The NRL’s ambitious push to emerge from the COVID-19 shutdown has paid off after attracting its biggest television audience for a regular-season game in more than six years.
Novelist and YouTuber John Green is a fanatical soccer fan. He has devoted YouTube videos, podcast episodes and tremendous time and money into his obsession for both Liverpool and AFC Wimbledon.
He is a sponsor of AFC Wimbledon and his high-profile support of this third-tier English football team surely makes them one of the best-known third-tier sporting teams in the world.
What interests me isn’t just that Green is a fan of football. It’s that he can write about his passion so insightfully and critically. In the podcast mentioned above, he distilled sport to its bizarre, inessential essence by admitting that “contemporary humanity has invested a tremendous portion of its limited resources into developing extremely sophisticated strategies for placing a usually round object through a hoop or into a hole or past a line”.
However, Green also offered a humble counterpoint: “Humans need games… more to the point, I think we need communities, which sports are actually pretty good at creating”. It’s this community-focused approach to sport that I find fascinating, especially as a counterpoint to the aggressively competitive and profit-centred focus that can so often preoccupy sports media and fandom.
The origin story of Green’s beloved AFC Wimbledon is a particularly compelling example of a sports community triumph. After the original Wimbledon football club was relocated, disaffected fans formed their own team and kept it within their own neighbourhood. Remarkably, the supporters also own the club through a trust. It’s this captivating fight against corporate greed, with regular folks standing up for what’s right and pure, that attracted Green initially and what makes the Wimbly Womblys such an exciting team to follow.
Which brings me to the Brisbane Broncos.
Growing up, I supported the Brisbane Broncos primarily because they were the family team and the closest NRL team to my home town. However, to be perfectly honest, I am also sure I came to love the Broncos because it was easy.
They were a successful club. While they only won two premiership in the 2000s, the Broncos were still a powerhouse, littered with Origin and Test representatives. Of course you want to follow the best – a team that might win the competition, the team that has the famous players. Who wants to waste time going for the losers? So here I am, 26 years later, with a team I support minus any deeply deliberated reason.
Having grown a little older and a little wiser, I have to admit there are some aspects of the Broncos and the NRL as a whole that give me pause. I’ve written about this before, and while I have genuine quandaries, I am not yet giving up on the Broncos or indeed rugby league.
The sport has given me endless entertainment, a bond with my father and grandfathers and a sense of belonging to something larger than myself – a community of sorts. Of all the sports, I reckon rugby league is the one to barrack for, with its working-class roots, fascinating history, quirky characters and absorbing State of Origin contest.
Like anything, it has its problems, and there are some aspects I abhor. But nothing perfect exists in this world – you take what you can get and try to improve what you can.
However, as I learn more about the history of the Broncos – especially during the chaotic Super League years, thank you The Rugby League Digest – I wonder if my support for the club is misguided. It is difficult to reconcile the Broncos’ place in the game – the game’s wealthiest club, the top dog intimidator, and lately the aggrieved underachievers – with my own distaste of born-to-rule egoists.
This, coupled with their salary cap finesse and News Limited affiliation, makes the Broncos somewhat problematic to support with a clear conscience, or at least for any other reason than because I used to watch the games with my grandpa.
I naturally gravitate toward the underdog, the little guys who’d rather play fair and lose than win at all costs. Can I really simultaneously love rugby league for its rejection of upper-class superiority while also backing the richest club in the land?
The Broncos are the antithesis of the sort of club I’d choose to support today. With my current disposition, I’d like to think I’d select the AFC Wimbledon-esque team, the scrappy battlers with the heart-warming story, the blokes happy to exist at all and ecstatic to be in the third tier.
Nevertheless, despite my recent reticence, I must admit that I felt proud of the Broncos women’s team in their premiership victory a few weeks ago.
I was genuinely distressed when James Roberts whacked Corey Oates illegally in Round 23, as if it really mattered to me personally. I was, of course, disappointed when the Broncos went down so feebly in the finals this year. They’re not easy to like, yet I like them anyway. Nostalgia plays a part, sure, but there must be something genuine there, built up over time.
I guess this is a lot of words to say my passion for the Broncos has been altered – challenged, if not quashed. It would be dishonest to not confront the unpleasant aspects of my interest in rugby league and my uneasiness with aspects of my team. The alternative, I believe, is zealotry – disingenuous support where improvement is impossible.
I really hope that rugby league might one day be free of the taint of gambling and alcohol. My issues with the Broncos are harder to solve – but the way they’ve been playing, they’ll certainly be underdogs for a while.
In the meantime, I have a solution. I completely recognise that most of my problems with the Broncos – overt affluence, superiority, Rupert Murdoch – all disappear in the third division. Less money, less moral ambiguity.
So, I turn to the wisdom of The Roar. As John Green points out: “billions of people offer gobs of their attention to watching and discussing and arguing over [sports]” – usually for no reason other than it gives us something to be a part of. Let’s make John Green proud.
Tell me: which second- or third-tier team should I support? Who are the most lovable battlers in rugby league’s lower divisions? The team with the most compelling underdog story? I genuinely want to know your thoughts.
The Liverpools of this world don’t need any more fans. The AFC Wimbledons do.