During September 2015, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a $1.6 billion strategy to build or upgrade a few stadiums in the next ten years, with a belief that “If you have better sports facilities and make the experience more attractive, people are more likely to come.”
This included a new 30,000-seat stadium to replace the existing Pirtek Stadium (Parramatta), planned to be finished by early 2019 at a cost of around $300 million; and a new 55,000-seat stadium at Moore Park to be built in the next decade to replace the Allianz Stadium (Sydney Football Stadium).
With regard to ANZ Stadium, given that a November 2014 Galaxy survey found that 45% preferred its upgrade compared to 29% for Allianz and 25% for Pirtek, government assistance could also bring around 25,000 fans 20 metres closer for rectangle football code games with the possibility of a retractable roof to weather-proof games.
This article, however, will argue that the evidence does not support any link between Sydney having better stadiums and bigger National Rugby League (NRL) crowds, beyond the reality that the ANZ Stadium (84,000 capacity) does successfully host large crowds for major football matches of various codes.
With regard to the NRL, 2015 Sydney crowds hardly indicate the need for bigger and better facilities.
The ANZ stadium hosted 26 NRL matches (non-finals), yet averaged just 19,178 with only two games attended by 35,000 or more.
Of Allianz Stadium (45,500 capacity), it hosted just 13 NRL matches (non-finals) at an average 15,199 with only one match above 35,000.
And of Pirtek Stadium (21,000 capacity), hosting nine Parramatta matches, it averaged 12,828.
With the exception of Belmore hosting two Canterbury Bulldogs matches at an average 17,884, and the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) hosting one NRL match at 18,217, the two biggest Sydney stadiums regularly used for rugby league (ANZ and Allianz) did draw the biggest average crowds.
Other average crowds for Sydney NRL grounds were Jubilee Oval (Kogarah) which hosted four matches at 12,826, Pepper Stadium (Penrith) for eleven matches 12,026, Remondis Stadium (Cronulla) hosted twelve matches at an average of 11,925, Win Stadium (Wollongong) held four matches at 11,537, Brookvale (Manly) had ten matches at 10,875, Leichhardt Oval (Balmain) with four matches at 10,488, and Campbelltown also with four matches at 9,444.
The reality is that few world cities can afford to constantly upgrade so many grounds as few have more than two or three modern and large stadiums. This includes cities in Germany, whose Bundesliga has the greatest crowd average of any soccer league (43,500 for 2014-15); and the USA where its National Football League has the highest crowd average of any sport (68,776 in 2014-15).
As it stands, Sydney ranks pretty high amongst world cities with regard to modern all-seater stadiums with three at 45,000 or higher capacity, with three other 20,000-24,000 all-seaters (Gosford, Parramatta, and Sydney Showgrounds).
The problems for Sydney NRL teams, and the AFL to a lesser extent, is that they are amongst the few major national sporting competitions where at least half of the teams reside in just one city. Sydney has nine of 16 NRL teams, and Melbourne nine of 18 AFL teams.
Even London, with its incredible array of sports stadiums, which also includes four all-seater stadiums ranging from 54,000 to 90,000 capacity, hosts just five of the 20 Premier League teams who averaged 36,695 in 2014-15.
To put it simply, Sydney is not London or Melbourne when it comes to hosting regular large weekly sporting crowds.
It never has been.
In 1980, when Sydney and Melbourne (with Geelong) hosted virtually all 6 matches per week in the then major leagues of their respective football codes, Sydney’s weekly matches averaged around 10,000 (about 60,000 total) compared to Melbourne with around 25,000 (150,000 total).
In 2015, aggregate Sydney NRL weekly attendance was similar to 1980 levels, despite much better stadiums today. In the late 1960s, Sydney’s weekly attendance was actually greater than today at around 72,000 for the 1966-1969 period.
For Melbourne, with longstanding high weekly attendance by any world city standards, the transition from club grounds to large stadiums was that much easier. In 2015, of the two stadiums that hosted Melbourne’s 2015 AFL crowds (non-finals) for nine local teams (and sometimes Geelong), the MCG averaged 48,329 for 45 matches and Docklands 28,318 for its 46 games.
Sydney is also far more difficult to get around in terms of transport when compared to Melbourne given that the MCG, Docklands and its AAMI stadium are centrally located with all railway lines running directly to such locations.
In contrast, only two of Sydney’s four major stadiums are centrally located, Allianz and the SCG, yet they still require bus transport from Central train station.
For Manly supporters alone, whose residence is north of the harbour with no close railway access, the situation is worse given that the two other major grounds, ANZ and Pirtek, are 17-23km from the CBD.
Assuming that Sydney NRL clubs agree to abandon their home grounds and better utilise a few all-seater stadiums, it would make sense for clubs to be based nearest to their suburban base, especially with regard to access to railway options. For example, with regard to the Allianz Stadium option, perhaps Manly, Sydney Roosters, St George, South Sydney and Cronulla could play some games there.
For ANZ and Pirtek, perhaps Penrith, Canterbury, and Western Tigers could play there.
But even if the above option could work with more clubs playing their home games at major stadiums, assuming rental costs are affordable, there are other major problems. For example, the NSW Waratahs rugby union side needs to be accommodated, as do State of Origin matches and possible international and domestic rugby and football matches during the season.
The other option would be, in line with my preference given the current evidence, would be to leave the system as it is. After all, the use of bigger stadiums has hardly lifted Sydney NRL crowds given that the most popular Sydney club (Canterbury-Bankstown) only averaged 19,684 for home games in 2015.
Yes, build a new Parramatta stadium. A 30,000-seat stadium would not only boost crowds for Parramatta rugby league and Western Sydney Wanderers football matches, but may also attract other NRL teams to play some or all of its matches there.
But other options for Allianz and ANZ might be overrated given that seating capacity will hardly increase in stadiums that already have good facilities (although facilities can always be improved).
After all, while a November 2014 Galaxy research survey indicate 76% support for the redevelopment of ANZ, the reality is that around 60,000 spectators already have pretty good views given that the distant upper decks only account for around 23,000 of capacity, albeit not as close as at Allianz.
As for Allianz, whether or not to rebuild it completely or upgrade to increase capacity by 10,000 is a question for NSW taxpayers. In 2010, a spokesperson for the trust operating the ground (and SCG) indicated that the “master plan allows for expansion to a capacity of about 55,000 to 60,000 by “continuing the level-one deck around to connect to the eastern and western stands”, thus “providing a continuous upper bowl”.
As of 18 September 2015, Allianz hosted 30 sporting matches for the year at an average of 18,266 (range 8,265 to 35,711).
But whether or not Sydney improves its stadiums, I doubt whether NRL crowds will get much bigger on the basis that Sydney’s sporting culture has not supported large weekly club crowds in the same way that has long existed in Melbourne with regard to the AFL.
And no amount of money can change a city’s sporting culture in the short term, especially at a time when spectators now view many matches live on television and online, which makes the task of boosting sporting crowds that much harder.