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Why NRL fans are loyal to the end

Sarah Coates NRL.com Tue, Jul 31, 2012 - 12:19 PM

Rabbitohs fans celebrate as Dylan Farrell scores. Copyright: NRL Photos

I've never known what it's like for my team to be smacked with the wooden spoon. Hopefully I never will. But it's got me thinking about club loyalty and why fans will always stick by their club, no matter what.

Speaking of 'Stick', the man himself is tasked with rebuilding a club whose season has been nothing short of atrocious. I was at Parramatta Leagues club a couple of months back, when the Eels held their crisis meeting.

One guy I talked to had no less than 27 Eels jerseys, all paid for with his hard earned money... but none of which he could wear. Why? He was afraid of being abused when he walked down the main street. I asked the poor bloke if he had considered doing the unthinkable... switching teams. He answered, NO. Never. You don't abandon your team. Ever.

My partner is a diehard Eels fan too... and as much as I enjoy basking in my own smugness while my team cruise along around the top of the ladder, I do admire his optimism. This is how he explains the pain.

“Being an Eels fan hasn't been easy since 1986. Watching Parramatta this year has made me angry, embarrassed, frustrated and bitterly disappointed. I'm sick of saying this will be the game they get it together and then we lose by 30 points. It breaks your heart. How did it come to this for such a proud club?!

"I could go on and on but the thing is, you can't change teams. You just can't.  I hear of people changing teams all the time and I say to them, go and find another sport. There's just something special about watching your team run out onto the paddock no matter where we are on the ladder. The colours, the logo, the history.  They'll come good… I know they will.”

It’s this blind faith that sport’s psychologist Dr. Robert Brown says defines the rugby league fan:

“Supporting a football team is about loyalty, tribalism, community and identity. In many ways, supporters 'brand' themselves through the clubs they support.

"For many, these bonds are like family, they take it as a personal rejection if a high profile player leaves or if a sought-after coach declines to sign on. For many, the emotional journey and the weekly rituals are what resonate most, not the end of season results. It's an emotional investment in the fortunes of the team not just on game day, but during the week and through the pre-season.”

In my opinion, if you don’t have a team… you don’t have much. Being a league fan gives you special access to a group, made up of people that all share the same raw passion. It allows fans and players to connect and live the highs and lows together… it’s a rollercoaster ride that lasts a lifetime.

Those who get off are rarely welcomed back into the fold. Fans love their club because it allows them to be part of something that doesn’t discriminate. It gives people something to cheer about, and argue about… it’s something anyone can be a part of, no matter what their relationship or monetary status, ethnicity, gender or age. Unlike players, it's a way of life ruled by the heart, not the head... where loyalty can't be bought out or transferred. Fans sign on for love, not money... even when sometimes it seems their teams don't love them back.

Of course it’s okay to like other teams… but you must only have one allegiance. Anything more is just plain wrong. It’s like being married to more than one person at once. Let’s call it footy bigamy. I know a few footy bigamists… and they really are the worst.

Dr. Brown sees it like this.  “Fans have one team, not favourite teams, because many define themselves by who they support. Saying,‘I'm a Sharks supporter' is a personal statement about who you are, where you come from (or came from), what you believe in.”

In this day and age, true blue loyalty can be hard to come by… but we don’t need to look far to find it. Every team has a fanatical base of followers… none quite like South Sydney fans. When I moved to Sydney, I moved into Rabbitohs’ heartland… Maroubra. The locals I have met seriously live and breathe the Bunnies, yet most of them I know haven’t even witnessed Souths winning a premiership.

It’s been a long time between drinks for the Cardinal and Myrtle… they haven’t claimed a title since 1971. It was a huge kick in the guts for the club to be booted out of the competition for two years back in 1999… but I really believe it helped them strengthen their supporter base.

Here’s why; their supporters know what it’s like to hit rock bottom and they’re not prepared to go there again. They fought so hard through the courts to be re-included into the NRL. They did this because they love their club and are with them for the long haul.

Dr. Brown again: “Souths fans may not 'own' the team the way Russell Crowe does, but their emotional investment is higher, and so too the reward, so when the team runs on they carry the memories of all the years past, stretching back into childhood. This is the reason one great victory through the year can make all the losses or heartache or “coulda, woulda, shoulda's” worthwhile, and why suburban home grounds have such a strong emotional pull.”

Club loyalty is one thing. State loyalty takes pride to a whole new level. The rivalry between Queensland and New South Wales, especially around State of Origin is unbelievably fierce and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Having grown up in Queensland, I have a strong allegiance to the Maroons. Always have, always will. I still remember that awful night at Lang Park back in 2005, when the Blues claimed their third straight series win. It was horrendous, I felt sick and angry. While the celebrations were playing out I remember my mate saying, that’s it, we’ll win it next year. How right he was. It’s that gallant, defiant, never-say-die attitude that makes me so immensely proud to be a Queenslander. No matter where I am living or how Queensland perform, Maroon will ALWAYS run through my veins.

So, when Sonny Bill runs out for the Roosters next year against Canterbury, the Dogs fans will be right there – this time not with him, but against him – riding the roller coaster to glorious victory or heartbreaking defeat, because although players come and go and jerseys change, club loyalty will always remain the same.

You can Follow Sarah Coates on twitter: @SarahCoates13