Australians view sports in much the same way people from the rest of the world might view religion, except sports is much more important. The MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) is an Australian icon, Aussie sportsmen and women are as famous as our writers and actors, and a horse race once a year stops the nation and is, in fact, a holiday in some places. Here is a brief array of sports that the humble Aussie plays or barracks for. (Oh, "barrack" means "support": Aussies don't use the term "root for", with good reason).
Cricket, rugby, and the uniquely Australian sport AFL are huge, while soccer, swimming, and tennis are also extremely popular.
Australia's All-Time Favourite Sports
The Australian cricket team is among the best in the world, and brings us such names as Shane Warne, Alan Border, and, of course, Sir Donald Bradman, who is so much of an Aussie icon that The Chaser once suggested (tongue in cheek) he should be Australia's first official saint. Cricket on Channel Nine is just as iconic, with generations of Australians growing up with summers filled with test matches voiced by the well-known commentator Richie Benaud. The most important test series in Australian cricket is The Ashes, where the Australian team plays against the English for an urn that symbolically represents the death of English cricket: any time Australia loses it, it's a national tragedy.
The self-proclaimed 'national game' (unless you happen to live in Queensland or New South Wales as half the population do, in which case it's Rugby League), and one of only two sports to be invented in Australia. (The other is an obscure game called Trugo). Australia has a national league, the AFL, and a plethora of local ones in the states of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and West Australia. The AFL Grand Final is one of the most watched sporting events in a given year. Most of what you need to know about it is in the article.
(Colloquially, "League" and "Union", or "League" and "Rugby".)
The most popular sport in Queensland and New South Wales. Well, sports: there's a difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union. The NRL (National Rugby League) involves sixteen teams (ten from NSW, three from QLD, one from the ACT, one from Victoria and one, oddly enough, from New Zealand) and is the highest league in Australia, but the most important matches in any given year are the State of Origin, where two teams, one representing NSW and the other QLD, battle each other thrice a year for absolute glory: they're so popular the matches will be the among the most watched sporting events in an average year even though they're rarely shown outside Queensland and New South Wales. If you want to imagine what it's like, think of the atmosphere of a Super Bowl, only fought with the hate of a world war between England and Germany and you'll get the idea. It's one of those games that is played at 110% for the entire game. And then played twice more after that.
Here is an example of a League game: The Grand Final of the 2010 Season between the St George Dragons vs the Eastern Suburbs Roosters.
Australia is also the leading team in League, with our fiercest enemies being the the teams from New Zealand and England.
Australia's rugby Union (that's the 15-man game) team is called the Wallabies. Australia has won the Rugby World Cup twice since its inception in 1987. Before 2012, the Australian, New Zealand and South African teams used to play every year in the Tri Nations tournament (similar to the Northern Hemisphere's Six Nations). As of 2012, Argentina has now joined and the tournament is now called The Rugby Championship. As a part of this competition is a separate series exclusively between Australia and New Zealand called the Bledisloe Cup.
The closest thing that comes in Union to a classic match is the Bledisloe. Interesting because New Zealand is far better at playing really attractive rugby than we are.
Example of a union game: 
Other Popular Sports
It's football, but not as you know it.
The game is now catching up with cricket, Rugby League and AFL as the third big Aussie sport (having well overtaken Rugby Union in terms of popularity and reach). It is broadcast free-to-air on SBS, and on cable on Fox Sports. A big boost to the game's popularity occured when the national team, the Socceroos, reached the Round of 16 in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. However, before then the sport was largely dismissed and even mocked in Australia.
The early history of the game starts around the 1880s, with a number of clubs starting and playing matches between each other. The sport was relatively popular, but in Melbourne especially, a large push lead to a marginalisation of the pitches required, with football clubs being 'locked out' with areas converted into oval AFL/Cricket areas.
The massive multi-ethnic wave of immigrants that came to Australia after World War II brought a lot of football fans into the country, who formed their own teams and became devoted followers of the game: this resulted in an expansion of popularity for football, but it also resulted in it being dismissed as an "ethnic sport" (often by using the term 'wogball') by Anglo-Australians.
And so it was up till as recently as 2005. But then several things happened which has caused the popularity of the sport to expand and diversify rapidly: first, the National Soccer League crumbled in 2004 partly due to Executive Meddling and being Screwed by the Network, and was replaced the following year by the A-League, which has a strict policy against ethnic teams and consisted of teams evenly spaced around the country, limited (initially) to one team per city; second, the Socceroos reached the Round of 16 in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, generating greater interest as a point of national pride. This has added up to football starting to become popular in mainstream Australia. It's even *gasp* being called football in some media. The network SBS is so avid a supporter of football that it is sometimes known as (derisively or affectionately) "Sex & Bloody Soccer", and its main related show is The World Game. The A-League is broadcast free-to-air on SBS2.
Football followers generally get split up into two sects, with one of them split again into two. Local supporters are the first, and they are split into "Old Soccer" and "New Football", named as the NSL era organisation was called Soccer Australia, whilst the A-League organisation was renamed to Football Federation Australia.
- Old Soccer are adherent followers of the ethnic-based teams who now play in the second tier state leagues. They are generally disdainful of broadbased non-ethnic clubs and the standard of the league. The worst kind generally wish the A-League to fold completely.
- New Football are people who started following football around 2005 (often as a consequence of following the game through the 2006 World Cup and the previous World Cup Qualification stage), or have only ever followed an an A-League club, often due to not 'matching' with the ethnic origins of the clubs in their area.
Eurosnobs: This group generally follows a team overseas, usually a big club in England (such as the two Manchester teams, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea), Spain (Real Madrid or Barcelona) or Italy (the Milan teams or Juventus), but some follow teams in Germany, Scotland, France or other more minor leagues. Due to the nature of the broadcasting, matches are aired from 10pm up to the early morning depending on daylight savings time being in or out. They are so named because a eurosnob is derisive about Australian football completely, refusing to watch Australian matches due to a perceived lack of quality compared to the European nation based leagues.
Obviously, some people can have aspects of all three. Someone might follow an ethnic based state league team, their local A-League team, as well as their chosen European club. Someone might follow the A-League and a European team. Others might follow their ethnic club, and a club of their ethnicity overseas.
Australia is a member of the Asian Football Confederation.
The Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, is the biggest tennis competition held in Australia. It is the first major event and Grand Slam of the tennis season, and takes place on hard courts, the most modern and common type of court surface. A few minor ones are also held each year. Australia has produced a number of great tennis players, with the most recent ones being the extremely cocky Lleyton Hewitt, and Sam Stosur.
Ah, netball. Even though Australians are one of the best at this game, it has high turnout to its matches and some of its players are celebrities, for years the major networks wouldn't touch the broadcast rights with a ten-foot pole. Maybe because it's a girls' sport. note Netball is perceived to be one of the most brutal sports in the world, causing numerous injuries amongst athletic women, although injury rates per player are on par with most other limited-contact sports. It is also one of the few sports to require a fingernail sharpness test before play. Although men's netball is common at amateur level, it's almost always played with women's teams, so some morons just say it's girlified basketball. In 2008, Australia and New Zealand started the (semi-pro) ANZ Championship as the highest-level competition, and pay TV provider Fox Sports and free-to-air's SBS2 is showing the matches, so it will soon get the recognition it deserves.
- Oh come on. Guys only watch it for the short skirts.
- Making them different from women watching the footy exactly how? (Have you seen a pair of AFL shorts?)
Basketball became very popular in the early '90s, with the local National Basketball League screening on prime-time TV and Michael Jordan being named as young Australians' favourite sportsman (to the alarm of some older people who didn't like the fact that an American got top spot). With Jordan's retirement, it declined in popularity, and the NBL teams in Brisbane and Sydney folded, leaving the league without teams in two of Australia's three largest cities. It still enjoys considerable popularity at the grassroots level, though.
- Hold the phone, Sydney are back now. The Violet Crumbles live again!
Australians have been to every single Olympics, won a medal at every Olympics, but, most importantly, we have ruled the pool. Because most Australians live close to the coast, Australians have an affinity with the water, and also swimming. In fact, freestyle's official name is "Australian crawl" - we invented it. (Or nicked it off one of the smaller Pacific Islands and then introduced it to the rest of the world; the historical record is foggy on this one.) Well known and successful Aussies in the pool include Dawn Fraser, Kieren Perkins, and the golden boy of Sydney 2000 Ian Thorpe (a.k.a. "the Thorpedo").
The Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation: held on the first Tuesday of every November, this is the highest competition of horse racing in Australia, but is also a major event associated with the fashion off the track, as the public often dress extravagantly, often with "fascinating" hats. There are similar events held in each state throughout the year. Famous Australian racehorses include Phar Lap, and Makybe Diva, the latter of which won the Melbourne Cup three years in a row.
- New Zealanders and Australians are still arguing over which side of the ditch Phar Lap belonged to.
In his autobiography, Murray Walker mentioned that touring car racing is basically a religion in Australia – with the caveat that our touring cars aren’t the delicate, high-revving 4-cylinder jobs Europeans associate with the term "touring cars", but big, heavy, angry, low-revving V8s that frighten old ladies and generally make blokes talk like Tim Allen. We call these beasts the V8 Supercars, shorthand for "is a taxi faster than a police cruiser?"
The Spiritual Successor to the old Australian Touring Car Championship, the series is basically NASCAR with road circuits instead of roundabouts, though it has overcome its reputation as a sport for knuckle-draggers and is actually reasonably exciting and fun to watch. Until recently, Aussie fans could have their big-banger V8s in either red (Holden) or blue (Ford), and your allegiance to one or the other was expected to be absolute and uncompromising. Preferring overseas machinery was considered high treason and called one’s sexuality into question (a legacy of the bad taste left by the 1980s Group A era that was dominated by overseas cars not even for sale in Australia). This “two tribes” era was probably best described as a simulacrum of touring car racing: a deliberate imitation of the real Ford/Holden rivalry of the 1970s that was itself the real Ford/Holden rivalry.
That era lasted 20 years, but times change. Today, sales of Falcons and Commodores are plummeting and Ford and Holden’s market share combined is smaller than, say, Toyota’s. The core fanbase whose childhood nostalgia was formed in the Peter Brock years are starting to find themselves outnumbered by the Millennials, a generation raised on The Fast and the Furious and Top Gear re-runs who find the Holden-vs-Ford thing lame and contrived. Ergo, V8s is evolving to survive, debuting the less prehistoric “Car Of The Future” (subtle, guys) and working hard to become an international category, DTM-style, with races in the U.S. and Middle East. Thus the 2013 grid is set to feature 6 Ford Falcons, 4 Nissan Altimas and 3 Mercedes E63s (but still 15 Holden Commodores…), all mechanically much the same, all just as overpowered and clumsy (and therefore just as exciting to watch) as the old Falcons and Commodores. Time will tell how if the new era takes off; history seems to show that Australian touring cars flourish in isolation, and attempts to change the rules to be more “international” (like the aforementioned Group A years) tend to end in tears.
That said, the ANZAC heart of the sport won’t be changing; ground zero of the series will still be the sacred tarmac of Bathurst, NSW, a track built in the 1930s by Mayor Griffin as a “scenic drive” for tourists (because he knew the council would never fund a racetrack) and has hosted a car-breaking endurance race since 1963 (it's our Nürburgring, but with the industry investment of Le Mans; Americans, imagine the Daytona 500 run at Laguna Seca; that's Bathurst). In the mad old days, the crowd made Bathurst a dangerous place to be when the race was on, with car burnings, epic boozing and even the odd lost limb considered par for the course. In recent years the culture has changed and now it’s become much more family-friendly, so you can take your kids to watch the great race knowing the worst damage they’ll suffer is a bit of sunburn and an expanded vocabulary. That said, the fans still thought their throats had been cut when the new "one-slab-per-day" alcohol restriction was announced in 2008 (it says a lot about this country that 24 full-strength beers a day counts as a restriction). Other important races include the Clipsal 500 (held on a shortened version of the old Adelaide Grand Prix circuit), the Sandown 500 (Bathurst's "little brother" since it shares the 161 lap-count) and the Gold Coast 300, which has become a surprise hit post-IndyCar because the format has required the usual drivers to team up with “international” drivers from other series, mostly IndyCar, Le Mans and BTCC. Big-name drivers in unfamiliar cars that are famously hard to drive? Yes please!
Australia also features a much smaller, hardcore group of fanatically dedicated Formula 1 fans. These are generally the only kind Formula 1 gets in Australia, as thanks to time zones watching a Grand Prix usually involves freezing to death in front of the telly at 11 o’clock on a winter’s night. North and South American rounds are even worse, usually starting at 3am (whingeing Poms are advised to remember this next time they ask Bernie to shift our Grand Prix to a better timeslot). In The '80s the Australian Grand Prix was run in Adelaide, until it was realised that views of Adelaide were putting the drivers to sleep at the wheel. Since then, it's been held in Melbourne, which is perfect because as the coffee and culture capital of Australia, Melbourne suits Formula 1 like a pretentious but still exquisitely cut suit. Adelaideans are still sore about it.
Less dedicated Aussies are generally only aware of Ferrari, because it's Ferrari and Australia has a large Italian population, and Mark Webber, because he is now winning. And not before time. Now Daniel Ricciardo is set to join Toro Rosso for 2012, there will be two Aussies on the grid for the first time in... probably ever. Since he's from Perth, though, it might not count.
Until recently, Surfers Paradise also hosted an annual IndyCar round (the CART/ChampCar one, not the actual IndyCar), but clashes with the re-unified series’ schedule means the event was dropped. Most Aussies haven’t noticed, however, as we're too busy watching the international drivers bin it instead. We also host MotoGP, World Superbike and and have our own Formula 3 series, but these are all fringe sports at best (although the F3 got a bit of press a few years ago when the series was almost won by Leanne Tander, wife of then-V8 Supercar champion Garth Tander, triggering the inevitable jokes about the world’s fastest baby…). In an odd twist of fate, the Aussie drag racing scene has gained a boost ever since the U.S. shortened its drag strips in the name of safety. Since Australia's drag strips are much younger, they don't suffer the same safety concerns and retain their full quarter-mile length, making them the fastest drag strips... in the world.
Australia was one of the first countries after America to take part in the roller derby revival. While the extreme expense involved in transporting a team from Australia to anywhere else means there've only been a few international bouts, there have been several interstate games. While official rankings are hard to find, the Queensland derby leagues, especially the Sun State Roller Girls and the Northern Brisbane Rollers, have a well-deserved reputation for being the "bad girls" of the sport. The Great Southern Slam, the first tournament in the southern hemisphere (and featuring nearly every team in the southern hemisphere) had Victorian Roller Derby League come out on top, with Sun State in second (and the aforementioned NBR in fourth.)
Being an island nation with most of the population living on the coast, a relatively large percentage of Australians own a boat of some description, and many participate in sailing as a social and family event. Australians have been known to participate in the America's Cup, and have their own annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race.
Although these are the most popular sports in Australia, in general Aussies follow and play in nearly every sport under the sun. Oh, and we place a lot of bets, too. Most of these sports (excluding Aussie XI cricket, V8s and Rugby, which are on other channels, and roller derby, which isn't televised at all,) are all on Network Ten's Sport's channel, ONE HD.
Because of Australia's proximity to the coast, Surf Lifesaving has been a national institution for the past century. These culminate in events that use SLS rules in competitive races. The most popular is the Iron Man competition (Not to be confused with the international Triathlon series). Consisting of a Surf Ski (boat) leg, surf swimming leg, paddle board leg, and running leg. Its main event is the Coolangatta Gold: considered one of the premier Water events in Australia, with Volunteer lifesavers from all around Australia competing. Caused some controversy in 2010/2011 when a young competitor was struck by an airbourne Surf Ski and subsequently drowned. Officials spent the better part of an hour looking for him, while completely ignoring the advice of some 1000 fully-trained Lifesavers forced to stay on the beach.
Of course, where there's surf lifesaving, there's surfing, which has enjoyed massive popularity here since at least the 1960s. During the 70s, Nat Young actually tried to register surfing as a religion. Australia has produced several surfing world champions, and Bells Beach near Torquay, Victoria is one of the world's most famous surf locations. A number of surfwear brands (such as Rip Curl) are also based in Australia.
Gridiron (aka American Football)
Yeah, we don't play that here. It takes too long for a game where each play might last 10 seconds, and includes way too much padding. Maybe you'll get to see the Superbowl on SBS, if you're lucky. (There are some amateur leagues, proving that while Aussies do have particular favourites, we're mad about any sport.) Snarkyness aside, since Network Ten launched Ten HD, the NFL is starting to get a bit of coverage in Australia. When Ten launched One HD, there is even more coverage. It's not much, but it's there. Many of the NFL's Australian viewers are Rugby League fans looking for their fix in the off season.
We have a national team. Its popularity and exposure is very limited. There is an Australian Baseball League, established in 2010; it seems to be doing all right. This is probably helped by its November-February season, making a "winter league" despite it being summer in Australia; you can get some legitimate minor league talent to play in Australia in the "winter" and in North America in the "summer."