Suburban grounds are not the answer

Brendon Waldron Roar Rookie

By , Brendon Waldron is a Roar Rookie

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    It’s been pointed out a lot this week that crowds were much better during week one of the finals a year ago. It’s true. They were way better. They make last week’s crowds look absolutely pathetic. It was embarrassing as a fan to watch those games. It was just sad.

    But is it a fair comparison? No. They were differnent teams in different places.

    Last year’s finals kicked off with 43,170 fans at Suncorp Stadium. Not a sellout (don’t blame me, though, I was there) but still a great crowd.

    The next day 25,592 turned up to GIO Stadium to watch the Raiders go down to the Sharks. They left disappointed, but they sold the place out and provided an excellent finals atmosphere.

    Later that night, 21,233 fans strolled through the gates of AAMI Park to see a great game between the Storm and the Cowboys. That crowd number could have been better, maybe there was an AFL game that day, I don’t know.

    But what I do know is we would have happily taken that number at Allianz on the weekend, as last year that’s also about what they got there the next day as 22,631 fans showed up to see the Panthers end the Bulldogs’ season.

    That’s still a half empty stadium, but for a Penrith home game pretty far from Penrith, it’s not bad. It also helped that Canterbury happen to have a few fans.

    Bryce Cartwright Penrith Panthers NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

    (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

    The Broncos will match last year’s crowd if not improve on it on Friday (if it’s not a sellout, you can blame me as I can’t be there), the Storm almost sold the place out on Saturday for Cam Smith’s milestone game, just as they did for the preliminary final in week three last year.

    The Raiders didn’t make it this far, but I’m sure they would have had a pretty full stadium doing that clap thing had the opportunity presented itself.

    I’m hoping the novelty of the Eels playing finals football for the first time in years brings fans through the turnstiles at ANZ Stadium.

    It probably won’t be enough to stop the place looking empty, but let’s play a hypothetical game where the Eels are playing this week’s game at their brand new stadium where it would be, I’d imagine the new Parra stadium would be on fire on Saturday.

    So what does all this tell us?

    Storm, Broncos, Raiders, Cowboys, Titans, Knights and Warriors are all one-town teams that would get to play finals in their home stadiums should they qualify (which is a long way off for some of those teams, but maybe one day…) and would all get pretty good to excellent crowds when doing so.

    Roosters, Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Eels are all the Sydney teams that get to have actual home finals at their home stadiums of Allianz or ANZ and, except for the Roosters, all would get a pretty decent crowd (It’s just a shame a decent sized crowd still looks pretty sad on TV at ANZ).

    NRL Finals empty seats

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    That leaves the Sea Eagles, Sharks, Dragons, Tigers and Panthers that all have to move their games.

    As we’ve seen, the home team in their home stadium tends to sell a lot of tickets and the teams that have to move from their suburban ground have a hard time bringing their fans with them.

    So the solution is obvious, right? Don’t make any teams move! Let them be a home team in their home ground that sells a lot of tickets! Surely that’s the answer!

    The first group I mentioned are all one-town teams and have fan bases that reflect that fact (which I often see as an excuse, that it’s weird somehow and a league with this many teams in one city is normal, but I’m saving that for another article).

    The Bulldogs are one of the most popular teams in the league, so are the Eels and Rabbitohs when they’re winning. Really it’s just the Roosters that have a proper stadium to themselves and nobody to fill it with (Seriously, where are they?).

    As for the suburban teams, the Dragons do OK, and are part of the reason they moved finals away from suburban grounds when a large number of fans were locked out of a finals game.

    But the reality is some teams just don’t draw. Teams like Manly and Cronulla, as we saw on the weekend. So why can’t those teams play at their home grounds?

    Because they suck. They’re bad and they’re small. Professional football should be played in stadiums all season, but that goes double for finals. 15,000 People standing on a hill might look better to some than 15,000 people in a half empty stadium, but only one of those has the potential to increase.

    And as we’ve seen, most of the teams that play in stadiums actually tend to fill them, at least when they’re playing well (not the Roosters, but most of them).

    As impossible as it may seem, we need to build the teams up to that level, professional teams in professional stadiums, not have a league of two halves. A league where some teams play in Stadiums and some don’t. It’s been a bad look for the game for years now.

    They don’t all need to be Suncorp, 1300 Smiles Stadium in Townsville also sucks. It really sucks. I’ve been there many times and it’s a hole. But it’s also the bare minimum for what a Suburban Stadium in the NRL should be and is lightyears ahead of some Sydney suburban grounds. It has seated stands on all four sides for a start. A bit too much hill for my liking, but it is what it is.

    Sure, the Cowboys don’t really have any other choice for finals matches apart from taking them to Brisbane, but the NRL is still happy for them to play there.

    So the answer is no, we can’t play finals at suburban grounds as it cheapens the product too much, but maybe a yes, if the place is good enough.

    I don’t want the league to turn into the AFL, where all the Sydney teams play out of two stadiums and don’t have a home anymore. In a perfect world, all teams should be able to play their home finals at their actual home stadium but for that to happen we need to:

    A) Build all the suburban grounds up to a point where calling it a ‘stadium’ is actually somewhat accurate, which is unlikely because the money isn’t there and/or they are in terrible locations to do that.

    B) We get NFL level ruthless with our stadium policy and relocate teams to cities that have decent stadiums, which is also unlikely because that would require the NRL to actually take a risk.

    None of those things are likely to happen anytime soon, so the game is probably going to continue on pretty much exactly the way it is for the near future.

    Is it ideal? Hell no. Sure beats going backwards, though.

    This is probably coming across as a little mean spirited and flies in face of the traditions of the game. “He hates the hill!” “He hates tradition!” “He hates the Roosters!” et cetera. But it’s true. Suburban grounds are for suburban footy. This is the National Rugby League. We have to stop trying to be both. Give me Friday night at Suncorp Stadium over Sunday afternoon at Leichhardt oval any day.

    Those Roosters crowds, man…