They’re the face paintin’, flag wavin’, hootin’ and hollerin’ fans on the Southside upper deck at RedBlacks games. You may have seen them. They’re called the Southsiders, and they’re a part of Ottawa football history.
The Southsiders are, in essence, an Ottawa football fan club. Started in 1980 by Southsiders President for Life Byron Smith and his friend Brian Henry, the group was born during a time when the Rough Riders (a CFL team we used to have, for you wee millennials) were the only pro sports team in town. There were two types of fans: those who sat on the north grandstand (the Northside), and those who sat on the Southside.
As Smith tells it, the Southsiders were really born out of frustration. “It was the late 1970’s, the Southside upper deck had just been built. We were young football fans, season tickets holders, with seats where we could afford them: the Southside upper deck. Of course they weren’t really seats, they were numbers painted on long aluminum benches, which we knew if lightning struck (always a distinct possibility up there) it would fry us all a thousand at a time!”
With no roof, anyone on the Southside was exposed to the elements. The Northside, complete with a roof, was filled with the older, quieter crowd. The perception was that it was the Northside that was catered to. Smith lists the frustrations on the Southside: “Warm beer, cold hotdogs, poor service, little or no food sometimes, dirty seats, very restricted access. We had to line up to get searched just to get in. The national anthem was always sung to the Northside, with their backs to us. The halftime show was always facing the Northside, like we didn’t exist. Once they had an elephant act performing, the beast stood on his back legs facing the north then got down, raised his tail and crapped at the Southside (the stain was on the carpet for the rest of the season).”
Out of this frustration, a tradition was born. In anger, they began yelling at the anthem singer and half-time acts to turn around. Eventually, this yelling morphed into the infamous “Northside Sucks” chant. “We loved all the negative energy around us in the Southside stands” Byron says. So we decided to capture some of that and build on it with a Fan Club. We called ourselves the Southsiders.
The Southsiders, however, were not your average fan club. “We were righteously indignant and negative. We hated everything, the team, the opposing team, the Northside… Actually the only thing we liked were the individual Ottawa players.” But the fan club grew as fans, and eventually even media and management, embraced the group. Members would be interviewed before games on CBC, and ownership encouraged the Northside vs. Southside rivalry. Smith: “’Northside Sucks’ had become mainstream!”
Originally in an effort to further distance themselves from the football club, and to identify even more as Southsiders, the group made Southsiders merchandise available. “When we saw how popular the merchandise was we started selling it,” Smith says, “and using the proceeds to buy Seasons tickets that we donated to the Big Brothers and Big Sisters charities. It helped the team and hopefully created new fans.”
“When the [RedBlacks] started up again we chose Ride For Dad as one of the charities to get our support. They are a good locally-based charity that I am affiliated with, involved in the fight against prostate cancer. We have also made donations to the Ottawa Humane Society (from our Game-Dog promotion) and to the Stand On Guard Foundation from our Ottawa Strong Campaign following the murders of Cpl. Cirrillo and W.O. Vincent.”
Jonathan von Teichman was 12 years old when he first became a Southsider in 1992. “I started attending every game always sitting in the Southside upper deck. I had a membership card, t-shirt and some of the other Southsider paraphernalia as well.”
So what makes a Southsider different?
“A Southsider is different in that they are willing to stand and cheer more often than not.” von Teichman says. “They wear their team colours and bring the real emotion to the game that the players feed off. No matter what the score we have a “Never Say Die” (the Southsider motto) attitude and can always be heard. I think we bring atmosphere to the games and help to get other fans into the games by showing the way and being an example of how true football fans should be.”
Smith adds, “I suppose it is now a sense of history, having been through so much with the loss of the team, twice, all those losing seasons. But we haven’t ever given up. The founders are now in their 60’s and we have a new generation of men, women and kids that have joined up. There are a lot more fan groups now than there used to be. Social media has made that easy, and the football organization now appreciates their value and supports them, but it’s the Southsiders who, apart from the Rough Riders Alumni, are the only remaining group that has been around for it all. We are a thread of the Ottawa football history. New fans get to share in the Southsiders brand and be part of that history.”