The Price and the Power of Passion

Friday 27 September 2013

In a culture that’s a little fractured in meaningful shared narratives, sport dishes up stories for us to eat together, and to replay afterwards.  Stories that make us soar or swoop.  Hawthorn’s win over Geelong (and itself) last Friday night to make it to the Grand Final is a prime example.

I came across a brochure in my papers the other day.  From 1996, it’s printed in glossy four-colour and titled Why Hawthorn and Melbourne Should Merge.

Seems a little incongruous now, with the Hawks in the Grand Final on Saturday.  But merger pushes came at a time when there was much less cash in the AFL’s coffers, and where the expansion from a Victorian-based league to a national team was only 10 years old.  The AFL felt that Victoria simply could not sustain its current amount of teams.  Hawthorn, though with a proud on-field history, was in financial trouble, while Melbourne had little on-field success but was doing well financially.  Hawthorn foresaw that on current figures it simply would not survive.  To do so, it would need a membership base of 20,000, a minimum turnover of $12-14 million, a minimum annual profit of $1.5 million and a competitive team that was capable of playing finals and winning flags.  Both Hawthorn and Melbourne’s stats reflected at the time that neither of them met that criteria.  It seemed wise to combine the on-field success of Hawthorn with the off-field financial success of Melbourne and make something viable out of the two.

There was another big narrative game that year, 1996.  As luck would have it, Hawthorn and Melbourne played against each other in the last round.  Jason Dunstall kicked a lazy 10 – and his 100th goal of the season – the Hawks won by a point to give them a chance to play finals, and after the game Chris Langford famously tore off his guernsey and held it over his head.  A week later, Hawthorn would be beaten by Sydney by six points and no one would know whether that was the last they had seen of their club.

It’s easy for us to be critical of the club’s stance 17 years down the line.  But the truth was that at that time there was some complacency amongst the less passionate of the brown and gold supporters at Glenferrie.  While Hawthorn’s membership in 2013 reached 63,353, in 1996 it was just over 9000, before the efforts of Operation Payback brought it up to 12,484.  Essendon’s was almost double that, with more than twice the number of attendances at its games in the ’96 season.

From a financial perspective, Hawthorn obviously thought that there simply wasn’t enough interest left in its supporters to be able to stay viable alongside the big boys like Essendon and Collingwood.  But whatever the figures were, they were overridden by the level of passion on the night of the extraordinary general meeting, when so many Hawthorn members came to vote that they spilled out the doors of the Camberwell Civic Centre and down the road.

It was a night of passion and fuming anger.  Members were so upset that they bayed at an ashen-faced board.  It was scary.  I think Peter Hudson was perhaps the first example I’d ever seen of a live person whose face was as grey-coloured as his suit.

Don Scott got up at that meeting and told people to shut up, and to have some respect for the people making up our board.  He tamed the angry mob.  I don’t know what was scarier that night – Don Scott or the crowd.  In a famous gesture, he held up a prototype of the proposed Melbourne Hawks guernsey.  “What have you got?  A velcro hawk and a Melbourne guernsey,” he said with disgust, ripping off the hawk, removing Hawthorn from existence.

That EGM did more than stay the club’s execution.  The passionate core of the club voted against the merger and it became the catalyst to rouse the supporters who’d become complacent.  Ross Oakley, CEO of the AFL, responded to the vote by saying, “It's all very well for people on the fringes to come out and rant and rave;  they will have to carry the responsibility.”

And they did.  Hawthorn’s membership doubled itself the following year, and the rest is history.  Hawthorn is as professional a unit these days as anywhere else.  The days are long gone when us volunteers would come through the doors of the club at Glenferrie each evening to enter memberships into databases to save the club the cost.  But you will still see volunteers at every game in the beginning rounds of the years selling memberships. In an age where football is so professional, and money plays such a central part, It’s heartening to remember that Hawthorn Football Club would not be here contesting for its eleventh flag on Saturday arvo at the G without us.  Volunteers and members matter.  And while we sit at games gnawing our fingernails because we know that there’s nothing we can do to change the outcome of a game except cheer and will our hearts, what we do off-field make a difference, in ways that simply cannot be reckoned into the bottom line of an Excel spreadsheet.
Pic mine.  CC attribution/share-alike

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