Why do people care so much about their football team winning?
There are few things in this world that make me happier than seeing the Penrith Panthers win. In those 80 minutes of rugby league, an unspoken affinity between the fans and their team is formed. In some small part, I feel validated by, or even responsible for, the team’s hard-fought victory. The boys have gotten over the line for a win. Just like I said they would.
Of course, I have never met, nor will I probably ever meet, any of “the boys” in question. To Nathan Cleary, Matt Moylan, Tyrone Peachey and the rest of the team, I’m just a fractional part of a TV viewership statistic, or at best, another hoarse, beer-laden voice in the crowd at Penrith Stadium. But even those trips to the veritable cultural Mecca of Penrith are rare; I didn’t grow up in Penrith, nor have I ever lived there. And aside from my critically lauded performance as hooker for the Hills Hawks Under 12s in their troublesome ’08 and ’09 seasons, I’ve never even played rugby league at any meaningful level. Why then, do I feel pangs of loss when a group of 17 strangers fail to win a game of football? Why do I invest so wholeheartedly in something that I have no control over?
If there’s a phrase that Daddy Bruce will often say: “sport is the great metaphor for life”. I can’t really fault my old man’s logic on that one - much like life, no one can predict what will be thrown at the sporting team as they take to the field. The unscripted, theatrical nature of sport calls for determination and spirit, but also for narrative. In each of life or sports battles, there must be success, and there must be loss. But for all the injuries, defeats and missed opportunities, each team’s fan base is sure that they will bounce back. Sport, then, acts as a vehicle for our own self-belief. By investing so whole-heartedly in a team, we play witness to the notion that self-belief, discipline and a good work ethic are ultimately validated by reward. The team’s rise from wooden spooners to premiers is conducive to the ebbs and flows our own narratives.
But then, as a 19 year old straight, white male living on Sydney’s north shore, the “ebbs and flows” of my narrative have been pretty light-on so far. Indeed, it’s been less of an odyssey of redemption and hardship and more of a montage sequence of Easy Mac and ‘90s American sitcom viewing. While it would be convenient to liken the Panthers’ years of floundering at the bottom of the ladder to my own failed romantic ventures, or the time I didn’t win “Best Senior Band Euphonium Player” at Kenthurst Public School’s 2007 Band Awards Night, perhaps that would be a little melodramatic.
So if it isn’t cohesion between the Penrith Panthers’ and my own harsh narratives, then why am I so invested in this team’s success? As with most things in my life, I didn’t really understand the answer to this question until I became caught up in the fascination of Prince Harry’s recent relationship gossip. For a large portion of people in society, the Prince’s new romance with Meghan Markle has been a source of keen interest. It’s as if thousands of people around the world are implicated in the couple’s relationship success as a result of the attention they are paying to it. Herein lies the key to sport spectatorship’s appeal. Aspiration.
Just as the vast majority of people cannot hope to become caught up in a royal romance, the sun appears to be setting on my own professional rugby league career. Of course, this is hardly a surprise, considering my lack of playing experience, muscle mass or even skill. The inherent mystery, then, of being able to partake in something so far removed from one’s own skill-set is perhaps part of sport spectatorship’s appeal.
It is this quality of aspiration, when coupled with the physical fundamentality of sport, that allow us to both admire and relate to sportspeople. The sports star has perfected an action that strikes a chord with all who view it. While all of us can kick a football to our mate at the park, few have perfected it in the way that Jonathan Thurston, Nathan Cleary or Cooper Cronk have. While all of us have rough days at the office, few have their actions thrust into the limelight for all the world to see. The members of my beloved Penrith Panthers, then, are able to walk the line between being relatable and being at the top of their game. It is for this reason that expectant fans in Eels or Manly jerseys farewell their sobriety every Saturday night in front of the pub’s TV. It is for this reason that Roosters fans watch the clock at work on a Friday afternoon, with the hope that maybe, just maybe, the working week will end in a famous victory for their team. And it is for this reason that thousands of Australians are counting the days until the footy season begins again.