Where in the world is there a public holiday to celebrate a horse race? Why Melbourne, of course. The first Tuesday in November is Melbourne Cup Day, one of the world’s premier horse races. That’s tomorrow! Welcome to Melbourne, Australia. Home to a beautiful city, great coffee and food, the arts and possibly the world’s most fanatical sports followers.
Is Melbourne world best for sport? Read on and why don’t you be the judge.
Melbourne people are fanatical about sports. Even “adopted” sports like rugby union and rugby league attract huge crowds. You will never go to a sports event in Melbourne that is poorly attended, meaning there is always atmosphere.
And a couple of other bonuses. Most of the venues are conveniently located just a short walk from the Melbourne CBD (downtown), surrounded by good pubs and cafes. And sport in Melbourne is cheap compared to some of the prices charged elsewhere. Hooray!
And another thing we love about Melbourne, and Australian sport in general, is that opposing fans are never segregated from each other. It might be “war” during the game but there are no hard feelings and afterwards it’s time for a beer to dissect the match regardless of who you barrack for. We love that about Melbourne!
“The race that stops a nation” is the favorite public holiday of Melbournians, with warm weather making it perfect for a BBQ regardless of whether you are horserace follower. It is a fun day for everyone. A crowd somewhere in the order of 120,000 will attend to watch the $6.2m handicap race over 3200 meters, the world’s richest handicap race. (A handicap race “penalises” the better horses in that they carry more weight compared to lesser lights in an effort to even up the race). Although only a holiday in Melbourne, it is common practice for all work to stop all over Australia while the race is run, even the national parliament!
The Melbourne Cup has been run at Flemington Race Course in inner suburban Melbourne since 1860 and it has produced many legends, perhaps the most famous being Phar Lap. “Big Red” was not a great horse at the start of his career (he finished last in his first race and was not placed in his next 3). He improved dramatically to win 14 races in a row in 1930/31. He carried a huge weight to win the 1930 Melbourne Cup and was a red-hot favorite to do so, running away from the field. He had earlier been shot at on the morning of the race during track work!
He was the hero of the people in the depression years when people were looking for heroes to help them forget their worries. In his last 35 races, he won 32, finished second twice (by short margins) and ran 8th in the 1931 Melbourne Cup, carrying 68kg (150 pounds) the highest weight ever in the Melbourne Cup. That’s a huge weight over 2 miles.
The record attendance for the Melbourne Cup Carnival incorporating 4 race days over the course of 1 week was just shy of 420,000. It’s not just about the horseracing but the social side as well. The ladies take center-stage for fashions on the field. So racing is a big industry in Victoria. There is a State Government minister responsible for racing, as there are in the other Australian states. And, unbelievably, the racing and allied industries are a major employer of people. No wonder so many people attend city and country race meetings across Victoria.
The Spring Racing Carnival runs mid-September through mid-November.
Australian Open Tennis
There are only four grand slam tennis events in the world and Melbourne has one of them. Melbourne Park is the home of the Australian Open, the grand slam of Asia Pacific.. Only a short walk or tram ride from downtown, Melbourne Park has a tremendous atmosphere. We have attended many times and although not fanatical tennis fans, we always enjoy the spectacle and the friendly buzz of the place.
And it is exceptionally well attended both during the day and the evening. In 2014, over 14 days of the tournament, 703,499 people attended, only 10,000 shy of the US Open, the world’s most attended tennis event. (2015 figures from New York don’t seem to be available).
The Aussie Open is a celebration of tennis with an enthusiastic and happy vibe to allow everyone to celebrate and experience this great sport during the Melbourne summer. It is held in the second half of January. It is common to see many fans with their faces painted in the national colors or flags of the countries their heroes hail from. It is a colorful and happy event.
The Australian Open is the biggest sporting event in Melbourne as far as attracting tourists to Melbourne, both from interstate and overseas. This is followed by the spring horseracing carnival.
It is also a great bargain to attend during the day. You can purchase a ground pass that lets you attend matches on any of the outside courts. During the first week, you can see some very well known players play on these courts.
Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix and MotoGP
Albert Park, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from downtown Melbourne is home to the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix. Bring your earplugs for this one! The high pitched noise of screaming, formula 1 engines is something to behold. Beautiful Albert Park comes alive as a street circuit for the running of the grand prix, which certainly attracts the jetset crowd associated with this sport.
The event is usually run in Melbourne in March.
Phillip Island, about 2 hours drive from Melbourne, hosts a round of the world Moto GP. Many locals in nearby towns, flock to their town centers with chairs, picnic hampers and drinks to watch the procession of bikes returning towards Melbourne after the event. It is quite a sight. This event takes place annually in October.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground
And then there are the domestic sports, cricket and the footy. Cricket is the summer sport in Australia, played between October and March, and Australian Rules Football (the footy) is played in the winter season (April – September). One thing we all love about sport in Melbourne is that the same stadium is used for both cricket and football. And the main stadium in Melbourne is the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) or “The G” as it is affectionately known.
The G is revered in Melbourne. It is a massive stadium. And to attend a game when it is full is an inspiring experience, the atmosphere is electric. The capacity of the stadium now is a little over 100,000 (all seated) and the noise when your team kicks a goal is almost deafening.
It has a long history having been established in 1853. In 1877 it hosted the first ever cricket test match between 2 countries, England and Australia. In 1977, it also hosted the centenary match between the same 2 teams with exactly the same result, Australia winning by 45 runs. It hosted the 1956 Summer Olympic Games “the friendly games”. It has also hosted the final of the 1992 and 2015 Cricket World Cups and the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
The stadium has hosted the biggest crowd (90,800) to ever attend a cricket match anywhere in the world. Here is some old black and white footage of that game.
But it is Aussie Rules football, the indigenous football code played in Australia, which pulls the largest crowds at the stadium, including a massive crowd of 121,696 for the Carlton versus Collingwood Australian Rules Grand Final of 1970, 2 small Melbourne suburbs. (Health laws have changed with standing room being eliminated and the capacity has been reduced in what is now an all seat stadium).
But it’s not the biggest crowd ever at the ground. That honor belongs to Billy Graham, for an evangelistic crusade held in the 1959! The stadium also hosts other sporting events and rock concerts.
Cricket Test Match at the G
One permanent fixture on the Melbourne sports calendar is the cricket test match between Australia and whichever cricketing nation is touring the country during the Australian summer for a series of test matches. This year it is the West Indies (actually a collection of Caribbean cricket playing nations).
The Melbourne test match always commences on Boxing Day with play continuing for 5 days or until a result is achieved, whichever comes first. That means a draw is a possibility and in fact the very best game I attended was a draw where after 5 days neither side deserved to lose. The greatest rivalry in cricket is between England and Australia and test matches between the two attract huge crowds at the G.
Sports tourism is big business and Melbourne now welcomes large numbers of “lager-drinking” poms (no disrespect meant) to holiday in Australia for the summer to attend cricket matches all around the country. It is a fun atmosphere and there are few things better than being at the cricket on a sunny day for 7 hours chatting with your friends and family. Yep 7 hours per day for 5 days. Aggh test cricket there is no other sport like it! It is very social.
Aussie Rules Football
In Melbourne when people talk footy, they mean Aussie Rules Football. However, there are actually 4 football codes in Australia and in order of attendance, they are:
- Aussie Rules
- Rugby League
- Soccer (what the rest of the world calls football) is played all around Australia and is an up and coming sport.
- Rugby Union
Melbourne has teams for each for each of these sports, and in many cases multiple teams.
Aussie Rules is a religion in Melbourne and it dominates conversation during the season and especially when the finals are underway in September. It is a fast moving, spectacular game requiring a great degree of courage to play. All of my American relatives I have taken to a game come away a little in awe of what they have just witnessed, and this is the reaction of most visitors.
The remarkable part of the game is that nine of the teams are small, inner Melbourne suburban teams who attract massive crowds. Did you know across all world-wide football codes that in 2010, football powerhouses Manchester United and Bayern Munich were the number one and two attended football teams? Well Aussie Rules club Collingwood was number 3 with more than 1.7 million people attending games. Not bad for a team with 8 rivals in the same city!
Melbourne people love Aussie Rules and to go to a big game like the annual ANZAC day clash between Collingwood and Essendon at the MCG should not be missed if you have the opportunity. Hearing the Last Post played prior to the game in front of more than 90,000 silent people is a spine tingling and emotional experience; you can hear a pin drop in the stadium. And then the game starts. What a day!
General admission tickets begin at $25 ($18 USD) for adults and it’s a bargain to take your kids to the footy, under 16 year old tickets start at $5 ($3.50 USD).
Melbourne Sports Precinct
Even if you can’t attend any of the sporting events featured above, you can experience the great sporting culture of Melbourne. Apart from the motor cycle grand prix at Phillip Island, all of the other events mentioned are close to the city center in the Melbourne Sports Precinct surrounded by beautiful parks and gardens.
You can take a walking tour of some of the highlights. As well, you can attend the National Sports Museum, conveniently located at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and/or do a tour of the MCG itself. This is a great way to see one of the world’s great sporting arenas. Trust me it is an awesome sight, with lots of history thrown in!
And that’s before we talk about the pro golf events, world-class surfing competitions or a myriad of other sporting events held annually. (If you are interested in any of these events, leave your question in the comments. We are happy to tell you more!)
So is Melbourne world best for sport? If it’s not then I would like to visit the city that can best it. Iconic stadiums all of which are conveniently located, a great range of sports, well-behaved crowds and cheap compared to overseas prices. It’s a great place to watch sport.
If you are visiting Melbourne, don’t miss the Melbourne markets, and the fantastic coffee scene (we think it’s the best in the world), and you can find our tips for where to eat to taste the best of Melbourne’s multicultural cuisine.
* Some pictures used in this post are supplied by the venue.