Liquid football: Are AFL players trading loyalty for success?

I was at two Grand Finals this year – the VFL and AFL. At the final siren of each I felt collective hope and optimism for the future of the two winning clubs. Yet, in the light of their contrasting trade week experiences, neither now looks like trading places on the ladder anytime soon.

As a Hawthorn supporter, high up in the rafters of the MCG, I felt the collective euphoria – high fiving and embracing brown and gold-clad strangers as we headed towards back-to-back flags, and tentative thoughts of another next year. A week earlier, as an off-duty researcher of organisational culture, I was at my first VFL final with my Hawks scarf stuffed in my pocket, tagging along with friends, their kids, and their parents decked out in their finest red, white and blues. Throughout the game I was gripped by the nostalgia for 1954, even by those too young to have been there; and by a shared hope as their club’s new second tier team, Footscray, signalled possibilities for a future AFL flag that they and their kids could celebrate together. While Clarkson’s trading strategy was again paying dividends, McCarthy’s nous for youth development brought renewed optimism for the perennial underdogs.

Just three weeks later, thoughts of the Bulldogs building on their VFL success must surely be petering away. With the 2008 Brownlow Medallist and latter-day icon, Adam Cooney being offered to Carlton and rejected, the club captain, Ryan Griffen, requesting a transfer to GWS last Thursday, and countless other players looking to leave, the Western Bulldogs Football Club is seemingly in disarray.

The club executive’s response to Griffen’s demands smacked of sheer panic. By noon the next day, as McCartney left Whitten Oval, and the executive and the rest of the Bulldog supporters took a deep breath and regained some semblance of hope – that Griffen would stay to lead their team to greater success. The twist in this tale though, is that Griffen still wants to leave. He has been offered a better deal. In that remote outpost of the AFL, Griffen will be a long way from home, in the NRL heartland and increasingly soccer-loving suburbs of Sydney’s west. He will not have the same loyal fan base he had in Melbourne’s west, but his chances of future success will seemingly be more likely with this new club built on significant corporate and AFL investment.

So does ‘success’ in the modern game of Australian Football come at the cost of forgoing loyalty, community and clubmanship? If we take the case of the Western Bulldogs, the longstanding loyalty of supporters has certainly been tested in recent days. There seems, though, to be little loyalty from their players on the move. Indeed, whispers of player disquiet with McCartney’s tough approach were being floated at the VFL Grand Final by those close to the club’s leadership. Despite recent symbolic gestures demonstrating board support for McCartney’s solid old school methods, individual players showed during the trade period that a new more fluid game is now being played off the field.

Confirming this, across at the Ricoh Centre, the revolving door was spinning again with Sewell retiring, Frawley being snaffled, Schoenmakers and others being surplus to requirements, and O’Rourke arriving unexpectedly from GWS to compete for a place in the league’s best midfield. At Hawthorn the quick returns brought by savvy trades is self-evident. The club executive and football department understand the flows of free agency.

Having once found himself on the wrong side of Hawthorn’s revolving door, Tim Boyle recently wrote: “The rise of free agency in sport is reflective of how grossly overestimated loyalty in team sports is. Real loyalty is the province of fans that can cheer the jumper regardless of who wears it. But this idea is complicated for a player, who mostly loses his romance for the game when he’s drafted, and starts thinking about his own success.“ (source: The Age). Arguably, Hawthorn know this very well; taking the game off the field as well as on it into a new era where collective club success and individual players’ career success are two different things.

Yet, the notion of player agency, individualism, movement, and commodification was always going to be problematic. Australian football is a game built on traditions of shared struggles towards the chance of winning a flag, ground out over years of team toil and fan loyalty from the bottom of the ladder to the top and back again. The quick returns and capitalisation of this emergent more fluid modern element of the off-field game have come as a surprise to many fans and some club executives.

Australian Football is founded on notions of togetherness in the face of adversity – we love our battlers. The history of the game reads as a homage to community; built against the constitutive outsider as ‘a game of our own’, within this distinctly Australian code, around its clubs. Bound by shared histories of our clubs’ struggles, hard fought successes and a nostalgia for the game’s traditions, we hold strong associations with club totems, historic moments, and ‘our’ iconic players.

It is no wonder then that we expect our icons to share our loyalty to our club, singing the song with gusto, remaining faithful, and only switching clubs for honourable reasons. We understand those players drafted interstate for their moves to cure homesickness, or the rising stars who jump ship as the club sinks down the ladder, or those who have served us well but move for just a few last games at the elite level. Otherwise we expect our clubs’ draftees to wear club colours with pride as they grow from boys to men to legends. We assume our heroes of the past, present and future maintain club bonds throughout and beyond their playing careers. And many still do.

The 28-year-old Griffen arguably falls into the latter category of future hero, assumed by the Bulldogs Board and supporters to lead their club’s young hopefuls to a chance of the AFL flag one day. It is, though, becoming increasingly unlikely he will. The mythology of player loyalty has imploded at the Western Bulldogs Football Club. And the risks of elevating players to iconic status in an era of free agency are being realised.

Griffen has brought to the fore the problem of the meanings that supporters, clubs and officials attribute to particular individual players. It is no wonder then that, with their agents whispering in their ear, some star players begin to realise their true value. They have, after all, such a short time as elite players, so why not make what they can from it while it lasts. Griffen is only following a trend set by current greats of the game – Gary Ablett Junior, Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, and let’s not forget Chris Judd. All have made moves that demonstrate the rise of agency and greater fluidity in Australian Football.

Not all players see themselves as an enduring member of one club’s community. If free agency is here to stay then their movement is a trend that will continue. Many players will leave and some may return to the club that gave them a shot at elite football. And of course many will never leave – I’m mindful of the devotion that Saints fans poured out as Lenny Hayes played his final game. We shouldn’t, though, mistake players’ contractual obligations to the club for something akin to our loyal membership of the club.

Personally, I love football for its many traditions that remind us of simpler times when the rest of our lives were less liquid, less commodified, and more communal. Yet I am also ambivalent about free agency – I see it as an inevitability of the AFL seeking to commodify, commercialise and globalise the game. When Buddy left Hawthorn, I felt no remorse. When he celebrated his first goal of this year’s final, I was a bit niggled.

The agency that Buddy now personifies in AFL is what maintains the vitality of European soccer – he is a commodity available to the highest bidder – he is not, though, a new phenomenon. Think Christiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, or Wayne Rooney at Manchester United – loyalty is not what binds them to their clubs and their supporters, their contracts do; diligently negotiated and renegotiated long before they are due to expire, stipulating extortionate valuations to put them out of the reach of poachers. Meanwhile some elite soccer players are still bound by something more than contracts. Steven Gerrard was so close to leaving Liverpool for Chelsea in 2005. Lured by the prospect of big money, the bright lights of London, and the chance to play for Mourinho, Gerrard decided at the eleventh hour to remain in the city of his birth, to captain the club he had followed from birth.

Liverpool and many other elite football clubs in Europe remain true to their traditions and remind us of their historic struggles and heroes. The deep meanings associated with clubs such as Barcelona, Glasgow Celtic and Bayer Leverkusen embody politics, religion, class, and many other aspects of the local culture and history that surround them. Their meanings create strong local allegiances with the club – the people and the place are what have built club cultures. That is why I am proud to call myself a Yeovil Town fan – I remember the sloping pitch that is now a supermarket, and I will never forget our first trip to Wembley only to be out-sung by twice as many Blackpool supporters. Local people identify strongly with their clubs in European football, just as we do here in the AFL.

Yet in the ‘World Game’ loyal locals are no longer enough to sustain the big clubs. In 2005 a band of Manchester United fans discovered this to their cost. With the pending takeover of ‘their’ club by the US billionaire, Malcolm Glazer, the realisation that their voice was nowhere near as loud as the millions of ‘Man U supporters’ around the world watching on pay-to-view television. Glazer and his the corporate machine that is Manchester United draws far more revenue from global television rights and merchandise sales than it does from local gate receipts. Those loyal locals stuck to their guns though, (re-)forming FC United, a new amateur club, aiming to steadily play its way up through the multi-tiered league structures under the original name of their former club.

Do similar fates confront our current AFL football clubs? Judging by the high proportion of revenue the Commission draws from TV rights, the former CEO’s ‘study tours’ to the US, attempts to ’pitch’ the game in India and China, and club officials visiting their counterparts in Europe during the off-season, I would warrant that the encroachment of global economic forces will soon be realised by the AFL and its leading clubs. Those clubs such as Hawthorn and Geelong that are savvy enough to structure themselves to capitalise on free agency for sustained success season after season to ‘beat the drop’ will benefit most when the really big money arrives at our shores.

They do so, though, not at the expense of local loyalties. Those clubs, as at their European counterparts, are mindful of retaining a strong sense of local identity, community and history. Just as the fans are, some players will be drawn to this; meanwhile others will be drawn to promises of success, trophies and money. Do not, though, blame those players. Don’t blame your club, or the AFL, or even Fox Sports. Instead, see this coming new era as a wave of commodification, commercialisation and globalisation that has swept through every other aspect of our lives. How much of what you eat homegrown or locally produced? Do you support your local greengrocer? Do you still have a local greengrocer? The problem is not a local problem but a global one – it is not just economic, societal or cultural, it is ideological. We are flooded by the tsunami that the sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, calls Liquid Modernity.

And so, what of the seemingly divergent futures of the Western Bulldogs and the Hawthorn Hawks? How differently those clubs have managed themselves in this trade period is symbolic of how differently they have strategised, how they have structured, and the directions in which they have looked for inspiration. While the Bulldogs looked to past models of building for success, Hawthorn have looked to other sports (and I’ll bet other sectors) to redefine what success is in the AFL.

Alistair Clarkson is hailed as an innovator, but he does not do it alone; and I include the supporters in this. Watching the documentary – The Chosen Few – aired on Channel 7 on Grand Final eve, he said frankly that he has not led a training session in three years. And Chris Scott was shown telling one of his staff that he hadn’t a clue what training drill he was watching the Geelong players doing; what counted for him was that they knew. These statements stood out for me as symbolic of a new era of football club management and organisation. The coach and the players are just a part of the whole. There will be heroes and icons, but they will come and go. Whether Griffen stays or goes, Bulldogs success will not hinge on him. It did, though, hinge on McCartney’s strategy until last Friday.

I hope that the Bulldogs prove me wrong; I hope that their cultural values hold strong and they climb back up the ladder. I am not a fan of progress. Nostalgic for blurred ideals of tradition and community, I love the togetherness, belonging and community that endure in football. I would much rather simpler times than those I experience in other parts of my life. The MCG is, for me, a safe haven away from the push and shove of modernity.

And the idea of the AFL draft as a route to a fair go at the flag is an honourable one. As the Bulldogs and the Saints have shown us over recent decades, it is not a certain route to the flag. Yet in the new liquid era of trade there will be more perennial underdogs – the divide between the rich and the poor will only increase. The trick to becoming a rich club is not just to see the wave coming, or to have the right board, or to know how to surf it; the trick is to combine all of these to be ready for when it breaks.

About

Hawthorn supporter and Organisational Ethnographer researching the meaning and value of sport to remote Aboriginal communities.

Comments

  1. Very well written and argued piece, Tim. I am with you on both future trends, and hoping Canute-like that somehow the waves of commodification can be held back. The one caution I would draw with your analysis is that AFL is inherently an indigenous game with no meaningful overseas interest. That is where your comparison with Man United or Real Madrid seems a bit overstretched. Soccer and cricket have some international marketing appeal that AFL does not, so our internal economy will limit the extent of the trends you accurately describe.
    I suspect Gillon will be watching the Chinese iron ore price more than the TV ratings when he negotiates the next broadcast deal.

  2. Ah, when you take the local, the loyal and the amateur out of the competition it loses much of its romance and charm. No-one ever asked us if we wanted that and they never will. Give us two weeks of trades so the game can fill our rear pages for a couple of weeks longer and lads will want to leave, for the news if little else.

  3. Neil Anderson says

    The Bulldogs have been behind the eightball with spending within the football department and player payments area for a long time. Now the gap between them and the ‘Hawthorns’ is enormous. No luxury of sending coaches on overseas fact-finding missions. No luxury of having the best assistant coaches to take training while the senior coach (when they appoint a new one) is inside talking recruiting or poaching the best player to his Club.
    The vicious cycle continues. The successful Clubs attract the best players at bargain prices to be even more successful. Players who have done their time at struggling Clubs will take the opportunity to be part of a premiership side further weakening the poorer Clubs.
    It’s no wonder the Footscray faithful celebrated the VFL win. Not so much because it was a long time between drinks, but because it was achieved in a relatively even competition. You don’t have to worry about which Club is financed better and you aren’t playing against a side consisting of elite players poached from elsewhere just to win a premiership.
    If ‘local’ loyalty goes then there is no AFL competition. No connections or expansion ideas overseas will work for our indigenous game.

  4. tim_butcher says

    Peter, thanks. Yes, I’ve found it difficult to interest overseas family and friends in AFL. I actually think you’ve got to be here to feel the game in order to get it (and when you’re away you miss it). So Dave and Neil, you’re not wrong – place is important – there’s something about how close we are to the boundary line that draws us in closer still. Where else in the World can you bump into a sporting legend on your local high street and have a chat with them about the game while they pop to the corner shop for a pint of milk and the paper?

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