The battle for Melbourne’s soul: Sporting Capital or International City of Culture?

AFL Grand Final day 2009. A young Japanese tourist wandered down Spring Street, Melbourne, dressed in a fashionable clinging top with blue and white horizontals. She was quickly surrounded by Geelong fans, vying to have their photo taken beside her. An observer described her as “utterly, utterly perplexed”.
Hopefully some kind soul eventually explained that Australians are sports mad – and Melburnians have a particularly virulent strain.
Those Geelong fans revelled in Melbourne’s treasured image as the ‘sporting capital’ – often of Australia, sometimes of the world. And there are some pretty impressive stories to back it up.
Rugged up in footy scarves and beanies, we turn out in massive numbers for AFL each weekend in the home and away rounds. In fewer clothes, 190,000 went to the four days of the Boxing Day Test this summer. And amongst the green and yellow suited chants of “Oi! Oi! Oi!” at Melbourne Park we hold the world record attendance at Grand Slam tennis: 80,649 on Saturday, January 22this year (eclipsing the 77,000 in one day in January, 2010).
Based on such achievements, Melbourne has won the world’s “Ultimate Sports City” title three times in a row since 2008. The title is awarded every two years by the international organisation SportAccord – and who are we to disagree?
But this sporting city has another side, a challenger to the image. In 2008 Melbourne became the second city (after Edinburgh) to become a UNESCO City of Literature. And there are other good stories of cultural gongs.
Even before the Tutankahmen phenomenon last year, the National Gallery, the Museum and the Centre for the Moving Image each attracted more than 1 million visitors a year. That puts them in an elite list of 50 art museums around the world. And only five cities have three or more of these: Melbourne joins London, Paris, New York, and Washington.
Melbourne’s Comedy Festival is huge too – selling 600,000 tickets last year, ranking it number two in the world. We’re behind those Scots again with the Edinburgh Fringe – but moved well ahead of third place getter Montreal (Just for Laughs) in the last five years.
All this at first sight seems strange. A city obsessed with sport that is also a leading city of culture? Is there a battle going on for Melbourne’s soul? Do we identify with the cultured Dr Jekyll or the sporting Mr Hyde?
In early summer 2011, backyard cricket in two Melbourne suburbs provided a link between the two sides.
Talent fostered in a Dandenong backyard demolished both Kiwi and Indian test batting. After rookie James Pattinson took five Kiwi scalps in Brisbane, he joked that he’d ask his big brother: “How many Test five-fors have you taken?” Not just any big brother. Darren, the other player in that Dandenong backyard, played for England in 2008, and now plays for Victoria and Nottingham. Makes you wonder if the boys had eagle eye and the snickometer to adjudicate their backyard disputes.
Very different stories spiralled out of Northcote backyard cricket in the ABC TV series from Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap. A special cinema screening marked the final episode on 24 November, including a discussion with the writer, producer and an actor. Organisers the Wheeler Centre announced the special screening by email on 17 November. Such was the enthusiasm – and the speedy responses – that the 220 seats booked out in 20 minutes.
But such links often seem few and far between. The discord in The Slap showed views could quickly diverge from a single situation. And generally, there is a wide gulf between our images of the sports-mad and the culture vulture.
From the inside of sports fan-dom, such diversity seems strange. From the thousands that turn out each year for the Grand Final Parade, surely everyone in this sports-mad city follows the footy? Not quite. Just over 1 million Melburnians aged 15 or older go to at least one footy match each year. Very impressive numbers, but it leaves two-thirds of us not going to the footy.
Similar stories occur on the cultural side. Enjoying a café lunch, Megan Burke overheard three guys reckoning how ‘bloody good’ The Slap was. The literary blogger pondered “So I’m guessing everyone in Australia has been watching the show?” Again, not quite. The program did wonderful ratings for the ABC, with up to 1 million watching each episode in our capital cities. But that leaves a lot of people not watching.
Lyndon Terracini has a similar story from Opera Australia. One Sydney supporter raved to the Artistic Director about a recent production, saying “All of Sydney is talking about it”. Terracini leavened the praise, and the artistic success, with knowledge of the poor ticket sales. He pointed out that only some 4,000 people had bought tickets for the production, and on last count there were a lot more than 4,000 people living in Sydney. “Well, all of my friends have seen it,” was the response.
Despite the common images on both sides, such concentration on one passion is in fact far from the case. There is a lot of cross-over between the 1 million AFL fans and the 800,000 Melburnians going to the Tutankhamen exhibition last year. And also with the 1 million going to a pop music concert each year – or the 600,000 theatre fans.
The cross-over surfaced May last year, when the Melbourne Theatre Company ran a fund raising ‘Trivial Night for Serious People’. As with most fund raisers, a live auction had numerous items targeted at the ‘Serious People’ who came along. But the fastest, most furious bidding was not for tickets to the opera, nor to a National Gallery Show. It was two tickets to an upcoming rugby match.
A good source to check the patterns is the recent Bureau of Statistics household survey. The ABS asked some 15,000 people a wide range of questions about their lifestyles. From this data, I’ve gathered information not only on the audiences at particular events, but also the cross-overs with other events.
Start with the audience for one of the more rarified cultural pursuits – classical music. In 2009-10, some 360,000 of us went to a classical music performance. In some ways, the Bureau’s figures support the common image. This audience is somewhat older than the Melbourne average, have completed more Uni courses, and have higher income levels. More than half are women.
But digging further in the classical music stats for Melbourne gives less comfort to the common image. Maybe it’s the changing times, maybe laid back Australians are more diverse in our tastes.
For one thing, two-thirds of those going to classical music only go to one or two concerts a year – so most are hardly obsessives about classical music. For another, they also go to a wide range of other events in massive numbers. Some you’d expect: three quarters also either visit galleries or attend the theatre, with a busy one quarter going to all three. Other events are much less expected.
More than two-thirds of younger classical fans, aged 15-34, also go to pop music. Even the older classical fans go to pop music much more than most people do.
Even more surprisingly, one half of Melbourne men attending classical music also go to the footy. And amongst women aged 55+ – the group that’s generally the least interested in footy –one quarter of those going to classical music also go to AFL.
There’s a strong crossover with tennis as well. Some 14% of the 55+ age group going to classical music in Melbourne also go to the tennis – in stark contrast to the 5% of the overall population attending the tennis.
Such patterns occur for most sports, and most cultural events as well. Keen sports fans attend other sports in droves. Keen culture vultures often attend other cultural events. But in both cases they also attend events from the other camp in big numbers, more often than most people do.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, a magic potion initially transformed Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde – or back again. Is it something the fans have been drinking?
The common elixir is a passion for events. We all have our particular interests – but most Melburnians are very willing to give other pursuits a try. And turn up in huge numbers for all sorts of shows. Though doubtless the consumption of certain beverages helps the events along.
And the links between the events are more common than occasional overlaps with backyard cricket. Musician Tim Rogers, no mean slouch in the cultural stakes, tells of loading gear into the band’s truck in Ohio after a gig. Celebrating Kangaroos mates rang from Melbourne to sing him the club song. Rogers mused on footy: “I love these stories, accounts of folks who see this game for the beautiful freakish theatre it is.”
But then maybe, just maybe, none of this matters much for a certain Japanese tourist. She may well have gone home dead sure that Melburnians are mad photographers – even keener than Japanese tourists!

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