Australian rules football in New South Wales (known mainly as “AFL” after the Australian Football League) has been played in New South Wales continuously since the 1880s, though for much of the 20th century it was a minor sport compared to the rugby football codes and association football. There are strongholds in the Riverina (the region of New South Wales closest to Victoria), Broken Hill/Barrier region (located near the South Australian border), the far south coast and a small but strong presence in the Newcastle and Hunter region.
New South Wales was the first state to have a team, the Sydney Swans in what is now the national Australian Football League competition. The Victorian club founded in 1874 relocated to the state capital Sydney in 1982. AFL’s more recent growth in popularity in Sydney (where the majority of the state’s population lives) has been attributed mostly to the success of the Swans in the national competition during the 1990s. While the Swans struggled to gain acceptance in Sydney after their relocation from South Melbourne in 1982 media and public interest increased dramatically with on field success, since the first Grand Final appearance in 1996, successive finals appearances, and particularly its premierships in 2005 and 2012.
New South Wales holds the record attendance outside Victoria, with 72,393 attending the Sydney Swans vs Collingwood match at Telstra Stadium, Sydney in 2003. It was also the first state outside of Victoria to host Australian Football International Cup matches, during the 2011 tournament.
AFL surpassed rugby union in 2017 to become the 3rd most participated football code in the state.
Despite growing popularity and participation, AFL attracts the lowest media profile and lowest attendance record of the four major football codes.
Rugby football was well established in Sydney by the time the first Australian rules matches were played. By 1887 intercolonial matches had still not been played in any football code in Australia. In 1877 Victoria’s Carlton Football Club challenged the Waratah Football Club (now defunct) to reciprocal matches in their respective codes to which the Sydney club accepted. The first match hosted by Waratah was played on the Albert Ground, Sydney under rugby rules in front of 3,000 (then the largest ever football crowd in Sydney) was won by Waratah 2 to Carlton 0, though the Sydneysiders noted that the Victorians were not lacking in the necessary skills, just their knowledge of the game. Reflecting the lesser interest in the Australian rules, the second match was played in front of a smaller crowd of about 1,500 at the Albert Ground with the result being Carlton 6 to Waratah 0. Among the best players were George Coulthard who showed a particular prowess in both codes despite having never played rugby.
Waratah and some others claimed that the Australian rules resulted in a more exciting game, but the rugby interests repeatedly rejected suggestions to switch codes or even play intercolonial matches under alternating rules against Victoria. In response, the proponents of the Australian game formed the New South Wales Football Association (NSWFA) in 1880 and in 1881 the first Australian rules game between NSW and Victoria was played in Sydney. The NSWFA was small, with only a few clubs, including Waratah which switched code in 1882, and competition did not begin in earnest until 1889, when clubs competed for the Flanagan Cup. The NSWFA had trouble gaining access to enclosed grounds and therefore gate receipts and, with antagonism between its clubs, it collapsed in 1893.
The NSW Football League, later the NSW Australian Football League (NSWAFL), was formed on 12 February 1903 at a meeting held in the YMCA Hall in George St. The NSWAFL promoted the game in schools and lobbied for VFL exhibition matches in Sydney to promote the code.
The first Victorian Football League match played in Sydney was with Fitzroy Football Club 7.10 defeating the Collingwood Football Club 6.9 at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 24th May, 1903. The large attendance of 20,000 saw the exhibition hailed as a success and inspired the league to continue schedule more matches in Sydney. However the novelty was short lived and follow up matches quickly began to attract cynicism from the Sydney football public as a VFL push when Geelong Football Club 8.7 (55) defeated Carlton Football Club 6.9 (45) at the SCG a few months later. The matches were seen by the Sydney media as an attempt to force feed the Victorian game to Sydneysiders who had plenty of rugby to attract their ongoing interest. The poor crowd of 5,000 much smaller than those of rugby in the city. Despite the reception, the NSWAFL was keen to persevere and in 1904, Melbourne Football Club 9. 17 (71) defeated Essendon Football Club 6.s 3 (39) in front of just 6,000. With the lack of interest, top level VFL was not to return to Sydney for decades.
In contrast to the reception of the game at professional level, at the grassroots, the NSWAFL was having enormous success growing the game in the schools with 48 Sydney schools, including all the Roman Catholic schools, were playing Australian Football by 1905.
In 1908, largely through the switch of the popular and talented Dally Messenger to the paid football code of rugby league, that sport established itself into the culture of Sydney. Although Australian football remained popular, the NSWAFL was still denied access to enclosed grounds and the new professional code of rugby league further lured players from Australian rules. By 1911, Australian rules had achieved more support than rugby union, according to The Referee but only because support had shifted to rugby league.
The Australian National Football carnival of 1933 was held at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Several matches drew large crowds, particularly those involving New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and West Australia.
Following the successful interstate football carnival, in 1933 a proposal by the New South Wales Rugby League to amalgamate Australian football and rugby league was investigated and a report, with a set of proposed rules, known as Universal football, was prepared by the secretary of the NSWRL, Harold R. Miller and sent to the Australian National Football Council. A trial game was held in secret, but the plans were never instituted.
Three of the original NSWAFL clubs are still in existence and currently play in the Sydney AFL — North Shore, East Sydney (now UNSW-ES) and Balmain, but the league remained almost entirely amateur with limited audience following and sponsorship.
The “St. George and Sutherland Shire Junior Australian Football Association” was established in southern Sydney and consisted of Penshurst Junior Australian Football Club (JAFC) “Panthers”, Miranda JAFC “Bombers”, St. Patricks Ramsgate later Ramsgate JAFC “Rams”, Heathcote JAFC “Hawks”, Cronulla JAFC “Sharks” and, earlier, Peakhurst, Como-Jannali, Boys’ Town, Cronulla “Blues” clubs and St. Patricks Sutherland.
Top level VFL returned to the SCG on 14th June, 1952 when the Collingwood Football Club 10.12 (72) defeated Richmond Football Club 5.6 (36) in front of 24,174 spectators. However it wasn’t to return for another few decades. During the late 1970s there was a surge of interest nationally. The VFL scheduled 2 premiership matches for the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1979. On 10 June, 1979, North Melbourne Football Club 16.9 (105) defeated Hawthorn Football Club 23.18 (156) in front of a large crowd of 31,395. However a few months later just 17,140 attended a match in which Fitzroy 20.15 (135) defeated Richmond Football Club 22.20 (152). The small attendance didn’t deter a financially struggling Fitzroy Lions from conducting a feasbility into the possibility of moving to North Sydney and a proposal was put forward, but was voted down by its board in 1980. The VFL scheduled 4 matches for the SCG in 1980. These matches were designed to test the market. The VFL’s market studies found an increase in television ratings in Sydney and sustained attendance at matches. Based on the market study the VFL stated that there was sufficient support for a Sydney team, and that it intended to have one, possibly as soon as 1982. A 1981 report by Graham Huggins concluded that there was an “untapped market in Sydney which represented an excellent opportunity for the league.” In 1981 the VFL had decided that it would establish an entirely new 13th VFL club in Sydney. However this triggered South Melbourne to announce its move to Sydney.
The first professional VFL/AFL players from Sydney and the Sydney AFL did not begin to emerge until the 1980s. Russell Morris was one of the early players to make the grade, followed by Sanford Wheeler, Mark Roberts, Greg Stafford, Nick Davis and Lenny Hayes. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in AFL players coming from the Sydney region, and in 2007, a total of 11 AFL players identified themselves as coming from this region.