larger than most conventional estimates, that come in around eight million, which is about the number of people living inside the London green belt. The eleven million figure includes towns and villages outside the green belt from which many people commute to London, thus looking at London as an economic entity rather than a physical entity limited by an artificial barrier). Most are either single city centres surrounded by suburbs or a large city thats suburbs have swallowed up other smaller cities around it, but some are peculiar multi-headed creatures. For instance, "The Ruhr" is listed as the fourth largest city in Europe (after Moscow, London, Istanbul, and Paris), and it consists of Cologne, Essen, and various other centres, none of which would traditionally have been thought of as a really major city. What has happened there is that the spaces between a number of city centres have been filled up with suburbs.

And a question that comes out of this, is how do you regard Manchester and Liverpool. The friendly compilers of the list count them separately, Manchester containingn 2.5 million people and Liverpool 1.4 million. However, when if you look at their methodology, you would find that every town between Manchester and Liverpool is counted in one list or the other. That is, the whole area between the two cities is counted towards one or the other. If the two touch, then surely they should be counted as one agglomeration.

I think the issue is actually the history of suburbanisation worldwide. If Manchester and Liverpool had been thriving cities in the period between 1950 and today, then the area between them would have filled up with suburbs. However, largely this did not happen. While the area between Dallas and Fort Worth was filling up, Liverpool and Manchester were in decline. While Liverpool and Manchester have been strongly connected as an economic entity for a long time (once upon a time, Manchester was the workshop of the world, and Liverpool was the port from which raw materials arrived and products left), they and the towns between them had quite distinct cultures, and still do. Suburbanisation would have perhaps reduced this if it had happened in a big way. However, it didn't. The two cities have very different cultures (and different accents). The towns between them have different cultures still, and towns between them are still quite distinct from each other. This is clear through, amongst other things, the sporting culture and the Rugby League culture that exists between two of Europe's biggest soccer towns. For these reasons, the compilers are probably right to list Liverpool and Manchester as separate agglomerations, at least for now.

But this may be changing. For one thing, the 1990s were clearly economically better for Manchester than the decades before. Manchester at least is now a very nice city to visit, and feels international and modern. (Liverpool feels less so). Some of the process of suburbanisation that did not occur before is occurring now. And, just to finish off, it is possible to go back to the sporting analogy. The sport of Rugby League did not cope well with the 1990s, either in Australia or Britain. The key test for the success of sports in the 1990s and onwards has largely been how well they have coped with multi channel television, or perhaps you can word this as "how successfully they have sold their souls to Rupert Murdoch". In Australia, Rugby League did a catastrophic job of this. The game sold its television rights on a long term basis in the early 1990s to a terrestrial television network owned by Kerry Packer. When, a few years later, much larger sums were on offer for pay television rights, administrators found their hands were tied. News Corporation's Pay Television company wanted the rights to the sport anyway, and attempted to take it by force. News Corp. managed to sign up around half the decent players and clubs in Australia, and Rugby League in Australia had two warring competitions. This created mass disillusionment amongst fans of the sport, and created a wildly uneconomic cost base for the game in Australia. (One of the consequences of the war was spiralling salaries that the game really cannot afford). The game reunified after one year, but the costs are still being counted. In Britain, Rugby League sold itself to Sky TV more or less willingly, but faces the general problems of a minor sport in this age of television.

Meanwhile, Rugby Union went professional in 1995, and (in most parts of the world) signed up to News Corp's pay TV companies more or less willingly. The game was completely restructured in the southern hemisphere, and new television friendly competitions were set up. The much greater international presence of Rugby Union, and its presence in the richer South-East of England made the game easier to promote. Having turned professional (and having more money) Rugby Union was able to buy some of League's best players. Because there was much more of an international game, Rugby Union was able to promote a World Cup very successfully. In Australia, many disillusioned Rugby League fans were looking for another sport to follow. So, Rugby League has been in decline relative to Rugby Union in most places for a few years now.

Of course, in England an even bigger factor has been the tremendous success of soccer's sellout to pay television. Over the last decade, the Premiership (along with other European leagues) has gained enormous amounts of money and coverage, to the extent that soccer dominates all other sports in this country to an enormous extent. This may be a case of the large crushing the small, or it may simply be good management. In any event, in the face of this onslaught, it is relatively difficult for smaller and more local sports to survice. I suspect that Rugby League in St Helens is suffering from this along with everything else, and it may be a factor in the region being more generally homogenised.

And, as readers who have been here since the start are probably glad, just one final comment. In Manchester on the weekend, I happened to be near Old Trafford, and although it was Thursday and there was no match at the football ground, I went and looked at it regardless. Clearly money has been spent on the stadium. Clearly this is a club with money. Various people with foreign accents were there too, looking at the stadium as if it were some holy place. (On the other hand, the cricket ground down the road had a sort of genteel shabbiness about it, and no foreigners other than myself seemed even remotely interested in it). This sport (and in particular this club) has sold itself in a truly international and impressive way. No other sporting clubs are famous internationally in the way the top English football clubs are. Manchester United play most of their matches at midday British time in order that the matches are in prime television time in China, Korea, and Japan, because the club has an enormous number of supporters there. In parts of Africa, the first question I have been asked by local people is often "What Premiership club do you support?". The idea that I am not particularly interested in soccer is almost unthinkable. Heaven knows what Americans make of this question. If I had grown up in Manchester, the thought that the football matches I watched were the most important sporting events in the world, and that there might be a billion people watching their important matches, might even have been close to true. Talking to a few people in Manchester, I was struck by the fact that the international reach of their sporting clubs and sporting league is actually greater than they realise. (Most did not know the reason for the midday starts, for instance. They were simply annoyed by them). This is the opposite to most of us. We grow up, and discover that our sporting interests are astonishingly local and parochial. In Manchester and Liverpool, they don't. They grow up to discover that in fact much of the world does support their local club. And that must be weird. And it is also very difficult for other sports, or other clubs, to compete with.

(No, I can't call it football. The nuances of the word are, for me, too complicated).

Update: More thoughts on cities and urban sprawl here.

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