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Sydney sports stadiums: Oval options or oblong obfuscation?

Will Sydney's stadiums be re-developed? (Image: ANZ Stadium)
Roar Guru
25th October, 2017
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2146 Reads

In a city of many sports, it’s hard to find common ground. And competing priorities are up for grabs when the stadium funding pie is cut up.

The NSW Government has $1.6 billion to spend on elite stadiums. Notwithstanding the debate over whether such funds could be better spent on grassroots facilities or in schools and hospitals, there’s no consensus how the money should be spent.

In one corner is rugby league, rugby union and soccer/football, who want rectangular grounds. In the other corner is AFL and cricket, who want ovals.

And the prize up for grabs is upgrades to sporting stadiums – not just which grounds are upgraded, but in what order. Not all the stadiums can be upgraded at the same time. Some will be used more while others are being worked on.

Parramatta is being done first. That’s a done deal. The old stadium is demolished and work on the new one has started. It’ll take another couple of years to be finished. In the meantime, the Eels are playing at ANZ and the Wanderers at Spotless.

But what happens next? The battle is heating up.

The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday reported that the AFL have put in a submission for ANZ Stadium to remain an oval. In response, the NRL has warned that their grand final could be moved away from Sydney if ANZ Stadium is not converted into a permanently rectangular stadium.

On the surface, the NRL’s warning looks a hollow threat. There’s nowhere for the NRL to go outside Sydney except Suncorp Stadium, which only holds just over 50,000, or the MCG which is also an oval.

But it’s the rectangular codes who are the heaviest users of ANZ Stadium. ANZ Stadium hasn’t hosted a cricket game since 2014, and only one AFL game in the last two years. Both the Giants and the Swans qualified for home finals this year, but neither played their home final at ANZ Stadium.

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The one AFL game at ANZ Stadium in the last two years was a derby final, when over 60,000 people saw the Giants record a stirring win over the Swans.

But the AFL was the only code to have injected any funding into the current configuration of ANZ Stadium. And they want to keep their options open.

If ANZ is rectangularised, for the AFL it’s gone forever. If it remains able to be converted to an oval, it remains an option, although not an option they currently want to use. But who knows what the future holds? They want the door open.

Keeping options open requires an oval. The oval sports can’t be played on rectangular grounds. The rectangular sports can still be played on ovals, although the sightlines aren’t as good.

The AFL don’t have a lot of clout in Sydney. But they have cricket on board, and cricket is powerful. And what both cricket and AFL really want is the same.

They want the SCG redevelopments to continue, with the Brewongle, Churchill and O’Reilly Stands to be rebuilt. And they want Spotless Stadium expanded to a 35,000 capacity.

For the SCG, it’s about increasing the capacity and quality of the facilities. And the lack of an exit behind the O’Reilly Stand is a safety issue. The only exit for half the stadium is through a narrow tunnel under the O’Reilly and Trumper Stands, which if an emergency struck would inevitably lead to a dangerous crowd-crush.

And they want it done before the 2021-22 Ashes. They’d cop a hit at the box office if the SCG was a construction site when the biggest cricket series of them all comes around.

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For Spotless, the Giants’ crowds are growing but slowly. There’s no immediate hurry to expand, but it would be nice to have. It’s more urgent for cricket, where Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash sell out every game.

There’ll be disruption while those works are done. Capacity at both the SCG and Spotless will be reduced, below what the demand for the big games would be.

And this is where keeping the options open at ANZ comes in. If the ovals are redeveloped first, putting ANZ’s work on hold, the AFL and cricket have the option of using ANZ while the work is done.

But if ANZ is converted to a rectangle first, before work on the ovals is done, AFL and cricket have nowhere to go and would have to accept lower crowds when their grounds are construction sites.

Then there’s two rectangular grounds where work is to be done. Allianz Stadium is looking at a complete rebuild, while ANZ Stadium is looking at major renovations.

But they can’t be done at the same time. While one ground is worked on, the other will be needed to host the big rectangular games.

Do the SCG Trust, who operate both the SCG and Allianz Stadium, want both their grounds to be out of action or reduced capacity at the same time? Or would getting the work done for both grounds simultaneously, despite the short-term disruption, lead to greater long-term gain?

And if Allianz is done first, does that mean calling the NRL’s bluff in relation to the threat to move the Grand Final?

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If ANZ Stadium is put on hold while the other grounds are done, there’s the risk it may not happen at all. A change of government, or government cash squeeze, or if other grounds go overtime or have a budget blowout – in short, the money may not be there for ANZ.

That would keep the AFL’s and cricket’s options open forever. And if that wrecks it for the rectangular sports, that’s a deviously beneficial side-effect for the AFL.

Within the rectangular codes, the highest priority would be to get ANZ done. But even there, the view would not be unanimous.

Sydney FC are preparing for a possible move to Leichhardt Oval while work on Allianz Stadium is done. If Allianz is done before ANZ, that could happen quickly. But if ANZ is done first, the Sky Blues, the Roosters and the Waratahs will still be playing at Allianz for the next few years.

There are many competing codes and competing interests in the Harbour City. And in this turf war, not everyone will get their own way.

There won’t be common ground. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out.