I have a close friend named Toby who, at the age of ten, switched his allegiance from one English football side to another. To this day, the now 30-year-old is regularly ribbed by his mates for this innocent act of childhood naivety. I didn’t even know Toby when he was ten, but that hasn’t stopped me sledging him whenever his side plays. He regularly fields questions like “which one are you going for today, mate?”, and other similarly unimaginative chiding.
The jokes are supposed to tongue-in-cheek, but beneath their shallow veneer lies a value which many of us hold dear – that one’s loyalty, especially when it comes to the sports team you support, should never waver. By jumping ships, chasing glory or joining a bandwagon, a person is transgressing this value. In the modern age of high divorce rates and Gen Y’s well-documented lack of commitment, the support one gives to a sports team is held up as one of the last bastions of true, unadulterated loyalty. Violating this faith is akin to committing a cardinal sin.
Yet James Packer, one of Australia’s richest men and a bona fide member of the global celebrity class, has made a similar decision to my pal in purchasing a 37.5 per cent stake in the South Sydney Rabbitohs – despite his past as a fan and one-time board member of Souths’ fierce rivals the Eastern Suburbs Football Club (although admittedly his old man Kerry was a Souths supporter).
My friend’s adolescent infidelity has led to a lifetime of berating; Packer’s has been welcomed with open arms. Why the different reactions to two superficially similar events?
Packer’s purchase of a stake in Souths has been welcomed precisely because the media, and obliging members of the public, no longer view sport in the emotive terms of tribalism. We fully accept that sport is now business. James Packer buying into a business with high earnings potential is viewed as another savvy investment in his portfolio of business interests; not as one fan declaring support for a rival club.
Somewhat begrudgingly, sports fans are slowly coming to terms with the fact their favourite players are unlikely to stay with their club for more than a couple of seasons, and are liable to join their rivals, another code, or move to another continent to try a completely different game (see: Hayne, J. 2014).
This acceptance is now being met with another development – it is becoming more socially acceptable for fans to show the same level of disloyalty as the players they support.
The recent success of South Sydney Rabbitohs in the NRL is case in point. Their premiership win caused a huge bandwagonning effect. During Grand Final week it was not uncommon to see a fan wearing new jerseys with the creases from the packet visible, or scarves with the price tag still on. I must admit, I too was caught up in the fever, wearing a green T-shirt to the Grand Final (as far as I could bring myself).
This is the new paradigm in which we live. Sport is a commodity, and fans as the consumers can pick whatever product that takes their fancy. The market is competitive, and technology is making it more open than ever before. Before the internet/TV age, sport was local. If you lived in Manly, you went for the Eagles. But technology has given us the ability to tune in to watch our team every week on whatever platform we want. Location is now irrelevant. Now nothing can stop the fans from being as fickle as they want.
A growing social acceptance of fans who hop codes, teams and rivals may be inevitable, but is nonetheless a concerning development for sport, Australian society and humanity in general.
Without the values of loyalty, devotion and stick-to-it-ness what society we be left with? You can’t build impressive shit without all of those characteristics. There would be no Opera House, no Hawke/Keating era economic reforms / Howard’s GST, and certainly there would be no World Series Cricket (hat-tip to James’ old man), all contentious but ultimately good projects that wouldn’t have happened without people who were determined enough to stick to their guns and ram-home an idea they believed in.
Yes, this is a ridiculously long bow to draw. Some would call it hyperbolic. Perhaps Packer never really liked Easts and now just wants to honour his father’s old team. I do not dare to criticise him for what he has done, but I think at the very least, his about-face should be acknowledged. Failure to do so would make the teasing of my friend Toby for his youthful and completely understandable backflip look over-the-top and just plain cruel, and I don’t have the stomach to handle that kind of introspection today.
By Ben Shine