Considerable public attention has been given to Sydney’s three new or refurbished football stadiums that will be built by 2023 at a cost of around $2 billion.
They are the April 2019 opening of the Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta (30,000 capacity), the new Allianz Stadium (40,000-45,000) due to be completed by 2022, and the planned reconstruction of the ANZ Stadium (70,000) by 2023.
Sure, Sydney needs many good stadiums. Very few cities in the world play host to so many popular football teams given the interest in various codes (rugby league, Australian rules, soccer and rugby union). The city’s 14 club teams had an attendance average above 10,000 per home match in 2018.
In addition, both ANZ and Allianz stadiums held a number of near or sell-out crowds for major matches that included a State of Origin match, rugby and soccer internationals, and major club matches and finals.
With the $2 billion investment in three stadiums, Sydney will rank high among world cities when it comes to the range of quality football venues, especially when taking account of the Sydney Cricket Ground (capacity 48,000) and other quality smaller suburban stadiums with a capacity of 20,000-25,000.
With such an array of stadiums, Sydney can ensure fans a favourable spectator experience and quality playing fields, as was the case when the Matildas attracted a crowd of 15,000 to Penrith’s Panthers Stadium on November 10, 2018, when playing Chile.
From 2023, Sydney’s two AFL teams, playing an average one match per fortnight in two all-seater stadiums of 24,000 and 48,000, will easily cope with small- to medium-sized crowds and have good playing surfaces.
As for the many rectangular stadiums, new technology for ridding the field of excessive water at Bankwest Stadium, which can be passed onto the Allianz and ANZ Stadium rebuilds, should go a long way to maintaining good surfaces even with two to three matches per week, assuming more NRL teams ultimately decide to play more fixtures at the big three rectangular venues.
But Sydney will be extremely lucky to have three world-class rectangular stadiums by 2023, simply because recent history may not justify the expense.
In this era where many Australians prefer the comfort of their homes to watch live sport via television, with Sydney crowds already lacking any large-scale attendance tradition for club matches, it remains to be seen whether the new grounds can increase crowds for rugbies league and union and soccer.
Yes, Parramatta has achieved crowds well above 20,000 at the new Bankwest Stadium in 2019, but other NRL clubs have averaged well below that mark despite playing at Allianz and ANZ with their vastly superior facilities when compared to most suburban crowds.
In 2018, the Sydney Roosters, playing in their premiership-winning year at Allianz Stadium, averaged just 13,274 for home matches, lower than Penrith’s average crowd of 14,264 at Panthers Stadium.
The simple truth is Sydney often disappoints with its club crowds, regardless of the quality of its stadiums. In April this year, at the brand new Bankwest Stadium, the Waratahs attracted a paltry crowd of 10,605 for their Super Rugby match against the crowd.
At ANZ Stadium, just 7919 turned up for the A-League match between Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne Victory that same month, and just 6711 attended the NRL fixture between the Canterbury Bulldogs and North Queensland Cowboys the day after Anzac Day.
Sydney is indeed very lucky to have a government spend such high amounts of public resources on new stadiums given its crowds hardly justify them.
In London, arguably the world’s greatest sporting city which boasts six all-seater stadiums with a capacity between 40,000 and 90,000, albeit its largest stadiums are mainly used for occasional club matches and international fixtures (Wembley and Twickenham), its soccer stadiums have long been developed in line with demand from loyal fans.
Besides the new Tottenham Stadium (62,000 capacity) which only hosted a few 2018-2019 matches due to its late opening, London’s other Premier League clubs averaged near capacity crowds. Even second-tier teams attracted two-thirds capacity crowds.
With regard to London’s two major rugby union teams, Saracens and Harlequins, their home matches were mostly confined to local grounds with capacities of 10,000 to 15,000, unless high demand encouraged the use of a larger stadium.
So, given that Sydney’s new stadiums are hardly likely to regularly draw near-capacity crowds, its various clubs will need strategies to attract higher attendances.
After all, few sporting leagues are as prosperous as England’s Premier League teams given its high television revenue and attendances, despite high average match ticket price of £31 for the 2018-19 season.
With smaller sporting leagues needing to be smart when seeking to boost matchday revenue, this will depend on a lot of factors which include the price of attending in terms of tickets, food and travel. Such realities are already evident with cheaper food prices and the NSW Government often helping to provide free public transport with matchday football tickets.
With various football codes competing for the spectator attendance dollar, however, Sydney’s 14 major clubs will have a tough time increasing crowds, even with three world-class rectangular stadiums intended to enhance the spectator experience.
It remains to be seen whether Sydneysiders are willing to leave the comfort of their chair given they can view most football club matches on television, especially when faced by uncomfortable weather.
My feeling is that Sydney by 2023 will soon have a quality stadium capacity that far exceeds the willingness of its sports fans to attend. I hope I am wrong.