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A lame duck?
The Sydney Swans are a club with a bit of an identity crisis. They are not sure if they represent South Melbourne or Sin City. Nor are they sure if they are the Swans or the Bloods. With so much confusion about who they are and what they stand for, it is quite understandable that in 30 years in Sydney they have never really inspired a loyal following.
The Swans' identity crisis can be explained by looking at its history. The club began its life as the South Melbourne Bloods. As the Bloods, the club built up one of the league's largest and most passionate supporter bases. In 1903 it was said that:
In their nine years in the VFA, the Bloods won five premierships. They were a foundation club of the VFL and won premierships in 1909 and 1918. In the thirties, the club reached its zenith and won its third premiership in 1933. It was during this time that a decision was made to change the name from 'Bloods' to 'Swans'.
With their new softer connotations, a new culture began to bite and three successive grand final defeats followed. After the 1936 defeat, the Swans suffered decades of poor performances. For the next 45 years, they finished 8th or better only eight times. Their only final appearances were the 1945 grand final and the first semi-final in 1970.
It is interesting to speculate whether the Swans name contributed to the slide down the ladder. Some people say that a moniker only exists for marketing purposes and has no affect on team performance. Maybe this is true. If so, amateur teams around Australia are obviously being irrational for having a moniker when they have no need for sponsors. Furthermore, coaches who play Rocky style "eye of the tiger" music before games are obviously wasting valuable time that could be better spent on discussing tactics.
If team identity does have an affect on performance, maybe this explains why Sydney's coaches have never found success by encouraging the players to imagine they are Swans fighting for breadcrumbs.
Aside from speculating whether the moniker contributed to the slide in onfield success, it is also interesting to speculate whether the new moniker contributed to the club's decline in popularity. From a marketing perspective, the Swan moniker is not really promotion friendly. Whereas Brisbane has staged promotional events such as sending players to feed lions at the zoo, and Essendon has had its players pose for a photo in front of a stealth bomber, Sydney has never found emotional erectness by photographing its players feeding Swans at the park.
By the 1980s, the combination of poor performances and a name that didn't seem to be inspiring a new generation of followers had the Swans facing extinction. In 1982, the club moved to Sydney; believing it would ensure its viability for years to come.
The move to Sydney presented the club with a hard choice about which demographic to target. Sydney is arguably Australia's most class-conscious city. On the North Shore, would-be Prince Charlies talk about the pride they feel about playing rugby for their school. In the Eastern suburbs, the beautiful people try strike a pose as they jump on whatever is fashionable at the time. It is out west where Sydney's finest cultural expressions are to be found. It is where Ugg boots are the mainstays of shopping malls, utes turn eyes on the road and great linguistic expressions like 'oi' bring a tear to the eye of proud Australians.
As the Westies were never going to be endeared to a club with a Swan as its moniker, Sydney's new club targeted the North Shore private school schools and the Eastern Suburb trendies. The Opera House sign was added to the jumper and seemed to fit nicely with Swan logo to reinforce an image of high-class ballet.
Red and white equals pink
The upper-class image was further reinforced when the club was sold to medical entrepreneur Dr Geoffrey Edelsten in 1985. Edelstein instigated a marketing campaign based on razzmatazz, excitement and a carnival atmosphere. The doctor flew a pink helicopter and cheer girls waved their goodies at the crowd.
But the real spearhead of the campaign was a young Warrick Capper. Aside from his spectacular marks, Capper endeared himself to the crowd with long hair and an intellectual mastery that had his resembling the lead singer of an 80s glam rock band. (This potential was later realized when he was cast as a brain dead prisoner in the 93 movie, The Fortress.)
With Capper at the helm, the campaign struck a chord with the inner city professionals who were endeared by the circus atmosphere. Of course, once the razzmatazz became old hat, the support dwindled and the club once more tittered on the edge of extinction.
The club was saved by the AFL and a new promotional direction seemed intent on de-swaning the Swans' image. The new campaign spearhead was not the lead singer of a glam rock band, but a rogue in the form of Tony Lockett; one of the toughest and dirtiest players of the modern era.
On the back of Lockett's roguish demeanour, the Swans partially erode their ballet and chardonnay image and there was some optimism that they might finally gain some working class fans. However it was wishful thinking to believe self-respecting working men were ever going to jump on board a team called Swans. Community attitudes were generally of the vein:
After Lockett's retirement, the club felt the need for another criminal style bad boy as its promotional face. This came in the form of Big Bad Bustling Barry Hall, (or Bazza for short.) A guru consultant was also hired to alter the way that the players thought of themselves. After much discussion, it was concluded that reverting to the Bloods name might help find some on field success:
The change in thinking seemed to realise the desired effect and the players appeared to show a greater willingness to fight for the hard ball. Often this left the players with their head split open with blood spilling down their face. For Sydney fans, this was a tremendous advertisement for the code. It was equally pleasing to see players returning to the field with their head bandaged up in what has been referred to as the 'Crimean War' look. It was a look that New South Welshmen had seen in the classic 1989 State of Origin when a young Benny Elias returned to the field with his head bandaged up in a turban, and proceeded to win the game for the Blues.
In 2005, the aggressive culture took the club to another grand final. The opponent was the West Coast Eagles; a star-studded team that on paper looked almost unbeatable. But in keeping with the cliché that a champion team will always beat a team of champions, Sydney played above themselves to claim their first premiership since 1933.
Despite the win, the club still has its problems. The fact that it needs to spend so much time de-swaning its image seems to indicate that perhaps the Swans brand is really nothing but a lame duck afterall.
As the club appears to be using more references to Bloods in media releases, perhaps it is laying the foundation for a return to its original name. If the club does change its name, it may gain a working class following and so become the first football club to unite Sydney's splintered classes. Any culture of relevance is built from the bottom up. As Sydney has discovered over the last 30 years, trying it build it from the top down merely results in insignificance.
Roy Morgan research
Sydney Swans supporters are:
2001 when compared to other Australians
2004 when compared to other AFL supporters
2006 when compared to other AFL supporters
Why kind of country has four codes of "football"?