Sports Tribalism: Why do we support who we support?


Pacing furiously towards a timid Sydney FC fan at the A-League Grand Final, celebrity chef George Calambaris launches into a tirade as tempers boil over. It is the ugly side of sport that we don’t often see but highlights the passion and battle lines that are drawn between opposition fans.
Sports tribalism is the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s sporting team. Some of sports tribalism relates to why people support different teams. The ugly side of sports tribalism is the violence that is attached to it. Just as George Calambaris lost his cool as a Melbourne Victory supporter when provoked by a group of Sydney FC youths, it is very easy to see that passion turn into anger and violence.

Thankfully, violence at major sporting events is a low level occurrence in Australia and when compared to America it dwarfs in comparison. However don’t think for a minute that the lack of violence shows a lack of passion for sports in Australia. The passion is not limited to soccer with fans in Rugby league and AFL showing similar pride in their teams as they battle for immortality.
Swearing, chanting and beer chugging are regular sights at rugby league matches all over Sydney on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The Newtown Jets one of the foundation clubs in Australian Rugby league was kicked out of the competition in 1983. They now play in the NSW Intrust Super Premiership in the second-tier of Australian Rugby League.
This has not slowed down the enthusiasm of its fans who turn out to support their team in droves. “It’s my club, I don’t care if they aren’t in top tier football” remarks one punter by the name of Daniel. He goes on to tell me that he first started supporting Newtown thanks to the influence of his dad who had lived a short distance from Henson Park. “Dad grew up supporting the Jets because of his dad and the closeness to Henson that was dropped down onto me so I didn’t really get too much of a say in the matter, I would have it any other way though!”
Everyone in the crowd at Henson Park on a cold winter’s day knows who they support and it is pretty recognizable with jerseys, scarves and hats showing the emblem of their favourite teams. However, why do fans support the teams they do? Tribalism is huge in all sports and gives us an insight into what makes them tick. Is it the colours of the team’s jersey? Because their whole family supports them? They live in the local area?

Rugby League was first played in the early 1900’s as a break away from Rugby Union. With less stringent rules and a quicker, less ugly style of play it quickly developed a fan base when the NSWRL (New South Wales Rugby League) was formed to create a competition in 1908.
In the early stages it was purely a Sydney-based competition with Eastern Suburbs, South Sydney, Newtown, North Sydney, Western Suburbs, Glebe, Balmain and Cumberland the team’s first entered. As Sydney grew, teams spread out further in Sydney but the initial support and reason for fans supporting teams stayed the same. Even today, foundation teams such as Eastern Suburbs and South Sydney have some of the biggest support bases in the competition.

Speaking with Keyan Kramer from the official South Sydney Supporters group he said the initial reason for supporting Souths was the influence of his father from an early age.

“The reason I support Souths is because of my old man. He supported them so it was the logical choice having grown up watching them on TV and all of that stuff. We have lived in the Eastern Suburbs our whole lives but I’ve never had the urge to support the local team (Sydney Roosters)”.

However this is where Keyan is the anomaly. Rugby league has a long standing tradition of fans supporting their local team. The select few that don’t are in most cases influenced from an early age by family or even friends. Probing more deeply Keyan expresses that the history and amount of premierships won is a testament to South Sydney and is one of the many reasons he continue to support them to this day.

Jumping across codes into a different type of fan base would give a different insight into the fans of the AFL (Australian Football League) and if they treated support any differently to their Rugby league counterparts.
One of the big differences between the NRL and AFL is the proximity between teams. Although the NRL still has 8 Sydney-based sides there can be large distances between some of these clubs such as Manly to Cronulla.
The AFL started as the VFL back in 1897 and was exclusively a Victorian-based league until 1982 when South Melbourne relocated to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans. However the fan base of the AFL is vastly different to that of the NRL. Speaking to the few AFL fans that I know in Sydney, it was on the back of their parents influence as to what team they support.
Dave Bell who is a part of the official Sydney Swans supporter group thinks the demographic of Victoria and the AFL being a more family friendly environment than the NRL contributes to the difference in the fan bases.

“The AFL has had a strong family link all the way from the beginning, games used to be exclusively played on Saturday afternoons until the late 1980’s. That makes it a lot easier to come to games as a family and if you’re parents are dragging you to home games at Windy Hill every fortnight there is a good chance you will grow up as an Essendon supporter”.

“Whereas the NRL has people supporting local teams, the AFL has this engrained attitude of supporting who your family goes for, it’s a pretty weird concept when you really think about it”.

We will never be able to pinpoint what makes sport fans tick and why they go so crazy for their particular team. One thing we do know is that our fans are some of the most passionate and tribal in the world.

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