The trademark of this sports media website ‘The Roar of the Crowd’ is a time-honoured reference to the pulsating thrill and enthralled spectacle of live, spectator sport.
It also evokes, by eluding to the visceral experience of sound, connotations of pure, existential, in-the-moment life experience, drawing on the aural memory of spectators of the live and passionate stadium encounter.
People Australia-wide (worldwide for that matter) might experience this sensation weekly, monthly, or even rarely in their lifetimes. Yet all remember (unless they’re dead to all human experience) that moment when a passage of play, a moment of tension, a kick, a mark, a try, a goal – whatever it might be – resulted in the crescendo of a war-cry. Nothing else in the world existed.
So let me give this article some context: crowds are down, T.V. audiences too. It has been written about in columns and chattered about at workplaces for weeks now.
I couldn’t believe there were empty rows in the top tiers of the MCG during the Essendon and Carlton match on Sunday night. The Broncos, usually one of the few league clubs which can bank on near-full stadiums, have been playing to a half-full Suncorp Stadium.
In Canberra last Saturday the Brumbies got only 7000 to a Super Rugby match. Even football, which is coming off such a low traditional base, has seen crowds for its pin-up boys the Wanderers shrinking this season despite their continued success.
The next question is obvious – what is going on?
In AFL circles there is an outcry over ticket prices (differential or otherwise), refreshment costs and a lack of general respect for the spectators. League lovers tell me it’s supporter fatigue (from what?), the state of public transport in Sydney, or that it’s better watched on T.V. anyway.
The Rah-rahs in the capital blamed the rain (it wasn’t raining at match time), or, in Sydney, that the North Shore lot won’t travel south of the bridge unless it’s to watch a winning and attractive team.
In general: unemployment is on the rise, the cost and time is too much, there’s so many more things to do on a Friday/Saturday night, and T.V. viewing is too easy etc etc.
The truth is, though, that there is no truth. Asking why a cultural activity’s success (or otherwise) changes from one season to the next is multi-faceted and complex. It’s a little like social research that relies on surveys – all reasons may be correct, none are totally or even slightly right.
This article is not a war-cry of protest about the evils of modern sport’s corporatisation, excessive prices, soullessness of modern clubs, or the lack of grass roots support and fan participation. It is a reflection on why live sport is so exhilarating. Why is it not just the life-blood of sport but the be-all and end-all, and why it is just so goddam bloody awesome.
Maybe it gets lost in constant repetition? Maybe if you go week-in, week-out to support your club it becomes a habit somewhat – familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe there are better things you could do than forking out for an over-priced ticket on a rain-soaked night to watch those bunch of no-hopers get thrashed again.
But context is everything and as someone who grew up and lives outside Australia’s major cities, the experience of watching a big match live captures something intangible.
Even live music, theatre, musicals, drama etc. cannot compare to sport because it has the one thing that all these other ‘live’ entertainments don’t – the unexpected. The only thing I can compare it with is that feeling of anticipation and pure, unadulterated joy you had when you were a kid and something ‘big’ was about to happen.
I’ll never forget the last time I was in Melbourne and went to the MCG to see a big match. Essendon versus Richmond on a Saturday night. Both teams on the up after years in the doldrums. The Bombers (my team) played crap until clawing their way back in the second half.
I remember two things about that night. The first was the sheer surge of humanity coming up the footbridge from the city as you approach the ground – nay, the cathedral, of the indigenous code; the surge of the crowd, all focused on one destination, one purpose, one desire.
The other was the antics and the deafening war-cry of the Bomber’s faithful as, in the space of two hours, they transcended through rollicks and emotional fortunes of life in a microcosm – from the frustration at effort lacking, through the scorn of failure, to, finally, the ecstatic, unmeasurable heights of pure joy and victory and song.
Think I’m getting a bit carried away? Well, you weren’t there …
But then you were. Or rather, you have been, nearly all of you at one time or another. You all know what I’m talking about, you’ve all felt it. That’s because it happens everywhere sport is played.
I’ve seen it whenever I’ve had the chance to watch these big games. I saw it on that first tackle when a massive Queensland front rower smashed full speed into a bristling front of New South Welshmen. I saw it when 100,000-plus gold-clad fellow country-persons stood and sang Waltzing Matilda and waited for the Maori Haka.
I’ve felt it on ANZAC day with 50,000-plus Essendon supporters baying for Collingwood blood. I haven’t felt it when thousands of fanatical red and black-clad maniacs roar (yes roar!) and chant at a Wanderers match – but I damn-well want to.
And that is really the whole point of the matter: you can understand it because we’ve all felt it at some stage or another. I could never understand growing up why once a year the top sports item on the news was this thing called the FA Cup in England or the American Superbowl. Why should I care about some team from some northern industrial English port, or the Seattle Seahawks/Miami Dolphins/Denver Broncos I’d never been to or even heard of?
But I understood when I saw it first-hand living in England and saw tens-of-thousands singing in unison. You understand if you’re in America at Super-bowl time and witness the sheer sense of occasion and festival of entertainment and razzamatazz.
I felt it from the other side just once in my life too, the only time I’ve played in a grand final. It was at 11am in the morning in the under-18s grand-final, when 5000-plus people gathered to watch us play at a small road-side town in the Riverina. Cars were packed five deep on the outer, tooting and cheering us as the sole representatives of our town.
We all understand because it’s only in those live sporting moments that the gap between spectator and players, between us and them, melts away, when the supporters not only live through the players but the players are part of the crowd and vise versa. When the players and supporters together are the team.
I’ve also experienced the other side of the equation.
Most of us have probably been to an empty stadium or meaningless game. That match which is downright boring, or rather the crowd and the atmosphere are. No hoarse cheering, no murmur of tension, no hush of anticipation. In short, thousands of individuals gathered for a Saturday night latte and polite chat, with the occasional golf-clap for a try or goal.
Contrast that to an exhilarating match. You can feel the anticipation and excitement build for 30 minutes before kick-off. There is bash and counter-bash, great kicks, brilliant ball-wizardry and desperate defence. And the crowd … oh my God, the crowd: rabid and utterly devoted. The banter is hilarious, the screaming from the heart, the emotional surges palpable. It’s awesome – I mean, really awesome!
It simply illustrates how and why sport is at its best when live. Neither the crowd nor the players can exist without the other. Supporters need the players as much as the players need the supporters – this is the team.
I’m going to watch GWS play the Western Bulldogs this Saturday at Manuka oval in Canberra. Not because I support either side, not because there is nothing else to do. I’ll go because there will be a big crowd in a small ground, a substantial number of ex-pat and travelling Doggie supporters and because both teams are coming off a win and there is a sense of anticipation in the air.
So, like I said, this not an exegesis on the causes of falling crowds or an indictment on Australia’s large sporting organisations and how they run their codes.
It is a call to arms. A war-cry to the faithful, to the uninitiated, even to the downright bemused.
Get off your backsides and get to the footy!