Two weeks in and there’s the familiar odour of déjà vu wafting out of the Gabba. Yet another season where starry eyed optimism has given way to gloom.
On the back of some high profile recruiting, and a decent pre-season campaign, the biggest crowd in years poured into the Gabba, for a blockbuster clash against Collingwood. This was a real chance for the club to draw a line under the previous years and show that come what may, they were going to be competitive this season.
What the 30,000 odd fans got instead was a bewilderingly insipid effort against Collingwood, made respectable only by a last quarter charge after the Pies put the cue in the rack.
This was then followed up by a far more commonplace sight these past few years – an absolute towelling against a top four contender, when we’re playing away from home. This resulted in almost 25 per cent less fans showing up just two weeks later to the Gabba, to watch the team get thrashed by Richmond.
You could almost feel the shoulders slumping across Queensland. You could hear the resigned sighs being expelled from the mouths of thousands of fans as the final siren blew on Saturday night – from those who hadn’t already availed themselves of the exit gates.
Welcome to the world of the Brisbane Lions.
Now – while I can practically hear the snorts and dismissive handwaves from Bulldogs, Saints and Demons fans across the country, let me just say, I’m not pitching for a place in the pantheon of hardest hard luck stories. This is just my take on our story, a story of a club that dices with irrelevance in this state, a situation not helped by the players and club occasionally doing their best to push the bandwagon into the abyss.
Rather than spend time analysing the club on field, which has been done ad nauseam – we all know the shortcomings of our squad – youth, injuries, dearth of key position players – I thought I’d discuss my experience as a fan, and outline why AFL faces such an uphill battle in this state to win support off the field.
Let’s start off with one of the biggest issues – the experience at the ground. As stadiums go, there’s not much soul to the Gabba. Brisbane is a city that approaches all public architecture and infrastructure as a study in large scale concrete pouring, and the stadium is no exception.
It’s a medium sized bowl, with your standard candy coloured plastic seating. Facilities at the ground are functional, which is about the best that can be said for them. General admission tickets are reasonably priced, at $25.50, although if you avail yourself of food and drink your night will rapidly get more expensive.
Fundamentally, what I’m driving at is that barring the on-field action being stellar, there’s not a great deal of incentive to subject yourself to a night at the venue. Supporters sit in a permanently half empty bowl – I’m surprised the top tier seating doesn’t have cobwebs on it – and usually watch the Lions come out and win some, lose a lot more.
And when the action isn’t stellar – as it hasn’t been for some years now – well, the numbers are plain. Average crowd numbers for the season have dropped from 30,000 to around 20,000 since 2009, and while they hopefully won’t fall much further, there’s not much sign of them picking up again either.
For every new fan that comes in through the turnstiles, there’s an existing fan who’s had enough and isn’t going to bother coming along next home game. We’ve had the odd defibrillator applied to try and arrest this decline – the miracle on Grass, the amazing win over West Coast a few seasons before that – but nothing sustained or prolonged.
This is particularly problematic for the Lions, as apart from when the Qclash is on, the home fans have to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of the crowd numbers and atmosphere. There’s always a few expats residing here for the various interstate teams playing away in Brisbane, and some committed fans who make the long trek north and east.
However, unlike the Melbourne clubs who can rely on a solid turnout between them when they’ve got two Melbourne sides and one group who’ll be cheering and departing and happy at the end, those at the Gabba are mostly there for one side.
The Lions often have the bulk of their fans start out positively, with a buzz around the ground, but once the initial adrenalin wears off and the steady realisation sinks in over the course of a few quarters that we’re heading for another home loss, the crowd quietens, thins, and starts to depart early. In droves.
There’s probably quite a few people scoffing right now about fairweather fans and making disparaging remarks about Queenslanders. It is what it is. In my experience there’s a large number of Queensland fans have always voted with their feet and their wallets based on the win-loss record.
Even the Brisbane Broncos, the poster boys of football in this city, saw thousands of fans walking out the door and watching the Queensland Reds in 2011 and 2012, when the Broncos were playing a dire brand of footy, while the Reds embarked on a grandstanding run of form that culminated in their first ever Super Rugby title.
Every code has its rusted on fans, but there are thousands and thousands of swinging sporting voters to be gained in this city by any team that plays an attractive game, wins most of its games and provides a great experience for the fans. The Brisbane Roar have demonstrated that in spades these past few years.
As an imported club, playing a code that doesn’t have the entrenched history to fall back on, the Lions have to put on a bit of a show if they’re going to put bums on seats. For a variety of reasons the Lions haven’t played that football for some time now.
I believe it’s critical for this club to ensure that every week delivers a committed performance – if we lose, so be it – but we can’t afford tentative, half-hearted efforts like what we have seen so far this season. The fact that Jaden McGrath was the talk of supporters up here this week based on one moment of bravery against North, even though Waite plonked a goal five seconds later from the crumbs, is revealing in itself. It shows what fans want to see – commitment.
Ultimately it comes down to what we all know – winning teams attract fans.
So how do you create a winning culture in the club? Conventional science says it’s a mix of getting your draft picks right and judicious trading, and so far the Lions would struggle to get a tick in either of those boxes.
Prior to last year, we struggled to attract any first choice players from other clubs, and a large number of our high draft picks have all walked out the door in the past few years – if James Aish follows at the end of this season, that’s our last three first round picks in Jared Polec, Billy Longer and Aish all gone (we traded pick five last year for Dayne Beams).
That’s a huge blow, before you even get into all the others who left in recent years, and I doubt any club in the AFL has had to endure such attrition of their top end young talent. Sure, we’re getting draft picks in return, but if they keep walking out after their initial contract expires, the club is just going to find itself stuck in this hellish limbo where we’re basically nothing more than a training academy.
Speaking of which, I’m not even sure we’re that good as an academy. A cursory glance at the bigger clubs shows that their young talent develops faster, are more confident and skilled at an early age – it doesn’t leave much optimism that this club actually has the knowhow to turn the best young draft talent into top-end AFL footballers.
A player like Sam Mayes for example appears to have regressed badly since his first year at the club. There’s some players who have all the natural talent in the world, such as Darcy Gardiner. For a club to be successful it needs to consistently be able to develop the best in all of its players. The gap between our best and worst players in the on-field 22 is alarming large at the moment, with fundamental errors, lack of confidence and poor decision making blighting our attempts to get some consistent football happening.
The net result of all of this is that optimism is steadily eroded. At this stage we might turn into a team that could make it to the second week of the finals in five years time – if we’re lucky.
Right now in Brisbane, Australian rules is about as irrelevant as it has been since the Bears/Lions merger took place. It’s not going to go away entirely – the AFL would never allow it – but the overall experience for fans certainly isn’t bringing anyone through the gate in a hurry.
The only players we’re bringing in are those who wanted to come here for their own personal reasons, and meanwhile fans and our high draft picks are exiting at a brisk pace. The club is making a loss both in financial and playing stocks. This is not the way to build a culture of success.
Mitch Robinson got heavily criticised for admitting during a pre-season camp that he and his teammates saw a visit to Brisbane as a pushover – but at least he was honest enough to say it, and admit he said it. Clubs won’t admit it publicly, but I reckon the bulk of them have us chalked in for a win – certainly the Richmond fans I was surrounded by on Saturday night saw us as such!
Bulldogs and Saints fans weren’t always waiting 50-60 years for a flag. They started out small, holding out hope that it was just a slump and they’d see a win in the next five years or so. I suspect the Lions are now embarking on the same journey. This is barren, unfertile ground that the AFL is trying to sow up here, with a blunt plow and it’s not a high quality crop.
The long drought is just setting in.