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"If I had a daughter, I'd send her to Australia to meet him (and marry him)" - Robyn Alana Engel

"An Australian version of me. Only younger. And Talented. And better looking. Okay, nothing like me." - Al Penwasser

"Whom must I fuck or pay to get a quotation at the top of your blog post?" - Janie Junebug

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 13: Showdown

I'm going to assume that most of the people reading this either live outside of Australia or don't know the full story, so I'm going to start this at the very, VERY beginning. On the surface it's a story about Aussie Rules football, deep down it's more about politics and sibling rivalry. There are seven main characters:

  • SACA - the South Australian Cricket Board.
  • SANFL - the South Australian National Football League
  • Adelaide Oval - the original home ground for both of these sports in SA.
  • Football Park - the new home for football in SA.
  • AFL - the Australian Football League. Known simply as the Victorian Football League until 1990.
  • Adelaide Crows - one of the state's two AFL teams.
  • Port Adelaide Power - the other one.

Aussie Rules football was originally invented in the mid-1800s by cricketers in Victoria as a way of keeping fit over the winter. Because if you're going to stand in one spot on a field for five days, you need to be fit right? Anyway, the game quickly took on a life of its own and in 1877, the first football league was created.

The league we now know as the AFL started in 1897, but back then it was only the Victorian Football League. Each state had its own league and occasionally the leagues would play interstate exhibition games. The sport itself didn't become big enough to be a full-time job until probably the 1970s. And even at that point, a lot of the players were still playing cricket in the off-season. It's this continuing relationship between the two sports that brings us to the next part of the story, which takes place in South Australia.

The governing bodies for cricket and football in South Australia were SACA and SANFL. One would take over the state during the summer while the other took over in winter. Games were played all over the state, but during the finals or just really big matches, all eyes would turn to one place.

Adelaide Oval. The spiritual home of sport in South Australia. A beautiful ground with perfect turf, a few hundred meters north of the CBD. It overlooks the River Torrens and is surrounded by the most picturesque buildings in our city. Adelaide Oval was and is owned by SACA, with the SANFL being their tenants. But in 1973, the two codes had a falling out. My understanding is that the SANFL were starting to feel stifled playing at a ground that was owned by their big brother. SACA were getting too big a cut of what the SANFL made. So they severed ties with SACA and built their own stadium. It was an enormous purpose-built stadium in the far western suburbs of Adelaide which they creatively called Football Park. But that was it for the relationship between the SACA and the SANFL. The two boards didn't talk again for 40 years and players stopped transiting across codes.

Back in Victoria, the VFL had emphatically become the premier football league in the country, due mostly to the ambitious nature of their board.. They would pay the best players from across the country to relocate to Victoria and join their league. And in 1982 they started expanding into other states to broaden their appeal. It began when they payed the South Melbourne Football Club to relocate to Sydney and become the Sydney Swans. Then in 1986, they created two new clubs to represent Perth (the West Coast Eagles) and Brisbane (the Bears). In 1990 they decided to change their name to the AFL and rebrand themselves as a national competition. They also asked SANFL to provide a team of their own to enter into the league.

Now, the SANFL didn't want to enter a team in the AFL. They had a good thing going on their own and they thought that entering a team in this new national league would just take crowds and profits away from their own competition. They turned the AFL down. But unbeknownst to them, the decision was being taken out of their hands. The Port Adelaide Football Club was the most successful team in the league's history. In the 120-odd seasons that the competition had been running, Port Adelaide had won about a quarter of them. They were one of those clubs that you loved to hate, because they just kept on winning and their fans would certainly let you know about it. Port Adelaide was just as ambitious as the VFL and they saw opportunity in this new national competition. So without the SANFL's consent, they put in a bid to be the first South Australian team.

South Australia went nuts. It was treachery! This club with so much history had turned its back on the whole state to pursue its own selfish interests. It caused months of legal battles and animosity, with threats coming from all sides over what would happen if this went ahead. The SANFL finally decided that the best thing to do was to create their own composite team out of players from the other clubs and put in a higher bid for the license. Sure, they would still lose something to the AFL, but it was better than losing their biggest team. The SANFL won the bid and the Adelaide Crows were born.

So for years, the Crows gained support and trust from the state. They branded themselves as "the team for all South Australians" and really pulled it off. But in 1994 the AFL announced they would be awarding a second license to a South Australian team. This time they were intent on getting a club with traditional history and an established supporter base. Port Adelaide were the obvious choice. While the Crows were busy flying all over the country in the national league, Port Adelaide vented its frustration by winning championship after championship back home. They won it three times from 1988 to 1990. They won it again in '92 and another three times from '94-'96. Their on-field success combined with their supporters' passion meant the AFL were left with no other option. The Port Adelaide Power joined the AFL in 1997, on the condition that the SANFL would own the license.

The first game between the two clubs was an instant sell-out. The media dubbed it "The Showdown" and raved about Port's chance for revenge and the Crows' opportunity to stamp their authority on the town. 47000 people watched Port Adelaide take down the favourites by eleven points. Not to be outdone, the Crows went on to win their inaugural premiership that year as well as another one in '98.

The rivalry kept growing from there. People seem to have very long memories in SA. Fans who were around in that whole period seemed to harbour personal grudges against the opposing team. They became more and more aggressive, to the point that some people started saying they would no longer attend a Showdown that was hosted by the other team - they didn't want to give their money to that club. Then people stopped going to Showdowns altogether. Crowds were dropping from 40-50 thousand in the first ten years to around the 30 thousand mark in 2010. Meanwhile, Port Adelaide were developing a habit of disappointing their fans. In 2002 they finished on top of the ladder, convincing the football world that they were about to win their first premiership.They lost badly in both of their finals matches - a very rare feat. They did the exact same thing again in 2003, earning them a reputation as chokers. In 2004 they made history by finally winning that first AFL premiership. But in 2005, they crashed back to Earth and just barely scraped into the finals, where they were eliminated by guess who - the Crows.

That's not all. After a disappointing 2006, they shocked the football world by finishing second in 2007. Towards the end of the season they beat Geelong - the team that was heavily favoured to take out the flag - in one of the most memorable games in the club's history. They made the grand final that year and came up against that same team, who belted them by 119 points - the biggest grand final loss in the game's 111-year history. Five more years of bitter disappointment - often after promising signs - meant that the club started to get into some serious trouble. Crowd numbers were dropping to ridiculous lows, the club was losing millions of dollars a year, and fans were embarrassed to be associated with the club. They were a joke. The Crows hadn't had much more success, but at least they were making finals. Football Park started to come under fire as well. The stadium - while big and versatile - was dirty and uncomfortable. Fans weren't keen to make the trek to the western suburbs to see games. And reports stated that the two clubs were getting bad deals from the SANFL, who would pocket most of the money made there. The Crows were dealing with it okay, but there was talk of Port Adelaide eventually folding.

It all changed in 2013. After avoiding their first bottom-of-the-ladder finish by the narrowest of margins, Port Adelaide got a new coach - a former assistant from Geelong - and a new president - a popular media personality named David Koch - and their player recruiting moves over the past six years started to come good. They went from 17th in the league to 7th. But it wasn't just that. They became exciting to watch again. There was barely a game all season in that you didn't think Port could win. They'd be 35 points down at three-quarter-time and then stage a miraculous comeback in the final term and win. There's a great deal of excitement and comfort you get from knowing your team's not beaten until the very end. And even more comfort when your opposition knows it too. South Australians still talk about the second Showdown that year where Port kicked five goals in the last five minutes of the game to win by four points.

While their on-field success was exciting, their off-field presence was something else entirely. They were seen getting much more involved in the community than ever before - doing work for charity, creating ties with the Aboriginal community, starting a "Women in Power" organisation purely for the female fans... Stories would emerge about how their players were the only players in the league that would have to clean up their own plates after dinner, giving them an air of humility as well. Their professional approach and inspiring performances meant everyone suddenly wanted to see them succeed - yes, even the occasional Crows fan.

In the finals, they first came up against Collingwood. They went into the game as the underdogs like they had been for most of their games that year. The president of Collingwood was going around in the media complaining about the game they'd have to play next week once they beat Port Adelaide. He had already penciled it in as a win. Lucky he'd written it in pencil. The Power beat them quite comfortably. Next they came up against Geelong, who were once again heavy favourites to win. Port hadn't beaten them since that day late in 2007. No one really expected them to win this one, not even their own fans. But when the first half ended and the Power were on top the whole football world looked on in disbelief. Surely, they couldn't pull this one off as well? It would be their biggest upset of the season by far. Alas, Geelong ended up coming back and winning, eliminating them from the finals. That night, commentators described how Geelong went back into their change rooms with their heads dropped and their hands on their hips like they'd just lost while the Power hugged and congratulated each other on a season well-played. They invited all the fans who had traveled to Melbourne for the game to join the in the change room and they all celebrated together. In true Port Adelaide fashion (these days anyway), they decided to forego Mad Monday and start talking about how much work they have to do to make sure they don't fall backwards next season.

There's one more crucial piece of this puzzle - In mid 2011, after of heavy negotiations, politics and public debate, it was finally decided that Aussie Rules football should return to Adelaide Oval. The government had agreed to spend $535 million redeveloping the ground to almost double its capacity while keeping its heritage intact. The promise was given that the first game back at the oval would be a Showdown at the beginning of the 2014 season. All through 2013, the only thing that Adelaide talked about apart from Port's new-found success (and a season-long injury to one of the Crows' star players) was the move to this new ground and how much it would mean to the clubs and the state. The clubs and the SANFL projected much higher attendances, higher memberships and increased profits of millions of dollars per year. If you're reading this from America, know that we're not like clubs over there that make $100 million a year. Just $5 million is a lot for us. For the rest of the state, a return to Adelaide Oval had the symbolic factor of auussie rules being right at the heart of the city where it belongs.

In the five months leading up to this season, the focus turned completely onto Adelaide Oval. The ground was opened up before it was finished to accommodate some lower-level sporting events and to give people a good idea of what the completed ground would look like. 14th of March and the first AFL game of the season began. The first game at Adelaide Oval was slated for March 29 - a Showdown as promised. Talk about it ramped up even higher. Less than a week from the game and I remember reading a news article about how great an achievement it had been to get to this point. The boss of the AFL revealed that it took months to even get the boards of SACA and SANFL into the same room together as they both thought they'd be walking into a setup.

And one more thing that may not mean a lot to the story, but is big in terms of the clubs... A week out from the game, the two clubs decided to buy out their own licenses from the SANFL. The clubs were now no longer owned by anyone. All their profits would go directly to them and they were personally in charge of their own futures.

So if you haven't guessed by now, my new experience for this week was to see an AFL match at Adelaide Oval. Due purely to their success in 2013, Port Adelaide were awarded home-game rights for the first game. They organized a march for all their fans from the centre of Rundle Mall to the ground. 10 000 people turned up to join that march. The atmosphere was full of electricity, fun and most importantly, joy. They wanted to win today.

As a member of Port Adelaide, I have a reserved seat seven rows behind the goals. I was late in booking my seat, so I don't get to sit next to anyone I know. But it's definitely a good seat.
This is my seat. I went to visit it a week before the game. I love it so.
My view of the ground. My mate has a seat four rows in front of me.
When we got there, we were surprised and overjoyed to find a free commemorative t-shirt draped over every seat.
Lucky I went to my seat early so I could swap mine for one that actually fit.
As the 50 000 seat stadium filled up, it became a very impressive sight. I'd never seen a completely sold-out stadium before.

This was a good half hour before the game.

When the teams ran out onto the ground, there was an almighty roar from the crowd. This was a new experience for the players too. Especially for the Port boys who I'm sure have never played to a home crowd that big since joining the AFL.

I'm actually disappointed to report that it was a very one-sided game. Port Adelaide had gotten themselves out to around a 30-point lead before the Crows even got their first point. In the second quarter the Crows were much better, and they even hit the lead early in the third. But the moment they hit the lead, Port kicked back into gear and ended up winning by 55 points. For a game with such a build-up and that meant so much to the state, I would have liked it to be a much closer and more exciting game. Don't get me wrong though, I'm glad they did so well...

As far as the actual experience went, it was wonderful. They've done an amazing job of making the ground look pretty and picturesque. We were warned there would be teething problems with ticketing and cashiers etc. But I had no problem at all getting in, I just scanned my member's card and went on my way. The cashier at the kiosk was another story. The nervous teen just couldn't figure out how to put through a debit card transaction. The food there was expensive, but there was a wide variety of it available - more options than you'd expect at a football ground. And also the fried chips - probably the most popular item - were quite cheap for the amount you get.

The view from my seat was great, but there were two overweight people in front of me who kept standing up whenever a player lined up for goal. To be fair there was a guy in front of them that was doing the same, but all three were annoying.

Anyway, I loved being there. It's a huge win for the sport and for our state and that oval is now a symbol of the future. Both clubs are in control of their own destinies heading forward and it's safe to say the future looks bright.

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