Michael Shillito puts the fan into fanatic. The 49-year-old has missed only two GWS Giants home games since their inaugural season in 2012.
One because of illness eight years ago and the other last weekend when fans were locked out of all games due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I hope I don’t miss another game as long as I live,” Mr Shillito laughs.
After watching his team work their way up from easybeats in the early seasons to grand finalists in 2019, Mr Shillito approached this season with great optimism.
“Of course this was going to be our year,” he said.
“You look at how the club was building, we got ourselves into a grand final last year, recruited well and had a great pre-season.”
Over in the NRL camp, 41-year-old Troy Worner loves the Parramatta Eels with such a fervour that he has a “Parra cave” in his house.
He reckons after finishing fifth in 2019, Parramatta was all set this year to end its 34-year premiership drought.
“You get all hyped up in the off-season, you look at the team and think, yes, this could be the year!” Mr Worner said.
Both fans are now dealing with the crushing blow that their teams’ premiership hopes could all be over after the AFL and NRL seasons were suspended.
“It’s pretty devastating on top of everything else that’s happening because the footy, it gives joy and hope to people’s lives.”
“And we’re having that taken away from us at this time when everything else is crashing down around us [too],” Mr Shillito said.
Mr Worner added: “I was probably a little bit shocked and overwhelmed, but at the end of the day I thought it was inevitable that it was going to get suspended, it was only a matter of time.”
Inevitable toll on fans’ mental health
AFL teams Richmond and Carlton played their round one match to an empty stadium at the MCG. (AAP: Michael Dodge)
Jess Richards is a lecturer in sports management at Western Sydney University.
She said having no AFL or NRL to watch on the weekends would take a toll on the mental health of thousands of fans who didn’t know when or if competitions would resume.
“Sport’s often an escape for people, it’s something that we can count on, it happens every weekend,” Dr Richards said.
“It might have been a really stressful week at work but we know that the weekend is the time when we can get together with our mates.
“Whether that be at the stadium or your local pub or at home, [you can] sit down and have a jovial experience watching sport.”
For many people like Mr Shillito and Mr Worner, attending games means much more than the result on the scoreboard.
“Football’s not just a game, it’s a community, it’s what brings people together, we’re a pretty diverse group [but] the one thing that brings us together is the footy,” Mr Shallito said.
Dr Richards believes clubs now need to reach out to their fans while competitions are on hold.
“For some [supporters] it’s life, it’s everything to them,” she said.
“I think they [the clubs] have an incredible platform to reach thousands of people and see this as an opportunity to engage with their fans in new and innovative ways, through social media and smartphone applications to keep the conversations happening.”
Mr Worner is wondering what he’ll do without his fortnightly fix of seeing the blue and golds play at their home stadium.
“It’s going to be interesting, I might have to go through the catalogue of DVDs and videos and watch some re-runs of some classic games, I guess,” he said.
“Who knows, might take up the guitar and learn that, I’ll have a bit more time on my hands.”
Mr Worner acknowledged it was not just the fans who were feeling the pinch. He won’t be asking for a refund on his Eels membership.
“At this crisis time with unemployment going up everyone’s financial situations are different. If it keeps them [the club] surviving, it’s only a little bit but every little bit adds up,” he said.
Mr Shillito believes clubs like the GWS Giants will need every bit of help they can get in the coming months too.
“Make no mistake this is a devastating blow, I just hope it’s not fatal. With everything the game is losing, there’s gonna have to be drastic cuts and you hope that we’re not one of them.”
Dr Richards suggests hard core fans stuck at home might have to turn everyday activities into sporting contests like “competitive cooking, vacuum relays or laundry-hamper basketball”.
But for fans, nothing can replicate the feeling of being at the ground to support their teams.
“It’s a massive buzz, the experience of being there, creating the atmosphere. That of course is why you go to the games rather than watching them on tele,” Mr Shillito said.
Dr Richards said sports clubs and fans were incredibly resilient.
“They’ve taken a pretty big hit here but I know they will bounce back.
“What we do know is we’ll have sport again and maybe we’ll appreciate it a little bit more and support our clubs more than ever when we get sport back.”