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Western Bulldogs fans cheering

How choosing an AFL team defines Melburnians

There’s no doubt that Melburnians love their footy. On any given weekend and in any given weather, AFL stadiums are packed with supporters. Many people will happily re-tell the story of how they came to support a particular team. Some had it thrust upon them at birth, while for others it was deeply territorial.

The first bounce

Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School played the first recorded game of Australian Rules in 1858. In the same year, the Melbourne Football Club was formed. Following this, the Victorian Football League was formed with clubs located in the suburbs of Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne becoming the foundation of the new competition.

By 1925, Richmond, Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne had joined the league and it remained unchanged until 1987, when the league became national, with an expansion that included the West Coast Eagles from Perth, and the Brisbane Bears. Soon, 16 teams comprised what had gone on to become the AFL. Today 18 teams are spread across the nation. While AFL has been embraced nationally, its Victorian history is still at its heart.

But long before it was a national competition, choosing a team was based heavily on suburban influences. Chris Hickey, Professor of Health and Physical Education believes that each team had a distinct identity. ‘Be it the working class of the Collingwood Football Club or the white collar members of the Melbourne Football Club, supporter bases formed around a shared sense of identity, and soon it became tribal,’ Prof. Hickey says.

In the 1960s, only 13 games a year were played at the MCG, so fans would head to their nearest oval whether that be Arden Street in North Melbourne or Windy Hill in Essendon. Local residents were treated to the sounds of screams and sirens that came from their nearby grounds.

'Be it the working class of the Collingwood Football Club or the white collar members of the Melbourne Football Club, supporter bases formed around a shared sense of identity, and soon it became tribal.'

Prof. Chris Hickey,
School of Education, Deakin University

Fuelling tribal rivalry

Historic rivalries still feed competitive narratives that play out today. ‘Built on the battles of the past, stories of legends, famous victories and agonizing defeats; tribal identities continue to position particular clubs as the arch enemy of others,’ Prof. Hickey suggests and cites Collingwood, Essendon and Carlton as the teams that ‘others love to hate’.

While Melbourne’s footy tribes still remain, Prof. Hickey points out that they are becoming more diluted. ‘Today’s supporters can follow teams from far beyond their physical borders. Young people today are more likely to be attracted to the teams they see winning a lot and those that get the most exposure in the prime-time slots,’ he says.

But there’s one thing that can unify Melbourne’s footy tribes – a local underdog competing against an interstate heavyweight in the Grand Final. When the Western Bulldogs hit the turf against the Sydney Swans in the 2016 AFL Grand Final, Melburnians everywhere loudly backed the hoops of red, white and blue. And in a spectacular final quarter, goosebumps rippled through the city as the ‘Doggies’ got up to win their first premiership in 62 years.

Spring in the city

It’s impossible to guess which two teams will be the last standing this year, but Prof. Hickey says no matter the result Melbournians will be out in force enjoying the atmosphere. ‘As the weather shifts from damp of winter to warmth of spring, Melbourne comes alive,’ he says. While our historic links to the VFL/AFL tribes still exist, during September and October we’ll put them aside and embrace the spirit of the game.

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Professor Chris Hickey
Professor Chris Hickey

Professor of Education (Physical Education), School of Education, Deakin University

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