The club with the AFL’s lowest average home ground attendance this season is – fittingly – the most impressive on the road. The GWS Giants have won eight matches on their travels, more than any other side, and at eight separate venues. Having beaten St Kilda last weekend in the first week of the finals in Melbourne, they now take on Port Adelaide on Saturday at the Adelaide Oval as underdogs.
Not only do their players enjoy an interstate adventure, so too do the Giants’ biggest fans. Captain of the GWS cheer squad Mark Costello has been to every away final in the club’s history (apart from during the Covid pandemic), including the last visit to South Australia in 2017.
“I remember it was a pretty high-spirited game, because I was sitting right behind the goals,” he said. That day, the minor premiership-winning Crows defeated the Giants in the first week of the finals by 36 points thanks to three goals from Eddie Betts. “The team was desperately trying, I could hear them carrying on and trying to encourage each other, but it just didn’t work.”
2017 was just the second season in which the Giants had played in September, after their narrow preliminary final loss the previous year to the Bulldogs, who went on to win a flag. Since then, Costello believes the club has made progress. “We’re still building, and getting record numbers of supporters each year, though I think we’re still the second lowest supporter base,” he said.
Although the Giants averaged a little over 10,000 at their home matches this year, last week the club gained 33,000 members for the first time. In comparison, Collingwood, West Coast and Richmond boast more than 100,000, while rivals Sydney have 65,000.
Costello says the club’s supporter base is not only growing in number, it’s becoming different. “The interesting thing I find is that we are getting so many more young kids to games so, generationally, we’re starting to change.”
The Giants debuted in the AFL in 2012 as part of the league’s strategic foray into the traditional rugby league territory of the northern states. Alongside the Gold Coast Suns, one year older, the Giants have benefited from draft picks and head office investment that has often drawn envy from their southern rivals. GWS, despite boasting a record of never having been eliminated in the first week of the finals, have ultimately collected more critics than premierships.
The 61-year-old Costello acknowledges the club still faces “many challenges”. A deal with the ACT government means GWS splits its home games between Sydney and Canberra. “It’s hard to build a base when you don’t have as many games as other clubs in their home city,” Costello said. He argues there’s high parking costs for fans at its Sydney base at Homebush, along with substandard public transport links that are prone to trackwork.
But the issue most heavily discussed among members of the cheer squad is player retention. “We’re always worried about recruiting players that don’t stay around and [instead] go back to their home states. We lost Bobby Hill [to Collingwood last year], Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper [both to Richmond] – that seems to happen year after year.”
Those departures made Giants’ fans pessimistic about the team’s chances this year. The team’s success under new head coach Adam Kingsley, therefore, has been a pleasant surprise. “He’s building up a lot of support with the players so I’m hoping that sort of activity will be reduced,” Costello said.
Originally a fan of the North Sydney Bears rugby league side, Costello fell out of love with that code when his team merged with Manly. He took a liking to AFL but the Swans never appealed, so when the Giants launched they had his attention. But it wasn’t until a trip to Victoria in 2014 and a game sitting with the Giants cheer squad watching the team’s first win at the MCG that he became hooked. Since then his commitment to the club has been steady, making his appointment as squad captain “by default”, he said.
Costello will attend the game on Saturday alongside members of the Adelaide branch of the Giants’ supporter group. It’s small – just 122 members on Facebook – but South Australia-based fan Darren Pusey said it has made supporting the team “even more enjoyable” since its establishment three years ago. “The group has helped us as members and supporters in South Australia to feel a part of the Giants community.”
While Pusey and Costello will be hoping to hear the club’s song, Big Big Sound, played on Saturday night, one GWS fan will be not be there in person. Ben Costello, Mark’s 26-year-old son, said he prefers to watch the games at the pub. “I’ll be happy to go to the games, maybe just not covered in bright orange waving flags … that’s definitely more his thing.”
That doesn’t bother his father, long ago ensconced in the Giants family. “We’ve come from 15th, right up to playing this weekend,” the senior Costello said. “We’ve just enjoyed the journey, so hopefully it will continue.”