It’s been a fascinating experience, being a part of something new, the project around the Greater Western Sydney Giants. A club being built from pretty much nothing and copping buffeting from media outlets that mostly still show little interest in the second Sydney team, radio networks that are openly hostile to the Giants where it suits them and so on. That is settling down now, helped by fairly even handed pieces such as this by Herald league writer Andrew Webster.
This year, however, with the success of the Giants on the field, we supporters have discovered a new field of hostility, heat and largely irrational criticism, Victorian writers and fans who think that it’s unfair that the Giants may win a premiership. Silly things like this from a Herald Sun writer.
The most heated of these was a recent piece in The New Daily by Tom Heenan of Monash University. It’s a handy go-to guide for any student of football coverage for every lazy Victorian anti – Giants cliche. Let’s go a-Fisking.
Why GWS will never win the intercode battle
ANALYSIS: The AFL have bankrolled and manipulated their success but the locals still don’t care, Tom Heenan writes.
The idea that there is an intercode “battle” is the first cliche off the rank – the idea that the Giants must destroy every other code in order to “win”. This is fairly superficial analysis of the ability in Sydney for a number of sporting codes to have their own niche. Rugby Union (which most Victorians seem to confuse with rugby league) survives healthily without destroying rugby league, for example. Also standing out there in the subheading is the idea that “the locals still don’t care”. That’s a fairly blanket statement based on no evidence – it reads more like a Twitter comment about the Giants during games, or a grumpy SEN talkback caller complaining about draft picks going to a “team in a rugby state”.
(N.B. That is not the last time this analysis sounds like one of those callers)
As the sporting universe grows more manipulative and corrupt, a new term has surfaced: the fairytale.
A few weeks ago it was the English Premier League’s Leicester City. Next month it might be the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. And in September, it could be the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants.
Sitting 7-2 after nine games, the Giants are the talk of the footy world.
A curious parallel being drawn here, with the other two teams being entirely different in their cultural contexts. The Cavaliers, in particular, are a successful one team in a city franchise that is 45 years old and have been a successful team for a while with a superstar player – not sure how their victories are a “fairytale”. And as for the “talk of the footy world”, he means the Victorian footy world, which seem to infer a belief that everyone should be talking about the Giants in NSW in the same way that are being talked about in Victoria and the other AFL states, and if they aren’t, why aren’t they, dammit? But let’s go on with the next group of assertions.
But let’s get a few things straight. Most sporting fairytales are bankrolled by billionaires, or written on the back of institutional and financial support from administering sports bodies. They massage their competitions to ensure their fairytales come true.
Take the case of the Giants.
The club has 12,780 members and draws, on average, around 10,300 to its home games. The numbers aren’t flash, but there are reasons. For most of their short history, the Giants have played terribly.
Across the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Giants lost 21 consecutive games. Four years later, the Giants are premiership contenders, having beaten premiership favourites Geelong, three-time defending premiers Hawthorn and the rising Western Bulldogs.
Even though they’re playing good footy, the locals don’t seem to care. Just 9,612 showed up on Sunday for their win over the Bulldogs.
“They massage their competitions” doesn’t quite ring true for Leicester, where whilst the club was funded by a billionaire, it’s not a team of millionaire players. But I digress. Let’s look at the “don’t seem to care” assertion.
The most disappointing part of this piece is contained within the dismissive “the locals don’t seem to care” – an assertion based on nothing but crowd numbers, and without any of the context about the historical relationship between Sydney and sport attendance.
There is some truth behind the assertion that poor performances in the first four years of the club have been matched by poor crowd numbers. But there is more to the development of the Giants crowd numbers than poor performances. The Giants are still developing a cultural sporting footprint in Western Sydney, which has been centred around making the region aware of the code, comfortable with the code and then encouraging the people to get along to a game or two – with the hope being that this expands to membership. It’s a slow process involving schools programs, developing the Sunday suburban competition and the like.
As a look through the Sydney sport history context would reveal – even a look at the history of the Sydney Swans – development of crowd attendance at sport aren’t just about teams winning the previous week. It’s not as if crowds will magically appear overnight when a team like the Giants wins against teams that are still not all that well known in Sydney. The Bulldogs game is a perfect example of this. There were a number of factors mitigating against a larger crowd.
- The Bulldogs don’t have a large number of supporters who live in Sydney, unlike bigger clubs like Hawthorn, Collingwood and Richmond. Nor do they have a large number of supporters able to travel to Sydney to support their club, unlike those larger clubs
- There’s not the brand recognition with the Western Bulldogs football team as being a big champion team in Sydney – their success has been relatively recent
- There was, at the same time, an NRL game playing next door at ANZ between the Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters, which had a crowd of 18,000. Two Sydney clubs on a Sunday, attracting a crowd only double that of a club that is young, playing a code that is just beginning to build.
That NRL crowd should be telling a sport historian a great deal about the context of sporting support in Sydney and the historically low numbers of fans willing to go to live sport, especially in the Olympic precinct. There are other clubs in the NRL, such as Penrith and Cronulla, to whom 9,000 would have been a decent sized crowd – and that’s with their home grounds being easily accessible in their regions. That kind of analysis and understanding of the Sydney sport context would have been welcome in Heenan’s piece. Heenan, like a number of Victorian commentators, seem to believe that the Giants should be filling its stadium with 25,000 + in the same way Victorian clubs when they are successful. Context, though, is everything.
Let’s continue with the nub of Heenan’s Victorian – centred complaint. The academies fallacy.
Of course, the Giants’ rise is no surprise. The club has had a dream run with its academy system.
In the early days, the Giants got first option on 12 elite 17-year olds. Included in that list is midfield star Dylan Shiel, a Brownlow Medal favourite, and star forward Jeremy Cameron.
The Giants’ biggest coup, though, was taking the code’s top talent through the AFL draft.
They had the top five picks, and 11 of the first 14 in the 2011 draft. They had the top three picks in the 2012 edition and the first two in 2013. In 2014, they had three of the first seven selections.
Backed by the AFL and with a million dollar salary cap allowance, the Giants have had enough financial muscle to retain most of its talent – and top-up its list with players already on the system.
Callan Ward, Tom Scully, Shane Mumford, Heath Shaw, Phil Davis and Steve Johnson have all proved their worth.
There has been a lot of talk about the perceived unfairness of the Riverina Giants academy zone, with chief critic of northern states club success, Eddie McGuire, again leading the Victorian grizzling choir. That main theme in attitudes towards players coming from the Riverina being picked for the Giants is that the Riverina is really just like a Victorian area, strong in AFL. This is despite the evidence to the contrary that suggests that successful AFL players from the Riverina has been a piecemeal phenomenon for some time – yes, Wayne Carey came from Wagga Wagga, but that was some time ago. The Riverina area is still a contested code area that needed development money and an academy to help bolster a NSW club. That is what the Giants academy is about.
This paragraph by Heenan, however, about “the academy system” is not really about the academy system. He seems to be confusing recruitment, draft picks and the academy system. Dylan Shiel and Jeremy Cameron did not come from the Riverina Academy, for example. There were a lot of favourable draft picks, and many of those players are now being successful for the Giants – as have the recruits mentioned. To mention all of this as a part of a critical piece about the development of the Giants does not take into account the problems faced by northern states football clubs in their early days – the Brisbane Bears and Sydney Swans faced many near death experiences in their early years, due to a lack of consideration of what would make a successful club. The Giants project, along with the Suns, were both built with consideration of that history. As has been pointed out by Luke Beveridge, coach of the Bulldogs:
Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge felt discussion about the issue was disrespectful of the Giants’ recent development.
“It’s disappointing we don’t recognise the great job that they’re doing at the moment. They’ve lost some players (to other clubs and to injury),” Beveridge said.
The development of the Giants has been more than just draft picks and superstars, as the relative disappointment of the Suns have shown. That does not seem to be a part of this Heenan discussion, because he wants to smack the Giants down, not present a balance analysis of the issues around the development of the club. This is shown later on.
The real story will be not when the Giants win a premiership, but if they don’t.
The Giants have been bankrolled by the AFL to the tune of $20 million per year. Despite this, the club still recorded a $341,000 loss in 2015.
The AFL recognises that a Giants premiership offers the best chance of cracking the western Sydney market and recouping some return on its hefty investment.
Having a foothold in Australia’s most competitive football region was a vital bargaining chip in the AFL’s latest $2.5 billion broadcast rights’ deal with Seven, Foxtel and Telstra.
Yes, all of this is true. Again, though, it appears as though these facts are just there to infer that this is an expensive experiment for people “who don’t care”. To suggest that AFL doesn’t have a wider commercial goal with the Giants and the Suns is to display a overly naive view of sport and business. But back to Heenan and more of his curious assertions.
But it’s going to take a big effort to crack a market which is geographically and ethnically diverse, and rugby league and soccer heartlands.
Given their ethnic diversity, league and soccer are more reflective of Sydney’s greater west than the AFL.
The NRL’s Penrith Panthers and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs are two of the richest football brands in the country, while the A-League’s Western Sydney Wanderers has a membership of over 18,000 – 5000 more than the struggling Giants – and the most tribal fan-base in the country.
The problem is that few people in Sydney’s greater west are interested in the Giants. For starters, the team is not located in the greater west.
Spotless Stadium is closer to Circular Quay than Penrith or Campbelltown.
On a good day, you can see the Bridge from Spotless. You can’t see it from most of the west.
The first two sentences here are correct – and go back to the fallacy that there some kind of “code wars”, where there can be only one victor. He mentions the Panthers and Canterbury as being two successful clubs – yes, they are – but doesn’t mention their crowd numbers, which aren’t anything like Victorian AFL attendance numbers. As can be seen here, 2015 average attendance numbers for Canterbury was 19,684 and Penrith was 11,544. This is not to say that both clubs are not successful clubs with deep roots in their community. They both are, but their supporters don’t necessarily make the trip to go to their games. This is why Heenan’s use of crowd numbers to denigrate the Giants is fallacious. As is the comparison of the Giants to the Wanderers. The two competitions are run at different times of the year, so the comparison is largely irrelevant. In any case, the Wanderer membership stated is 5,000 more than the Giants’ membership number for this year, good considering that it is true that soccer has deep roots in Sydney’s west.
And then again, we see a repeat of the assertion “few people… are interested”, a feelpinion based on no other fact other than a context-free reading of crowd numbers and now placement of the ground. Homebush is considered the greater west by people in Sydney, but that seems to evade some Melbourne commentators (including many of those who still seem to think the club is based in Blacktown). It’s also debatable that Spotless is closer to the Quay than Penrith – maybe as birds fly, but birds don’t catch trains or drive cars through Sydney’s traffic. It’s quite a strange argument when one considers where people travel from in Melbourne to get to the two home grounds of all AFL games.
The absurd “you can see the Bridge from Spotless” is pure Sarah Palin. You can spot Spotless from the M4 too…
But onwards, more crowd numbers and mistakes.
In 2014 the Giants played the Swans in an AFL derby. Marketed as the Battle of the Bridge, the game drew a crowd of 17,102.
At the Sydney Football stadium on the same day, the Wanderers-Sydney FC derby drew 40,208.
The Battle of the Bridge is symptomatic of the AFL’s problem in Sydney. The Bridge runs in a north-south direction, and not to the west.
It suggests that the AFL doesn’t know the terrain or the market.
In Sydney, it’s still true that the Swans have by far the largest member base and so selling out a venue depends on their attendance at derbies. It is also true that some Swans crowds are reluctant to make the trip to Homebush – and a member vote opposed including a Giants Spotless Stadium derby option in their membership packages. That goes some way to contextualise Spotless derby numbers. We can only hope to see more into the future.
Again comparing crowd numbers to A league derbies is a touch unfair, considering the deeper roots of soccer throughout Sydney. Comparison to rugby league derbies, such as the Canterbury Roosters game that attracted 18,000 would be more apt – but would act against the central thesis of this piece.
And finally, the “bridge” of the Battle of the Bridge was the ANZAC Bridge, which does run east to west and separates to an extent the Swans and Giants areas of Sydney. I didn’t think it was the best name for the derby, though.
These points all seem to suggest that Heenan may need to do more work researching the context, terrain and the market.
Despite this, the Giants will inevitably win a flag.
It has been preordained by the draft and seemingly signed off by the AFL.
But they won’t win the battle of the codes in Sydney’s west. League and soccer are too well-entrenched, socially and culturally.
In the long run, it’ll be a fairytale if the Giants survive at all.
And at the end of the piece comes the wish from Heenan – the failure of the Giants and the repudiation of the AFL’s project. Like the rest of the piece, the tone is more grumpy feelpinion from someone who is against developing the code outside “traditional areas” than argued with detailed evidence.
What is also ignored by Heenan is the possibilities provided by the possibility of a Giants’ women’s team and its development of a netball team with Giants branding – both show a lot of potential for the club and its development of deeper roots in the region, with whole family involvement in the club.
Ultimately, the story of the Giants in Western Sydney is not a “battle” – there’s co-existence possible. Crowd numbers are up, memberships are up and the word is getting out about the Giants in Sydney. The development of Womens’ AFL has a lot of scope. The increase in media interest is in evidence with pieces like the Webster piece. It seems to be difficult, however, is to have “analysis” pieces from Victorian sources that present knowledge and understanding of the Sydney sporting context.