When did hunting our star athletes (and their partners) become a national sport?

Once a mild fascination, the private lives of our professional sports stars and their significant others have become an unnatural media obsession, writes Michael Blucher

Feb 12, 2021, updated Feb 12, 2021
Bernard Tomic and his partner Vanessa Sierra.  (Photo: Instagram)

Bernard Tomic and his partner Vanessa Sierra. (Photo: Instagram)

Maths has never been a strong suit, but I’ve been doing some calculations – 18 AFL teams, for argument’s sake 30 in each top-grade squad. Couple that up with our NRL playing pool – 16 clubs, circa 25 players in each – and we pretty quickly get to a figure of 940.

Now throw in the first-grade coaches, their assistants and the odd high-profile chief executive or chairman, and that potentially gives us 1000 “WAG” stories to work with over the coming footy season.

That’s got to be enough, hasn’t it? Particularly with the leg-up from Instagram – young couples thrusting themselves into the limelight, one month oversharing, the next, over and out.

Of course, there’s always the fallback of the retired stars. That’s an infinity pool we can jump into, take a deep dive and see what sort of dirt we can dredge up.

Yes – looking forward to the footy season, and finding out who’s played up, who’s broken up, who’s been locked up and most importantly, what one social media influencer girlfriend has said about another social media influencer girlfriend. After the big split.

It’s going to be a bumper season.

Going beyond the boundary line of football, I saw recently a Melbourne newspaper published the definitive list – Australia’s top 100 Sporting WAGs.

Now there’s an initiative that’s going to turbo-boost the drive for gender equity.

Regrettably, I never got around to reading this groundbreaking study in social demography, but I did wonder – ever so fleetingly – just how they arrived at the final rankings.

What exactly was the criteria for inclusion in the prestigious top 10?

Was it calculated purely on appearance? Number of Instagram followers? Or was the individual WAG ranking driven by the profile (read notoriety) of their partner? How for instance, did “Mrs Tomic” poll?

So many unanswered questions. I apologise. I should have done more research.

And then we have all the AFL coaches who’ve apparently split from their wives over the past six months. There seems to have been one a week since the middle of COVID. Are we sure there are only 18 teams? I would have guessed more. Granted, the AFL club structure does love an assistant. Perhaps some of them have also tripped and fallen on marital rocks.

I do fear for where it’s all heading. Our sports stars’ private lives – once a mild fascination – have over the past five seasons become an unnatural media obsession, during the off-season, perhaps an even sharper focus than the “main game”.

Do we think we’ll ever get to the stage where post-match press conferences completely gloss over the on-field action and go straight to the more important stuff. Bad luck this afternoon coach, but tell us, have you spoken to your estranged wife?

I’m aware human compassion isn’t particularly fashionable in elite sport, not when these “bastards are earning so much money”, but have we ever slowed to think about their unnatural existence?

Not even CEOs of billion-dollar companies come home from work on a Sunday night and watch a video, to prepare for the week’s first meeting. In seven hours’ time.

I get it. It comes with the territory. You don’t like heat, get out of the kitchen – all that rubbish. But let’s understand, through the intense grilling, we’re cooking these blokes.  Coaches, superstar players, even the “journeymen”, are held to a higher level of account, every skerrick of their life screened for imperfection, and when the slightest crack appears, it’s headline news, evidence that their apparently perfect world ain’t so perfect after all.

In 2021, courtesy of social media, the women who sit (or once sat) beside them – they’re getting blowtorched too. Not all are victims of course. As per the aforementioned, “oversharing”, there are some who crave and covet the attention. Some, remarkably enough, even achieve “stardom” themselves. Lucky them. But the victors are heavily outnumbered by the vanquished. Young girls taking water pistols to gunfights and getting publicly pilloried.

Yes, we are living in interesting times.

Some six years ago, I wrote a book about the inner workings of professional sport, allocating a full chapter to those on the periphery of the “sporting bubble”. “Mrs, Minders, Magnates and Malingerers” the section was titled – the “Mrs” of course were the “Wives And Girlfriends”.

The chapter was not for the purpose of salacious gossip (granted, there was no shortage on offer) – the motivation was wanting to better understand the forces in play, the role WAGs (both official and unauthorised) played behind the scenes in elite sport.

As you’d expect, the peek behind the curtain uncovered a bit of everything – overt ambition, true love, entrapment, glamour, status, manipulation, temptation, treachery – I remember one wife left her superstar husband less than a week after his career ending injury – he was still lying in hospital when she told him it was over.

Team environments, where disparate groups of girls were thrust together on account of their partners’ occupation, were often particularly volatile. They served up the best and the worst – bitchiness, exclusion, rivalry, competitiveness, but also wonderful generosity of spirit, inclusion and shared experience – lonely ships in the night, turning to one another for support, while their husbands relentlessly and single-mindedly pursued their sporting dreams.

One Test cricketer insisted on the inclusion of a special category – “SWAGS” (Substantial Wives and Girlfriends) so incensed was he at the pejorative connotation of the term “WAG”. I wonder what he thought of the recent list. The top 100.

Of course, this was all back in 2013-2014. When it was comparatively easy.

Now it’s just a circus.

Our sporting elite, alongside our “TV personalities” the richest source of celebrity in this country, are nothing more than sitting ducks, being blown up, two at a time.

Simultaneously, we bang on about mental health and depression, stories in the media, routinely if not daily carrying the “Beyond Blue” tagline.. if you’re struggling, or know somebody who is .. here.. ring this number.

I know a few. But they don’t count.

They’re fair game, because they’re involved in professional sport.

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