Expansion and new teams: Chasing the fickle leaves the loyal behind

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Around Australia, sporting governing bodies are seeking to increase their share of Australia’s increasingly fickle supporters as commerce take hold over sport.

They do this either by expansion, taking their competitions into areas they have not previously been appreciated, or by re-launching their competitions by the creation of new formats and new teams.

However try as they might, administrators and marketing men cannot invent teams and expect fans to support them as they would a team which has existed for decades.

Moreover, by liquidating these traditional teams and replacing them with supposedly more marketable equivalents, they are clutching at the soul of the sports themselves.

This weekend saw Australian cricket enter a new era with the start of the first ever Big Bash League Twenty20 tournament. Where the Big Bash had consisted of the six State teams with an option of foreign guest players such as Dwayne Bravo and Chris Gayle, the Big Bash League will have eight teams, based in the capital cities of these states but with two each in Melbourne and Sydney.

For example rather than Tasmania, there will be the Hobart Hurricanes (playing at ‘Blundstone Arena’ in another nod to the corporate world). These teams have been formed entirely by the minds of marketing men and administrators, and are privately owned.

This notion of relaunching and reformatting to reinvigorate a sport is not new. Perhaps the broadest example is football’s A-League, which replaced the spluttering National Soccer League.

In 2005, in an attempt to re-launch soccer as football, and to make a game which was considered the domain of ethnic agitators more inclusive, Melbourne was united behind Melbourne Victory, Sydney behind Sydney FC and so on. What we have seen is some dramatic growth and some moments where each team has at some point felt they have cracked it.

But for each team, a decline in form and fortune has inevitably led to a decline in support, crowd numbers, and revenue. The loyalty simply does not exist to keep people coming back when the side aren’t winning. ‘Thick and thin’ cannot be created synthetically.

The same could be said of Super Rugby. The Waratahs draw big crowds when they play an attractive and win, but when times are not so good, fifteen years has not produced enough faithful supporters to keep the atmosphere.

I suspect the AFL may face the same problem with Greater Western Sydney and the Gold Coast Suns. Carlton fans will show up in large numbers regardless of their team’s place in the standings because generations before them have done so.

The same can be said of all of the founding teams or those which have been added prior to the last thirty years. Even the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Lions have become increasingly solid. But whether the fans can sufficiently embrace two teams pulled out of thin air is another matter. The first season honeymoon cannot be relied upon for longer than that first year.

The NRL has also tried, and did so by removing many established teams. Vale Newtown, North Sydney, Balmain, Western Suburbs, St George, Illawarra and very nearly South Sydney. Mergers do not count as retaining heritage.

You ask a Balmain or Western Suburbs fan, many of them will tell you that the 2005 Premiership did not quite feel the same. Equally I doubt the Dragons’ 2010 triumph would be considered by many to be a crowning moment for rugby league on the South Coast.

In exchange for these long established sides, we have seen a chase for new frontiers. Deleting half a dozen teams in the game’s cradle to let Melbournians have rugby league foisted upon them hardly seems reasonable. The Storm have seen extraordinary success in the last five years, but prior to and even at time during their illegal reign their crowds have struggled to pierce the 15,000 mark.

The Gold Coast Titans’ crowd figures bowed to fickle realities as their team stuttered this season.

Regardless of how they were going, there would always be a core of Balmain faithful. The governing body should have done far more to sustain these teams, rather than torching them to chase the money of the fly-by-nighters.

The point is that you can’t just pull teams out of the ether and expect people to be loyal to them. Once traditional teams are extinguished or mashed together, they very rarely return (Manly is the exception here). With their extinction goes a game’s history, and much of its traditional following.

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