New season, new hope: regardless of reality

IT'S the perennial question sports fans ask ourselves: how do you recognise the slow, gradual seepage of hope from your heart? When, as a fan, be it casual or lifelong, are you hit by a tidal wave of awareness that the impending season is going to be a disaster? Do you ever really admit that to yourself, much less articulate it to anyone else?

The emotion and the relief: Post 2016 AFL grand finals reactions from an unnamed fan and Western Bulldogs' star Easton Woods. Photos: Scott Barbour, Justin McManus

The emotion and the relief: Post 2016 AFL grand finals reactions from an unnamed fan and Western Bulldogs' star Easton Woods. Photos: Scott Barbour, Justin McManus

Your chosen sport, your chosen team is of no consequence. We all invariably carry a bucket chock full of optimism into a new season – misplaced as sometimes it may be.

Psychologists refer to it as “optimism bias”. It's a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers. In other words, we think our team is going to win more than it loses and think the reverse for our rivals. All this came into sharp focus for two sets of perennial losers in 2016. That was the year significant losing streaks in the NRL and AFL ended – for Cronulla Sharks fans and for Western Bulldogs fans.

For the Sharkies, it was the end of nearly five decades of disappointment.

It wasn't as if the club hadn't been within touching distance of the holy grail before. There had been two minor premierships and three grand final appearances previously. But, alas, no silverware.

For Western Bulldogs fans it was even worse – 62 years of abject disappointment. 

But the ride that season was even more emotional as injury crippled the club throughout the season; spiritual (and actual) leader Bob Murphy's season ended way too prematurely; and they came from an unlikely seventh after the season proper.

Of course, not every fan had lived through decades of disappointment, but the tales of unbridled relief are still being recounted.

Neither club could replicate the success the next season. Cronulla finished fifth and the Bulldogs 10th. The Sharks’ fortunes improved marginally last season (fourth) but the Bulldogs went further backward (13th).

The one similarity? Both increased their membership base.

The slicker-than-a-kebab-wrapper marketing techniques of professional sports teams can take much of the kudos, but so too can genetics.

Imagine being that kid, the one dragged along by flag-waving, red-white-and-blue adorned parents to the MCG on October 1 in 2016?

How exactly do you shake that winning feeling?

You don't. You just continually restock your “optimism bias” tank and hope like hell you don't have to wait another 62 years.

Janine Graham is an ACM journalist.