No-one at the Port Adelaide Football Club needed a reminder - as COVID-19 has delivered to all sporting clubs - as to what really matters to those who count most.

In an era when football clubs have defined themselves as "elite sports entertainment businesses" - and tragically labelling members as "customers" - a worldwide pandemic has reminded all that fans and members are unconditional in their love. Corporate houses need to answer to shareholders and investors.

Fans chose teams for life. Everyone else comes and goes .…

Before COVID-19 ripped shreds in sports, including an Olympic Games delayed by one year in Tokyo, the Port Adelaide Football Club was torn apart by local and national football politics and held to account by members during the tarps era at Football Park.

Membership, by league audits, fell to a record low (as an AFL club) 29,092 in 2010 - less than 30,000 for the only time in the club's AFL story and well short of the 35,000 forecast in the second-licence bid papers from 1994.

Port Adelaide last week - amid South Australia's third COVID lockdown - announced a club record membership count of 61,687.

The impending AFL audit of club membership sales - that officially closed at the weekend - could have Port Adelaide become South Australia's most-supported sporting team, a title well worn during its dominating dynasty in the SANFL. Only once has this crown rested with Port Adelaide during the AFL era - in 2015.

For all the bragging that comes in a highly competitive market - in particular in the lead up to a Showdown which has its 50th edition this week - there is much more than a No.1 tag to admire.

There are lessons that might just make the Port Adelaide Football Club a key part of a worldwide study.

From the darkest chapter in 2012 - well before COVID - Port Adelaide was reminded it needed to be "Port Adelaide" to hold the faith of its astute fans. Loyalty is not to be taken for granted - nor abused with patronising statements. As club membership boss Stephen Shirley made it known in a radio interview earlier this year, no-one at the front office at Alberton would dare tell Port Adelaide supporters what to think nor what they need to understand.

Port Adelaide rebuilt its hard-earned trust with an uncompromising fan base. It delivered a new home that felt like a true home for Port Adelaide - and along the way played a pivotal part in ending a damaging civil war between football and cricket that had kept major football events off the game's cradle at Adelaide Oval for four decades.

Port Adelaide supporters admire their club even more when it challenges the status quo.

Port Adelaide wisely has made the fan the pivotal part of its daily existence. A worldwide pandemic has reinforced why this philosophy - developed almost a decade ago - was correct to believe in the power of thousands and thousands of fans.

"We only survived last year," says club president David Koch, "because of the loyalty of our members and commercial partners.

"We will be eternally grateful to our members for standing by us."

The boisterous reaction of the Port Adelaide players in Melbourne last week - when coach Ken Hinkley announced the record membership figure to the squad - highlights how much the fans are appreciated beyond their united voices in a 60-second pre-bounce anthem at Adelaide Oval.

01:16 Mins
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Ken announces all-time membership record to the team | PTV

Ken Hinkley reveals to the team we have set an all-time membership record in 2021.

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"A membership record is a good first step in our chase for greatness off the field," says club chief executive Matthew Richardson who cut his teeth in the membership department when Port Adelaide needed to be Port Adelaide again.

The mission statement in the "Chasing Greatness" manifesto is 100,000 members. The challenge is to make sure these paid-up, committed fans are never seen as a number, a customer or a pawn in a battle for bragging rights.

Hinkley speaks of finding greatness on the field with a "connected" playing group. The same connection off the field with the members is just as powerful and well noted in AFL reviews of member satisfaction.

Port Adelaide never needed a reminder on where to focus its energy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tarps chapter still tells - and warns - everyone at Alberton how quickly a club can be dismantled when it ignores the people who matter most - those who make up the Port Adelaide community.

And they have every right to keep the club's current custodians on their toes to ensure there is never a repeat of 2010-2012.

Port Adelaide's desire for greatness made membership a key platform in measuring these custodians in the front office, board room and changerooms. Every Port Adelaide member - even those who question on-field strategy - knows nothing is taken for granted nor dismissed at Alberton when the views of the fans are noted.

The COVID-19 pandemic will demand the same everywhere else in sport during an era of corporate saturation. There is a silver lining to this pain.