Australian Football is the only professional sport in the world without some kind of representative competition for its best players. Even sports with similar concentrated dominance in their native markets, like Gaelic Football and American Football have county tournaments and all-star matches that offer an alternative to club competition.
Representative sport creates heroes and stories in a way club sport doesn’t. Club sport is fluid – players have always been able to change clubs, the clubs we know today will change and even some (sad-case) fans choose to change the teams they support. However, connection to sport is build on loyalty and in a world where loyalty is seemingly tested more then ever, representative competition offers an oasis for fans seeking to invest their emotional energy and players seeking glory.
Player loyalty is constantly tested in sport but in no sport is it tested like Soccer. The opportunities for players don’t have financial, geographic or even competitive bounds. This has resulted in players moving a lot! Rapid movement is fun to track but can also be nauseating and ultimately… embarrassing. A-League fans in particular suffer the worst of this player movement. The combination of an open international system, geographic isolation, a salary cap and a restricted domestic system have created a scenario that generates high club turnover and a lot of player recycling, which vastly cheapens players’ connection to their clubs and to their fans.
Even considering the A-League’s horrible example of player movement, Australian Soccer fans have a permanent squad narrative to follow in the Socceroos. Fans take pride following the development of Mooy, Ryan and even Andrew Nabbout – in spite of these players having moved to several teams in their club careers! These players’ non-negotiable bond to Australia allows fans to invest their emotional energy into them. Australian Football doesn’t (and likely will never) experience player movement this extreme, however as clubs’ salary cap, trading and free agency strategies become more sophisticated, I believe we are bound to see more player movement and less connection between players, fans and clubs. Knowing he was moving to Richmond, how could Gold Coast fans support Lynch towards the end of this season and how could he play for them? We’ve always seen this in sport, but it looks like we’ll have to deal with a lot more of it.
Players aren’t the only ones who abandon fans, clubs themselves can move, merge or even disappear from their original communities. The AFL has done an incredible job maintaining its competition teams (particularly compared to the NRL, which has been completely bastardised) but we have to remember the League has lost South Melbourne, Fitzroy, and Brisbane Bears to ‘mergers’. These clubs that move or merge no longer represent their original communities.
Clubs don’t even have to move, for example I often get into arguments trying to work out if Melbourne Heart and Melbourne City are the same club! There’s also the tragic situation where clubs simply fold – and re-birthing a club isn’t exactly a perfect solution. Are today’s Fitzroy Reds the same as the VFL club of yesterday? Is today’s AFC Wimbledon the same as yesterday’s Wimbledon FC? They may carry a similar spirit, and be supported by similar people, but the discontinuity of their stories bring club identity into question. It is the day to day culture and the shared struggle to survive that gives clubs their identity. Disruption of this continuity over money, ownership or politics also disrupts what club identity and consequently the connection clubs have with their fans. Representative football offers an alternative that isn’t dependent on operations, but rather dependent on a more fixed identity. The British and Irish Lions pop up every few years, with a completely different set of players, possibly different legal structures, different grounds, different – doesn’t matter – the British and Irish Lions are the best embodiment of how resilient representative sport is compared to the Darwinian clubland.
Representative football connection is way more resilient than the complex connections fans have to their clubs. This means areas with no club representation can have a team to connect with – like regional Queensland and regional NSW in the Rugby League State of Origin. Countries with minor leagues may have national teams capable of knocking out the big boys – like Croatia. Representative footy can even unite people who share unique identities – like the Maori Rugby and Indigenous League teams. When representative teams have a clear identity, fans can enjoy a more robust connection that isn’t subject to ownership, finance or the hundreds of other factors that risk their connection to club football.
Now, admittedly my connection to the AFL has waned. Despite this, I usually find myself at a couple of games a year, and always look for an excuse to watch a game at Princess Park. My Dad gave me Carlton and I care for that connection like an intangible family heirloom. Not all kids get their club passed on though, Some poor saps pick their teams based on who won the premiership when they were younger. What a tragedy that sons and daughters can’t share the emotions of a game with their parents. What a shame they will never feel the connection that comes from unconditional support.
However this is part of the reality of a League based on a long-gone suburbia of 100 years ago. Subject to house prices and facilitated by ever improving transport (compared to 50 year, calm down, I’ll allow complaints about Metro) our suburban communities have melded into a fluid city community (for the most part – in Melbourne). Sure you’ll find more Bulldogs supporters in Footscray, but you’ll find a few Hawthorn fans there too. Our connection to clubs today is more obscure than it was year ago – it’s not a dependent on where you live and (probably/tragically) not as dependant on who your parents supported. As a result, the traditional communities these clubs were attached to are no longer there and what clubs represent is less clearly defined.
Club footy obviously creates heroes and writes legends. One-club players will always be part of our game, most clubs will survive for many years to come and fans will always have deep unique connections to clubs – but the sport is changing. Fan, player and club connections will continue to be under threat to the economic and social realities of the sport and community. There is no choice in representative footy, all the connections are unconditional. This protects and celebrates the spirit of sport in a way club footy cannot.
Representative footy doesn’t let players choose to switch.
Representative footy does not let fans choose to support who’s best.
Representative footy does not let sides choose to merge or relocate.
Australian Football is the only sport in the world which is choosing to miss out.