Rowe, D. and McGuirk, P. (1999) ‘Drunk for Three Weeks: Sporting Success and City Image’, in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34 (2): 125-41.

[This article shows how the success of a local rugby league team became an allegory or an image for  the fate of its host town, Newcastle in Australia.  Weaving together the characteristics of the team with the imagined characteristics of the population might have helped boost morale at a time of industrial decline, but it contradicted the image that the city planners wished to develop for a new phase based on leisure, tourism and the service industry].

It is often thought that hosting a successful sports team will boost the city.  A sports team can symbolize a particular city or region, sometimes globally.  Attaching symbols like this, or brands, can be seen as increasingly important to the business of ‘city imaging’, itself important in any general shift towards an economy based on consumption (126).  Certainly, there is great competition to host sporting events and mega events, or both to gain immediate economic benefits and also to ‘signify the global status which it is believed accompanies the capacity to “win” and successfully stage a complex (post)modern sports spectacle’ (126).  Claimed benefits include: generating economic activity including urban redevelopment; clearly indicating a turn towards the service sector; promoting the image of the city via an homology with the team; focusing community emotion and identity.  However, evidence about the benefits is debatable, and there is a need to be sceptical about naive assumptions such as community identities, which can ignore structural inequalities of class and gender: these can persist after the celebrations.

There is been some debate about social and industrial change, including the interplay between globalised and local forces, the changes in social and economic relations, and the attempts to develop the notion of place as a social and commercial reality.  In particular, there is ‘a need for places to repossession themselves in relation to the consumption economy…  Globally induced economic upheavals have resulted in a process of intensified place-competition between cities, states and nations’ (127).  Identifying and branding places involves a political process behind the symbolic changes –‘a veritable reimagination of urban politics’ as well (128).  There are a number of options, including redeveloping industrial sites as landscapes of consumption.  This can involve a reinterpretation [the authors quote a certain Hall in using the term “resemanticization”] of the industrial past to remove negative associations, and replace them with pride in ‘modernized industriousness’ (128).  It is common to use sporting events in the global competition to attract visitors to cities.  Success can lead to considerable spending, while failure ‘may have a further depressing impact on city image’, citing Manchester and Adelaide (129).  There is also a tendency to exaggerate the benefits, often in favour of claiming some long-term change to the image, ‘the perception of being a “happening” city’ (129).  A successful sporting team in particular can attract multinational support, in the form of sponsorship, or even additional sales for local businesses (and global businesses – McDonald’s borrowed the logo of the Newcastle Knights in this case).

In this case study, the Newcastle Knights rugby league team won a cup final against a metropolitan Sydney team.  Newcastle had been a major industrial town associated with the production of steel, but had recently suffered a number of setbacks, including an earthquake, and the closure of the main steelworks.  The win and the build up to it was promptly used to produce a discourse about the town and its resilience, countering the unfortunate ‘dominant image as a backward looking and fatalistic’ (130).  The local newspapers are used here as evidence.

Newcastle’s industrial history led it to being considered as a steel city, dominated by heavy industry, and subsequently male working-class employment.  Industrial decline has led to above average unemployment and ‘an inner city landscape dotted by obsolete industrial infrastructure’ (131).  City newspapers reported a serious crisis, economically and socially, as part of a series of events which included an earthquake.  Such coverage ‘entrenches the idea of a city forever struggling against adversity armed only with the “tribal” cohesion of the disappearing industrial proletariat’ (131). 

Redevelopment strategies emphasise ecologically sustainable and high tech industry, tourism and leisure.  Recent promotional literature downplays the industrial past in favour of photographs of the Harbour, and images of consumption and leisure.  Nevertheless, the loss of steel ‘was creating considerable angst among local workers, other community members, civic authorities, regional development agencies and business interests alike’, partly because the new opportunities were seen as emasculating (and as casualised and insecure) (132).  Some women in the business community saw the changes as offering new opportunities, however.  So there was clearly a gender issue.  There had already been a tendency for ‘local myths of resolution in the face of adversity seen as somehow endemic to its working class community spirit’ (133), and it is these myths that got connected to the sporting success.

Myths develop ‘within discourse at the intersection of material, cultural and ideological formations – as such, they are mutable and subject to contestation’ (133).  They get articulated and rearticulated into allegories, carried by a different events and processes.  Modern sport is particularly suitable as an allegory, since it offers a strong sense of place.  The media in particular commonly use it ‘as a readily available symbolic resource…  for the articulation of myths of masculine heroism and territorial triumph’ (134).  The team were seen as underdogs, tough working-class larrikins, associated with heavy industry, community spirit and tenacity, and contrasted with the middle class urban image of their opponents.  The team became a metonym for the city.  Local politicians made the connection explicitly, as did the media, both press and television, locally and nationally and internationally.  The association was made easier because the team had a reputation for being homegrown.  The team also congratulated the fans for supporting them.

Some media coverage attempt to see the resurgence of the team as a metaphor for the changes of the city into a new phase, based on ‘a newfound confidence pride and capability’ (136).  However, this was clearly risky, and could have led to difficulties if Newcastle had lost.  The effects of losing on economic activity have been little researched in fact.

Overall, it is possible to conflate the success of the team with characteristics of the city.  However, in this case, the stress on traditional proletarian values might well contradict with the policy of reimagining the city as having escaped the past.  It is also true that the team probably partially represented the inhabitants, and did not represent women, middle class males, or ethnic minorities.  The media coverage of the event kept referring back to the old image of the steel town.  Of course there were also ‘potentially transgressive or subversive elements…  such as the open displays of physical affection between men, or the more orthodox mobilization of class politics in the support by some players for the pickets in a long running coal strike’ (137).  The overall economic impact of the win still has to be researched, but it is likely to be fairly short term, since it is difficult to produce economic activity from sentiments or spirit alone.  There was also one ironic result in the decline of a rival sports team.