Giants in name, dwarf in nature
Support for Gaelic football in Ireland and Gridiron in America owes a lot to the desire of past generations of Irish and American patriots to have a code of their own. The same has not really been the case for Australian football. One reason might be that a British identity has historically been more important for many Australians. A second reason might be that Australian football has often been seen as a Victorian sport rather than Australian sport, and thus unable to inspire patriotism for those who do want it.
The Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants were created with the aim of incorporating the working class of Sydney into the AFL chain, and in the process, finally build a national image that would be as beneficial in Australia as it has been for the respective football codes of Ireland and America. Unfortunately, their inaugural year didn’t look promising as the lack of a consistent home ground and tiny crowds had the Giants resembling dwarfs thinking that they were a bit more important than they actually were. As for performances, GWS seemed to stand for Going to Win Soon or Games Without Scoring.
In theory, the Giants were meant to learn from history to avoid all the pitfalls of previous attempts to build a following for Australian football in Sydney. One of these pitfalls was a lack of a home ground. In the 1880s, Australian football did in fact have a strong following in Sydney, but it faced relentless opposition from rugby union officials who viewed rugby as more than just a game, it was also a reminder of their Englishness. Union officials used their political contacts to have Australian football banned from Sydney’s enclosed grounds. Unable to raise money through gate takings, Australian football collapsed and was absent from Sydney until revived shortly after federation.
To ensure that it wouldn’t met the same fate, GWS decided to play it safe so instead of securing one home ground, it secured four. First, they convinced Blacktown Council to build them a playing field out west. Next they convinced the State government to build them a boutique stadium aside the Olympic stadium. After that, they signed a contact with the Olympic stadium to play big games there and finally they signed a deal with the ACT government to play matches in Canberra. As they moved from one stadium to the next, GWS seemed to stand for Gone Walkabout Sydney.
Another of the pitfalls of Australian football had been an excessive focus on Melbourne heritage, which had alienated their target market in Sydney (and Canberra.) This had long plagued the South Melbourne Swans, which moved to Sydney in 1982. At the time, Sydney seemed ripe for Australian football. The local Sydney league was of a reasonable standard and while home and away games weren’t huge, they were played on enclosed grounds and finals drew crowds of up to 12,000 people. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Swans virtually wiped 105 years of heritage in Sydney and redefined its image as a Melbournian sport that was the football equivalent of ballet. The Swans struggled for decades and grew a support base amongst the more affluent eastern suburbs. This was a demographic that actually liked ballet and wasn’t overly provincial. On the downside, they were very fair-weather and not really fans that could relied upon during the hard times.
In the 1990s, the Nth Melbourne Kangaroos made a semi move to Sydney to capitalise on rugby league’s weakness in the Superleague War and the Swan’s success. So confident in their prospects, the Kangaroos signed to play 5 games a year from 1998 onwards. To support the Kangaroos, the AFL signed a contact to play 11 games a year at the Olympic stadium, which was reconfigured to host Australian football on the basis of the contact. To improve their marketability, the Kangaroos dropped Nth Melbourne from their name so that they could represent Melbourne and Sydney at the same time. It was not successful as they ended up failing in both cities. 2 years later they had hopped away to find a new home in Canberra. When that failed as well, they hopped to the Gold Coast and when that failed, it was back to Melbourne and re-embraced the Nth Melbourne name.
While the Giants tried to avoid the pitfalls of the Swans and Kangaroos by actually starting a new team without the baggage of Melbourne, they also repeated many of them by not embedding themselves in Sydney. Just as the Kangaroos tried to broaden their support base by dropping Nth Melbourne, the Giants tried to broaden it by initialling themselves GWS, instead of something more defined like West Sydney or Blacktown. As far as football team naming goes, taking the initials of an undefined region is unique, but the underlying image is empty.
Admittedly, perhaps there were reasons not naming the club west Sydney. It would be fair to that that there is a good reason why photos of the region don’t appear in tourism campaigns for Sydney. The Parramatta River is so polluted that if any fish are caught, they are slightly magnetic and perhaps only safe to serve to mother-in-laws. As for Blacktown, it is classic suburban sprawl around shopping malls. Ironically, crap environments can be conducive to good football images. Collingwood in Melbourne used to be a toilet and residents were known to suffer a strong sense of inferiority. Collingwood's team, the Magpies, traded off that sense of inferiority to become the largest football team in Australia, or as their president says, the K-Mart of the AFL. If it did try to connect with the region, perhaps GSW would stand for Guns Wounds Stabbings or Grog Weed Speed.
Aside from the colours and name, the mascot was another possible avenue to build a connection with Sydney, but again, it seemed the marketers had their thoughts elsewhere. The mascot was titled G-man and designed to resemble a kind of cross between a 1950s door-to-door salesman and a pin-up boy for a toothpaste commercial. If the marketers had wanted a more accurate representation of their region then a couple of missing teeth or darker skin tone wouldn’t have gone astray.
Perhaps the only real attempt to associate with a Sydney image came in the recruitment of rugby league player Israel Folau. Maybe the Giants were aware that in 1908 the newly formed game of rugby league gained a huge promotional benefit when it persuaded a rugby union player by the name of Dally Messenger to defect to the code. (Messenger had previously been an Australian football player.) By recruiting Folau, the Giants wanted a face synonymous with rugby league to become its new face. In addition, the Giants may have wanted Folau to replicate the promotion benefits reaped by the recruitment Tony Lockett by the Sydney Swans in the 90s. Although not a Sydney boy, Lockett had a roguish demeanour and a tribunal record that included smashing a player’s nose with his elbow. Ironically, his image was very unlike a Swan, which perhaps explained his appeal. Folau seemed to be all round god guy, unlike Lockett, but he was big, strong and was likewise ear marked for the full forward position. Perhaps as a reflection of the dream, Folau was given the number 4, which had also been Lockett’s number.
In some ways Folau was a success. The AFL trumpeted the fact that the money it paid him showed that the AFL was more powerful than rugby league. They also trumpeted that mentions of Folau in the media was worth millions of dollars in “brand awareness.” On the downside, “brand awareness” is more important for supermarket products that want to get known so that they will be tried out. Football clubs already have brand awareness, but brand identity is the key to get bums on seats. If anything, the fact that GWS could have so much awareness, but so few supporters, was a sign of just how much it had failed to build a brand.
After his first season in the AFL, Folau decided that he should play for more than money, and quit the sport. He said he just didn’t have the passion, which was a polite way of saying he didn’t like AFL. Sydney rugby league fans then became “aware” that even for millions of dollars a year, their heroes don’t want to play AFL. It seemed the Folau's GWS story stood for Got Widely Seen but then Gone With Sense.
GWS has self annointed themselves as the Giants that are towering over the packs, but they are not giants and in regards to their pecking order in Sydney, they are very much at the bottom. If not pigmies, then definitely dwarfs looking for a mountain to claim as their own but not really sure of where that mountain is or how it should be conquered.
With initials for of a non-existent place for their name and a non-descript moniker, the Giants are about as sterile as an empty room in a hospital. This makes the team very difficult to joke about.
The lyrics do seem a case of the smallest dog barks the loudest.
The presumption is that they will have a rivalry with the Sydney Swans once they are successful. Perhaps the Swans will be criticised as a Melbourne import and the Giants as the genuine team (that plays in Canberra and has initials instead of Sydney in its name.)
Their current clash is called the Battle of the Bridge, which is meant to represent an east west divide. It is a titling that has annoyed Swans fans as they point out that their name is Sydney, not east Sydney while GWS isn't a region at all.
|Was this more interesting than a news update of players in a recovery session standing around in the ocean looking cold or of a team 'training without incident'?|