Monday, May 9, 2011

AFL: The Demise of the Second Team

Perhaps it's just that I'm getting older. It could be that people are more focused as myriad media sources clamour for our time. Maybe it's the sociopolitical economy that drives the AFL. But as I've aged, I hear less and less about that schoolyard phenomenon of the "second team".

I'm not talking about Fremantle, Port Adelaide, the Suns or even the foetal Greater Western Sydney but the schoolyard ritual often carried into adulthood which saw everyone barrack for one team - in my case Geelong - but also support another club in a less obvious way. No scarves or jerseys, just a mental attachment and a more fond disposition to that team after your first love. Fond hopes for success - in good times for your squad or bad - and usually they had the honour of being the second match report you read in The Age or The Sun.

And I know this isn't a phenomenon only I ascribe(d) to: throughout my schoolboy days it was amongst the first questions you asked a potential new friend: "Who'dja barrack for?" - if the answer wasn't your team, you hoped for a more positive response from your follow-up "And who's your second team?".

Growing up in Warrnambool, everyone had a second team - it went with the territory, both literally and figuratively. In Sou'west Victoria, you supported one team - most often Geelong, Fitzroy, Collingwood or Essendon - and had a strong secondary preference for usually the club nearest by location or presence. In our case the closest club was Geelong, just over two hours' drive away, while the young talent from the local Hampden league was "zoned" to Fitzroy, meaning that club had first choice of the available talent.
As an aside, it was also mandatory to have definite preferences as to who you supported in the Hampden League (Warrnambool - definitely not the hated South), it's feeder the WDFL (Russell's Creek) and in the VFA (Werribee). The first two were largely dominated by where you or your Dad played footy and, as always, partisan family values.

As the VFL necessarily begat the AFL and subsequently became the biggest sport in the country, it seems people have left their second team by the wayside. You may well still feel well-disposed to that loveable bunch of rogues (for me, Footscray, err, the Western Bulldogs) but their stranglehold as "second team" is a little more untenable, broached by the Aussie love of the underdog or even recent club changes. You don't care so much when they struggle or when their star is poached by another (new?) club. So what's promoted such a situation?
Predictably, there are many factors which promote a decrease in second teams' importance in our national consciousness. With clubs inspired more and more by the zen by "Six-Sigma", "best process" and "branding", they focus not just on vocal and visible support but the obvious revenue it generates. Ultimately, the league has become a business and as such follows the golden rule of the marketplace: there's little room for sentimentality.

Memberships form such an important part of footy financing, and as memberships aren't cheap, anyone who signs up wants value for money. Any time an Average Joe invests in a club, time formerly taken by a second team is often directed into a closer relationship with your first love. As your stake in one club increases, it perhaps decreases the amount you invest in a second team.

Clubs now position each other to attract the punters' attention, leaving little room for small smiles in the direction of other clubs. The league's business sense - and make no mistake, the league had to evolve in this way - places a high premium on brand loyalty. And for Average Joe and his mate Average Phil, that means you've gotta support the team. Preferably financially as well as emotionally.

As a signed-up Geelong member, I'm bombarded with seemingly daily updates as to what's going on at the Cattery: Jimmy Bartel lays into Harry Taylor, Neil Balme's opinions on issue X, Y or Z and even Mathew Stokes' memory for sporting trivia. The Cats want me as closely as possible in touch with club news and events and many members want that proximity. With such contact, they can colour my perception of my team: I can feel like I know "The Boys" or that the club cares about me. I don't doubt they do - just that like any relationship they'd like something from me as well.

With the banalities that often make up much of their emails, the Cats offer an "inside the dressing room" look at Kardinia Park, a chance to learn intimate knowledge of club operations and promote involvement in local events. Mostly, this is stuff you wouldn't know about another club. The Cats are staking out their territory: with emails, with online web chats and if they're not podcasting they're missing a fast-departing train.

Clubs want your full attention and I'd hazard a bet that many would probably prefer their fans don't have a definite second team. And this is fine. In a crowded entertainment marketplace where sport, fine art and plenty other methods of happy distraction vie for your custom, clubs are simply leveraging the tools at their disposal to ensure their competition. It comes though, at the expense of the second team: in order to promote themselves, clubs must suggest tacitly that their opposition is inferior (in excitement, potential, results, history, whatever), no matter how their on- or off-field merits.

The olden days - when Gary Ablett was a half-forward flanker - are gone and it's mostly for the benefit. The game is in much better shape in nearly every way, no matter how rosy the glasses are that you use to look back on those halcyon days. But subtly it's come to an almost biblical invitation - if you're not with us, you're against us. We can't blame anyone for it - there's really no need, either. It's just a strange change in the way we view our sport. Clubs need to continue to reinforce their brand, otherwise they may find themselves facing the fiscal situation of a Fitzroy or latterly, Port Adelaide and North Melbourne.
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