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Opinion - Where did Port Adelaide go wrong?

  • Wednesday, June 01 2011 @ 08:07 am ACST
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The Port Adelaide Football Club has been in the news again this week, crippled by debt, with an under-spending football department, tiny crowds, and board under siege and calls for radical changes.

As I see it, there is one key reason for Port's problems; its supporter base.  That base can be divided into three groups - long term core supporters, bandwagon fans (the ones who only follow during success) and the next generation.  I contend the hard core supporters are divided, the bandwagon group was larger (as a percentage) than most clubs, and the next generation has been slow to be converted.

To explain these thoughts requires some history.

The Bandwagon

Port Adelaide had a long history as a powerful club in the SANFL.  Its wharfie origins meant it was tough and uncompromising, and the Fos Williams era cemented this culture.  This created success which drew more fans.  It also had strong financial support and an excellent regional recruiting zone.

As the VFL came to dominate football in Australia through the 1980s (on the path to becoming the basis for the AFL) other SANFL clubs began to struggle whereas Port Adelaide flourished.  Success breeds success, and being the biggest fish in a shrinking pond accentuated their advantages.  Rather than simply be a consistently top side the Magpies as they were known came to completely dominate.  They won 4 out of 5 between 1977 and 1981, and a crazy 9 out of 12 between 1988 and 1999.  There is no question they had a large and loyal supporter base, but this new dominance also cultivated an additional bandwagon fan base that expected to turn up each week and each year to see another win and another flag.  They did not tolerate failure, they did not have to.  There were no tough times like most clubs experience.  This was seen as their birthright, their heritage, as facts and myth began to merge.  It positioned them well to have high standards and not accept failure, to push through small downturns, but how could such an entity cope with an equalised AFL system when failure is almost guaranteed for periods?

The effect was to exaggerate the true size of their SANFL fan base.  When they joined the AFL this support initially transitioned and crowds were good, averaging 33,000 across 1997 (AFL entry) to 1999.  The year 2000 saw a drop down the ladder and big drop of 5000 in their average crowd, a portent of future problems and the rumblings had begun.  Then their on field successes started, finishing 3rd, 1st, 1st and 1st, at the end of the minor round.  But initially these ladder positions were not converted into flags, and the rumblings grew again.  They were calmed in 2004, as they converted their third and last top placing into a premiership win over Brisbane.  But the problems soon returned as the Power slid down the ladder, as all clubs are supposed to do under the AFL's policies such as the draft.

In 2006 the Power had a bad run and "put the cue in the rack" early in the season to send players off for surgery and blood youngsters (a policy now enacted by more and more clubs, earlier and earlier in the season).  It was no coincidence that Port was well primed for season 2007 (one player later remarking on the advantage of all hands on deck at the start of pre-season).  A surprise return to the grand final resulted, but a record 119 point loss to Geelong appeared to do untold damage to the club's psyche.

Since then a supposedly young side on the rise has finished 13th, 10th and 10th with sliding average home crowds around 23,000 and in worse shape this season.  The club is now pushing its veterans out the door, has a new coach and crowds are down over 30% since its debut in 1997.

The exaggerated supporter base have faced the reality that their club cannot be dominant - no club can be in the AFL, with runs of 3 or 4 years the maximum seen, although Geelong are doing their best to extend that.  The bandwagon supporters have dropped off.  That comment leaves me open to criticism of anti-Port sentiment, but I think it is well demonstrated by the crowd numbers and well argued based on their unprecedented SANFL dominance prior to AFL entry.

The Hard Core Supporter

But what of the hard core supporter?  There were undoubtedly many of them as well.  This article is not meant to denigrate Port Adelaide.  Its hard core supporter base was still larger than other SANFL clubs, although only marginally more than the other once significant clubs such as Norwood.  Port was a big club in South Australian terms, but it was inflated in the 1980s and 1990s in a way that didn't reflect a long term base.  But back to the hard core fan.

The black and white "prison bar" jumper was a key part of Port's heritage, as was the Magpie emblem.  As Collingwood already had those colours and symbol, Port was forced to change.  They adopted the Power moniker, added some teal blue (which soon seemed to look more green) and their character was the lightning bolt man.  Immediately there were rumblings.  They also moved their home games to Football Park (AAMI Stadium), losing a bit of connection with their traditional home at Alberton.

Quite simply some Port Magpies fans did not make the jump to Port Power, and many who did were not 100% convinced.  Perhaps a fatal flaw was that the SANFL ensured that Port kept a local SANFL side as well, to continue as the Magpies.  This allowed some hard core fans to make a choice and stay local.  It also meant that as the Power were naturally less successful in the equalised AFL the disgruntled fan could always return to their SANFL team.  But since that run of 9 from 12 ending in 1999, a further 11 SANFL premierships have been decided and not one has been won by Port.  So the hard core support for the local incarnation has slowly been crushed, whilst in the AFL it continues to be hammered.  Those that did make the jump to the AFL but were disgruntled with the colours and logo have also had to contend with a perception of soft football.  The Magpies built many of their premierships not just on hard footy but brutal and illegal footy.  In the days before saturation video replays and tribunals Port were notorious for intimidation.  A classic play in big matches including finals if they were slipping behind on the scoreboard was to take out a player, with the following fight disrupting play, firing up the crowd and completely changing the game tempo.  And they were the masters of then switching back to the ball and ruthlessly putting the score on the board.

The result was that we have had endless, vicious debate within South Australia, amongst Port people, as to whether the true Port is the one in the AFL or the one in the SANFL.  Where does its soul reside?  Some now say that it has died altogether.  The Power's bandwagoners have departed, and the hard core supporters were initially split and slowly many of the Power faithful have dropped off too, citing the soft game, AFL rule changes, having to put up with non-traditional Port supporters from other SANFL clubs, AAMI Stadium seeming like Adelaide's home ground not theirs - the reasons given are endless and thus muddy a clear picture of what has gone wrong.

The New Supporter

It was always intended that Port Power would grow its supporter base by appealing to the wider community in SA, especially children.  They did indeed work tirelessly in schools.  But the club that prided itself on being hated by every other SANFL club and supporter faced the reality of its boast.  Very few (but surprisingly some) followers of other SANFL clubs made the jump.  And the word "hate" is not too strong.  Many football folk really do hate Port.  This is cast by Port people as jealousy of their past success.  I can only speak for myself and my extended family when I say it was not about that, it was the ugly way that success was often achieved.  Every club has a dirty player the opposition love to hate, but with Port it went far beyond that.  No one in my family follows Port Magpies or Port Power and I could not imagine it happening with the next generation.

The point being that the Power are struggling to cultivate the next generation.  They have a "creed" and focus on their origins way back in 1870, which is an appeal to their hardcore fans, but does nothing to create new ones.  They are a club torn.

Other Factors

There are many other factors offered up for their dwindling supporter base and finances.  AAMI Stadium being too much like the Crows' home ground, AAMI Stadium being too run down and too far out of the city (although right next to Port Adelaide itself), the SANFL's hold over the stadium offering a bad deal, the SANFL as licence holder sucking away profits from Port, lack of 50-50 media coverage (although Port do better than their percentage of supporters suggests they should, and is the sporting media beholden to equal coverage or are they commercial enterprises?).  With regard to stadium deals, Port's was planned with regard to much larger expected crowds, so it was not the initial problem, but has become one as a result of their other failings.

Has the SANFL strangled Port?  I don't believe so, they were a club torn from the start and their supporter base was not equipped to deal with the lack of success that is inevitable for periods for all clubs in the AFL.  If the SANFL failed it was in pushing for a Port Magpies local side and for assuming Port would achieve good crowds at AAMI Stadium.

The Future

So now what?  Many people are calling for the SANFL to hand the license back to Port to hold independently.  It is hard to see how that can work given the SANFL paid $4 million for it and it is the SANFL that support Port with multi-million dollar guarantees.  It is only the SANFL declaring it cannot extend those guarantees that has brought the current crisis to a head.

Some want Port to fold and the license go to Tasmania.  While I support Tasmania's entry into the AFL, it would be a major setback for the AFL if a football state of over 1.6 million people could support only one club.  Furthermore the recent approval for football to move back to Adelaide Oval after over three decades at AAMI Stadium should change everything.  The half billion dollar deal will see Adelaide Oval upgraded to a 50,000 seat stadium and host both the Crows and Power.  The stadium return is expected to significantly increase for both clubs regardless of an increase in attendance figures, but playing in the city is also expected to boost crowds, adding more dollars to the coffers - an estimated total uplift of $8 million between the two AFL sides.

All clubs go through low points. Port's is worse than some in terms of finances.  But when the move is made to Adelaide Oval (the target is season 2014) and the on field cycle turns, Port will rise again.  A second and third generation of supporter will emerge without the baggage of the past, and South Australia's predicted mining boom should boost the state's health from fairly typical amongst Australian states to being very good.  If Port can ride out the next 3 years and make some better decisions then the future is reasonably bright, and it seems almost certain that the SANFL and AFL will work together to ensure the club makes it through the current dark days - despite it once revelling in being hated!