With the formal announcement of the Cockburn move made just before Christmas, I gave time over the holiday season to contemplating the many perspectives of being a Fremantle supporter in this era: to put it bluntly, I was surprised at what I came to understand.
Readers of my first contribution on the Cockburn topic will know I did not support the move; though I did not pretend to know the detail of every offer on the table, I believed the senior leadership was missing a wonderful opportunity to entrench the club at the heart of a central Fremantle precinct that will look very different in 2030 or 2050. But the move is now official; moreover, this piece has little to do with that single decision per se.
Fundamentally, there is an idea that sits at the heart of the 'Keep Freo in Freo' campaign; an idea also embedded in all the -- sometimes rather acrimonious -- posts made on the discussion boards of this site. Supporters don't like to feel powerless. In a hyper-material world, filled with management speak and people wanting something for next to nothing, people feel the team they support -- in whatever sport or sports they're born into -- is the one thing off limits. Though women can love football, and be just as knowledgable as the opposite sex, it isn't controversial to say this emotional link to a sporting team is particularly important for men. At its core, being a fan is about leaving yourself vulnerable, and men generally don't do that if it can be avoided.
Supporters don't like to feel powerless for a very good reason; it confirms a niggling suspicion they're just a number, and it reminds them they're consumers. Football, like a HBO DVD series, viral Youtube video or kid's board game, might just be entertainment; something to occupy the brain. This fear is not to be belittled. A friend of mine bought a Perth Spirit jersey, and was made to feel like a joke when the Australian Rugby Championship turned into one after just a season. Our family were foundation members of the Western Reds. What's the dollar value on this emotional investment? If you feel disconnected, or the sport moves on without you, it hurts.
Though I disagree with many of the views espoused on the forums of this site, I cannot dispute the fact Shane's diligence in running the Dockerland site all these years has been a blessing to Freo fans all over the world. And yet at every turn in recent years, with the jersey change, logo change, colour change, song vote, and now physical relocation, there have been angry fans, feeling just this very powerlessness. This begs the question. . . Will they burn your membership card for the TV news cameras? Are they going to not go? Are they going to want the team to get beaten? In all but the most extreme cases, fans will always come back. Administrators know this.
Measuring a fan's commitment is always dangerous -- and highly subjective -- terrain. I moved interstate to Canberra in 2005 for work , and have seen three matches live at Subiaco in the intervening years. Sounds like a paltry effort, right? Perhaps. But in my four years in Canberra, I flew eighteen (18) times to watch Freo play away fixtures; Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, just about everywhere. Four away games a season, two epic finals defeats in 2006. Think a car ride home hurts after a loss? Imagine an airport security queue. Now that I have lived in the northern hemisphere for three years, I have collected the most bizarre stories: being on holiday in Iceland for example, and bribing the Reykjavik hotel concierge to give me his computer at 3am local time, so I could stream a big Dockers match.
I say this not to 'demonstrate my credentials' -- as so many supporters feel the need to do -- but instead to show how fraught such analysis can be. Speak to any of my friends, and they'll say I'm one of the biggest Dockers supporters they know, even having lived out of Perth for seven years. But what of the kid in Geraldton or Esperance who can never make a match, or the indigenous Kimberley family who hops in the back of a ute to drive an hour from their remote community to the nearest TV each week? What about a supporter who gets a tattoo? Who's a bigger fan, any of them or I? And this is the point. Being a supporter should never be measured by what you've done, or how many years you've been a paid up member; only whether you really hurt after a loss. If you don't get over a result until Wednesday or Thursday, then that's the tell-tale sign of a real emotional connection. If it hurts, then you should feel entitled to matter.
Put simply, every fan with that emotional link should feel they have a voice. In my current home of the United Kingdom, the national football code has been stuck in a 20 year war for its soul. The men in suits who eat the prawn sandwiches at half-time, as the caricature goes, have completely snatched the game from the everyman. It's a sorry thing to watch. Much like the carnage from the Super League wars in rugby league, I'm not sure the ordinary fan will ever commit his heart and soul to English football in the same way again.
Which brings me to my realisation.
We're not at that point; in fact we're nowhere near it. Football is a capitalist arrangement: we in the AFL are lucky to have the draft, the salary cap and predominantly local heroes; but the fact is that systems become more complex as they grow. Gaze out from the 1988 WAFC box seats looking over the half-grass and standing room Subiaco Oval, and then bring those same administrators forward 30 years to 2018 and the new Burswood stadium. Times do change, and in this respect, the Cockburn move probably makes sense. As a fan, it's a pretty blunt betrayal of our post-1995 tradition; as a player soon shuttling on the Freeway South between the new stadium and the Cockburn training and rehabilitation facility, it's common sense.
In almost any reform, there is a vocal minority who are in favour, a vocal minority who are opposed, and a large unpersuaded group in the middle who don't have the information or interest to take a view. On each of these recent club reforms -- song, logo, colours, location, you name it -- the board and senior leadership have pushed on regardless. I've worked in WAFL football clubs, and was often frustrated by outside people who thought they knew better than the people who worked on club matters every day; the coaches who picked the players; the doctors who ruled someone fit to play; the administrators who found sponsors and ran the business of the club. Leave us to do our job, and we'll make a great product, so the thinking went.
The peculiar thing about Fremantle is that we have been the product. The infamous 'Do You Have the Passion?' campaign had a blunt subliminal message: if you're a '50/50' WA football fan, or new to the game -- choose us over the other team. It's a better atmosphere. It matters more to us. We're more fun. I was there when J.Lo kicked the winning goal after the siren; the Subiaco announcer said it was the biggest roar he'd heard in 17 years at the ground. We the supporters, in lieu of historical on-field success, have been marketed as the main strength of the club. Where does the right type of support start and stop? Show lots of passion, and validate the marketing. Show too much passion, and we're not 'real' fans, getting behind the club in the right way.
I won't flatter myself to think the Club President and CEO will read this, but if they did, my message would be: we shouldn't take it so personally, but we just will. This emotional responsibility is what makes the sports industry so unique, unpredictable and special. As supporters, we've not had the success our loyalty perhaps warranted, but as custodians as well as administrators, you need to be mindful of overcorrection; though a new determined mindset permeates the club, alienating the really passionate folk has unintended consequences. If the club makes big changes, that's fine. But each reform is not without risk; you must realise how other sports -- like English football -- have fared when making contentious decisions. Their figures might be strong, and the Asian timezone TV deals will make many men rich, but the game for the core terrace supporters is certainly dying.
The psychology of a fan is unique, and might be frustrating when trying to bring about change you see fit: but you must do everything possible to keep every member of the family in the tent. In the long run, the club will be better for it.
Now that I've said my piece, I'll go back to doing what I enjoy the most -- supporting this great club. I look forward to my first early morning stream from northern Europe in 2013.