Western Australia sport success: Why Perth Wildcats, West Coast Eagles, Scorchers punch above their weight

Western Australia account for just 10 per cent of the country’s population – not that you could tell from the state’s overflowing trophy cabinet. ELIZA REILLY investigates.

Western Australia accounts for just 10 per cent of Australia’s population, yet has long over-indexed on the national and global sporting stage.

The Perth Scorchers just won their fifth BBL title in 12 seasons. The Perth Wildcats hold Australia’s longest finals streak. And then there are the West Coast Eagles.

Back in 1992, as the Eagles tore apart the notion of the VFL at the MCG, the grand final broadcast beamed images nationally of West Aussies back home chanting “Football! Cricket! Basketball!” when the final siren sounded.

The west held all three titles at the same time.

So, why has the west become so adept at beating the rest?

“The answer lies in the science of teams,” former Wildcats managing director Nick Marvin told CODE Sports. “There’s a sense of competitiveness. We’re all competing in national leagues so if one of you starts to perform, the others want to keep up. There’s an expectation to exist that’s created by other teams as much as it’s created by the public.”

He continued: “That’s the tyranny of distance and time [is another factor]. If we get on a plane for a game, it’s usually a minimum of three hours. When you start normalising things that are harder for you compared to other teams, you tend to perform better.

“I noticed when I arrived that our state is derided by the rest of the country. I didn’t realise why until I arrived but it’s because we punch above our weight in every sphere whether that’s the stock market, GDP contribution or sport.

“I think there’s a sense of envy in how we’ve performed so there’s this ‘Us against Australia’ that’s always been with us.”

There are many examples of WA dominance beyond the Eagles, Wildcats and Scorchers. There’s the Royal Perth Yacht Club and Australia II, Jai Hindley becoming the first Australian to win the Giro d‘Italia, Sam Kerr conquering the A League and now the world, the West Coast Fever winning their maiden premiership in 2022.

The list goes on.

West may really be best.

Perth Wildcats

The Perth Wildcats are the champion of champions.

After sitting out the first three seasons of the National Basketball League, the Wildcats have won an unprecedented 10 championships, well clear of their closest rival Melbourne United on six.

Known as the Westate Wildcats in their infancy, Perth took nearly a decade to win their first championship in 1990. Since that breakthrough, the Wildcats have gone the distance on average every 3.2 years.

Then there’s the streak.

For 35 straight years, the Wildcats featured in the NBL playoffs, only coming to an emotional end in the final 80 seconds of the 2021/22 NBL season.

It is the longest streak in Australian sport and it’s believed to stack up globally alongside Israeli basketball powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.

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Marvin said Perth lived and died by the streak during his 11 years guarding it.

“Once you start a streak, you don’t want to be the team to break it. Inside that locker room, certainly during my time and even before me, there was one big rule. Nobody is greater than the streak,” he told CODE Sports.

“Even when it came to minor aberrations that set us back from where we needed to be, we jumped on decisions to fix it because we didn’t want to break the streak.

“It was sacrosanct. It didn’t matter who the CEO or the coaches or the players were. Everyone was expendable to maintain not just the streak but our desire to be above the competition.”

The one season it came under threat happened to be Marvin’s last.

It was 2016/17 and Perth were reeling from back-to-back import flops in Jaron Johnson and Andrew Ingram. Injuries to Damian Martin, Jarrod Kenny and Matthew Knight had anchored the Wildcats to the bottom of the table.

“It was the hardest year we ever had. We spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day sitting together looking at 50 or so players. We found this kid called Bryce Cotton,” Marvin recalled.

Cotton, now a three-time NBL MVP, was playing for Anadolu Efes in Istanbul Turkey when a bomb went off within 25 minutes of his apartment.

“He wanted out so he took our contract offer and single-handedly changed our fortunes. That would’ve been the year we would’ve failed to make finals,” Marvin said.

The Wildcats would go on to win eight of their last 12 regular season games to sneak into third. They waltzed through the playoffs undefeated and went back-to-back for the first time since 1990/1991.

It was the fourth and final championship Marvin oversaw before deciding to leave the Wildcats in a better place than he’d found them. In 2009, Perth was on the brink of bankruptcy and struggling to find its place in a packed sporting landscape. Marvin brought a wealth of corporate experience and was handed the keys to a sputtering Wildcats machine by the late, great Jack Bendat.

“When I arrived we wanted to position the Wildcats as the Wiggles of sport because we knew we couldn’t compete with the Eagles or Dockers,” Marvin said.

“We picked a different fight. Primary school kids were our focus because we knew there was a gap in that market.”

That legacy lives on. Across the most recent home and away season, Perth had a better home attendance than any team, with 158,718 fans attending 14 matches at RAC Arena at an average of 11,337 per game.

That equates to 78 per cent of the arena’s capacity per match.

Perth Scorchers

A little over a week ago, teenager Cooper Connolly inspired Perth to a thrilling BBL final victory over the Brisbane Heat, combining with accountant Nick Hobson to chase down 39 runs from the final 19 deliveries.

The pulsating win, played out in front of a record 53,886 fans, marked the Scorchers’ fifth title. It also extended Perth’s standing as the league’s most successful franchise, taking a two-title lead over the Sixers.

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In the 12 years the domestic Twenty20 competition has operated, the Scorchers have finished runners-up three times and two other finals runs were cut short. That makes just two summers where Perth haven’t featured in the post-season.

Despite their success, the Scorchers have never been complacent, something WA Cricket high performance manager Kade Harvey Harvey credits to constant finals exposure.

“When you get to live in those big moments like Ashton Turner has since BBL03, you build experience in the cauldron. When you get exposed to that consistently, your ability to manage it grows,” Harvey told CODE.

“The belief and culture of the group is able to withstand pressure. That’s when that experience counts like it did this summer.”

Outside of the WA-heavy Scorchers line-up, there were at least 13 other very good players produced by the WA system who were either playing for other BBL outfits, on national duty or injured when Perth achieved the ultimate at Optus Stadium.

“We’ve been parochial towards staying Western Australian and developing our own talent,” Harvey said.

“The environment that Adam (Voges) and Justin (Langer) created several years ago is one people want to be part of. It’s a credit to our WA system. It benefits the Scorchers but it also benefits WA cricket.”

When it comes to the Sheffield Shield, Western Australia has won the competition 15 times since joining in 1947–48. It makes WA second only to the all-conquering New South Wales who have accrued 25 titles in that time.

Western Australia started this summer with the title of reigning champions after ending a 23-year drought last April.

“The Shield is probably still the ultimate success for us,” Harvey said. “Last year there wasn’t a single player who played in all three finals. We’ve developed depth across the formats. It’s a squad mentality.

“It’s been underpinned by a core group of players and staff wanting to get better. We challenged some of our players around how we trained and prepared. We worked a lot on playing on east coast wickets.

“Players who’ve been around the system, some of them for a while now, took their games to another level.”

West Coast Eagles

The West Coast Eagles continue to hold rank as Perth’s most powerful – and among its most successful – sporting outfits.

Since the arrival of the AFL era in 1990, the Eagles have won four premierships, the equal second-most in the competition behind Hawthorn (five). West Coast are also equal second for the most grand final appearances, qualifying for the big dance seven times, two shy of Geelong’s nine.

September is West Coast’s pseudo home beyond their Lathlain headquarters. The Eagles have made finals in 25 of their 36 seasons at a rate of 69.44 per cent, the best post-season qualification rate in the competition.

At home, the Eagles boast the second-best winning rate in the AFL, winning 68.65 of their games in Perth making the west coast the toughest road trip in football. Only Collingwood (68.74) are better at home.

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The key to West Coast’s early and continued success was learning to win away.

Conditions at Moorabbin, Windy Hill and Kardinia Park were completely foreign. Cricket pitches were common and the Victorian grounds acted differently to Subiaco underfoot.

Three years in, West Coast appointed Victorian coach Mick Malthouse. Former Eagles chairman and club founding father Murray McHenry said the move allowed West Coast to bridge the gap on the now-national competition.

“By doing that, we weren’t playing Victoria each week. We were playing Essendon or Geelong or Collingwood,” McHenry told CODE.

“It took us those first three years to condition our athletes to play in a national competition. We had to be far better at playing away than every other team.”

In 1992, West Coast made history as the first team to take the premiership cup from Victoria after defeating Hawthorn. The Eagles soared back across the Nullabor having finally cracked the stronghold the VFL once held over Australia’s national game.

“The success didn’t take us by surprise. The issue was preparing to have success,” McHenry said.

McHenry said the Eagles’ secret lies in the club’s approach to management.

“We set about in those early years to run the club as a business, not as a football club,” he said. “We have a rotating board with three year terms. It allowed us to stay fresh and not become like the Melbourne clubs where presidents stayed too long and it became their club.

“We’ve always been executive-led. The number one spokesperson for the club is the coach followed by the head of football and the CEO.

“A lot of other clubs model themselves on West Coast.

“Western Australia does bat above our weight nationally when it comes to most fronts of sport. But most clubs have drawn inspiration from West Coast and the way we operated and the club is only too happy to share that.”

Even in the wake of arguably the worst season the club has produced, winning just two games, West Coast still topped the 2022 AFL membership ladder with a whopping 102,897 signed-on supporters.

West Coast endured a year from hell on-field but continued as a financial powerhouse off it, with the club set to declare an operating surplus of approximately $6 million and retain their standing as one of Australia’s most profitable clubs.

Eliza Reilly

Eliza Reilly is a Perth-based sportswriter for CODE specialising in AFL, AFLW and netball. Born and raised in Perth, Eliza started her career as a sports cadet at the Gold Coast Bulletin, progressing to deputy sports editor. In 2020, she returned home to join The West Australian where she got the chance to cover an AFL grand final in her home state. Eliza has also been recognised for her journalism, including winning a Clarion Award and multiple WA Football Media Guild awards including the Tracey Lewis Emerging Talent Award in her first year at The West.

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