In most major sporting events, fan allegiance is identified by aesthetic.
If you look around a hockey arena, what do you see? If it’s a home game, you’ll see the colors of the home team painted across the stands; interspersed will be flashes of opposition jerseys – fans from near or far who nevertheless define themselves by the team they support, regardless of setting.
At the first major tennis tournament of the season, the zealous Australian sports enthusiasts are relentless in their fandom. The Fanatics, as they’re called, dress from head-to-toe in the traditional green-and-gold color palette and yell elaborate chants for their beloved compatriots during changeovers. Where Wimbledon may represent the classic form of conservative, independent fandom – the Australian Open offers up a contrasting narrative, one that could potentially revolutionize the future of tennis culture.
Take the Genie Army, for example. From their early beginnings in 2014 – where their highly vocalized support of Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard made as many headlines as she did making the semifinals – to their trip to Montreal in support of the WTA Rising Star™ and the tournament she was playing, this group has not been lacking in press coverage.
“We had all known each other through school, and had already been going to the tennis as a group for years prior to deciding to support Bouchard last year,” says Ryan Gibb, 21, one of the founding members of the group and a self-described tennis junkie.
Gibb and his follow “soldiers” make up an army of anywhere from the six who traveled to the Rogers Cup in August to the nearly 20 who came out in the sweltering heat of last year’s Australian Open to support the top-ranked Canadian against Lauren Davis in the third round.
The Genie Army is a fascinating case in the study of tennis fandom. On one hand, they engage in the level of ardent and extroverted fan support unique to the Australian Open and its ticketholders.
On the other hand, they’re not supporting one of their own.
“We wanted somebody who was an unknown quantity and young,” said Gibb on their choice of support. “Bouchard had been successful on the junior circuit, winning Wimbledon and making the [girl’s singles] semis here in 2011 and 2012 … [Last year] was going to be her first Australian Open main draw, and coming from a country that is not huge in terms of tennis, she fit the profile and the ball got rolling from there.”
Thus, the Genie Army as a concept suggests an interesting metaphor for the possible growth of tennis fandoms: transnational solidarity in a non-team sport.
This group of young Melbournians has become the prototype on which to base the idea of international support for players in a sport that exists, well, internationally. Indeed, the Genie Army has unofficial “branches” all over the world: from various cities and provinces across Canada to groups in countries where Bouchard has played – or where they hope she’ll go next.
Gibb is not only a huge tennis fan, but also a huge sports fan in general, and commented on the state of tennis fandom in Australia:
“Fanbases are big in Australia, as evidenced by The Fanatics coming out and supporting the local players throughout the tournament. It is hard with tennis, as it is an individual sport, and constantly changing destinations around the world. But you only need to look at Twitter to see how big a following some players have – even though it might not be seen in the stands.”
It is important to note that the notion of fan groups didn’t start with – nor is it unique to – this upstart army. #RenasArmy, #SharaFamily, #LiNation and #AnaKADs are more than mere hashtags, but more virtual communities that have been circulating social media for years.
The main difference is that the Genie Army has managed to set themselves apart as a tangible – and marketable – entity.
They show up to her matches. They’re loud in their support. They get plenty of airtime on television, particularly during changeovers. People know who they are, and fan membership is something people can sell. While Gibb declined to comment on the trademarking of the Genie Army “brand,” their official Twitter account would at least indicate a step in that direction.
And it’s a concept that makes sense: if Nike wants to put #GenieArmy, for example, on any of their products, they would have to pay for it.
Most recently, the Genie Army inked a deal with Canadian Club, a popular Canadian whisky brand – that also happens to be one of the Australian Open’s newest sponsors. Their signature cursive logo can be found on the shirts of the original Genie Army, as well as in large print on their banner.
“Well, Genie was probably out of reach, so they got stuck with us,” laughed Gibb when asked why he thought the fanbase might have attracted corporate attention.
“It just involves us doing a bit of work on social media platforms to help give them some promotion.”
As a recognizable entity, the Genie Army played a large role in the marketing of the Rogers Cup in Canada last year, Bouchard’s first tournament after her major breakthrough at last year’s Wimbledon Championships. Even after her early exit to American Shelby Rogers, they did plenty of work behind the scenes, taking pictures with fans and running kid’s events with the tournament’s other sponsors.
Regardless of how one may feel about her on or off the court, Eugenie Bouchard is a wise business investment for any corporation given her talent and potential – and so too, apparently, is her very visible cheering squad. But the Genie Army model truly is a blueprint that can likely be replicated with other players and their own fanbases.
Ultimately, engaging with fandom at a more participatory level – one beyond the keys of a message board or a hashtag on Twitter – is a conceptually compelling future for tennis as both a product and pastime.