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GWS are tearing up the AFL, so where are the fans?

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Editor
25th June, 2019
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Greater Western Sydney are a genuine premiership threat. They have enviable depth, top-tier talent at nearly every position and are, arguably, the most pleasing team to watch play football. So why are the fans still staying away?

Despite sitting third on the ladder at 9-4, with the second-best percentage in the competition, just 45,301 fans have come through the turnstiles at the sponsor-less Giants Stadium this season – a measly average of 11,325.

While Facebook footy pundits are all too happy to question the sustainability of hapless Gold Coast, the fact is the Suns still draw better crowds than their vastly more successful expansion brethren. Check out this comparison.

Gold Coast and GWS average attendances

With finishing positions

Season Gold Coast Suns GWS Giants
2011 17th, 19,169
2012 17th, 13,645 18th, 10,825
2013 14th, 13,907 18th, 9,701
2014 12th, 16,092 16th, 9,226
2015 16th, 12,361 11th, 10,786
2016 15th, 11,561 4th, 12,333
2017 17th, 13,663 4th, 13,196
2018 17th, 11,563* 7th, 11,913
2019 (up to R14) 17th, 11,064 3rd, 11,535

* – Excludes Gold Coast’s ‘home’ game in Perth against Fremantle.

There are some very damning years on that table, with the three-year stretch prior to this season scarcely believable. During one of the most dysfunctional on-field periods by any club in recent history, the Suns have still managed to go toe-to-toe with a premiership contender on the attendance front – even eclipsing them in one of those seasons.

When you take a wider look at their home crowds all-time, the data isn’t exactly encouraging either.

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All Giants home attendances

Club 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
ADE 7669 5830 8383 9481 13249
BL 9079 10046 R16
CAR 9059 9538 10355 9599
COL 8102 10851 13483 11360 R18
ESS 11887 10783 8429 10093 13671 10789 15424
FRE 9556 11233 11356 11277
GEE 7809 7697 14667 13656 15007
GCS 8603 6832 6917 8308 8022 7131 7581
HAW 13556 13766 10866 R21
MEL 7561 8308 7016 8811 14274
NM 6696 10211 7824
PA 6811 6601 6549 10028 9185
RCH 7538 12314 8331 14974 10677 14456 12697
STK 11092 9178 12014 12633
SYD 17102 19507 21541 21924 21433 R20
WCE 6324 10385 15751 9253
WB 9128 7132 7863 9612 14048 10424 R22
FIN 21790 14865

* – Italicised matches are Canberra games

What jumps out here is just how worryingly stagnant everything is since the Giants got competitive in 2015.

Crowds against the big four Melbourne clubs have fluctuated, attendances for games against the Bulldogs – their biggest interstate rival – have fallen, while their very first home meeting with Gold Coast in 2012 remains the biggest NSW/ACT audience for such a fixture.

What’s to blame here? Do the Giants simply not have a recognisable superstar capable of cutting through the fickle Sydney market? Have they just not had quite the level of success needed to truly break through?

If you think Sydney’s west just simply doesn’t care, history would tell you it’s a bit too early to tell.

The Giants’ attendance figures are quite comparable to what the Swans were averaging when they first moved up from South Melbourne, with the Bloods averaging between 9000-16,000 per game (excluding the Warwick Capper years) from relocation until their first grand final appearance in 1996.

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Since then, it’s been smooth sailing, with Sydney’s lowest annual average attendance post-1996 being 24,981 in 2012 – when the SCG was undergoing large-scale redevelopment.

General view of the SCG during a Swans game.

Crowds at the SCG have been superb ever since the Swans found some success. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Similarly, the Brisbane Bears and Lions endured years of four-digit crowds before a slow uptick at the turn of the century. When flag fever hit in 2001, however, fans flocked to The Gabba and lifted average attendances to the 30,000’s. Even in the most recent doldrum period, the Lions’ worst year of crowds was better than all but the Bears’ very last season.

It seems all it takes is a flag to generate sustained interest in these non-traditional markets, which is obviously why the AFL were gunning so hard for their expansion teams to score quick premierships and scoop up a generation of supporters.

Will an orange and charcoal-adorned premiership cup be all it takes to get Giants Stadium rocking? Or can nothing get Parramatta and beyond hooked on Aussie Rules?

The answer to both questions is yes, and no. The explanation is just two words; Olympic Park.

For those unaware, GWS’ home ground is in Sydney’s Olympic Park precinct, barely 200 metres away from Sydney’s largest venue in ANZ Stadium.

For those unaware, Sydney’s Olympic Park precinct is in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Unless there are special event services running, you need to get an ordinary suburban train to Lidcombe and change. If you’re coming from the east, that means travelling past Olympic Park and changing to catch another train backwards.

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Special events see direct express services depart from most major train stations but, according to the Transport NSW website, State of Origin Game 3 is the only upcoming event worthy of this honour. Even this Sunday’s Bulldogs vs Sharks NRL game doesn’t qualify.

Sports fans have long criticised the area for being virtually devoid of any culture, nightlife or anything resembling a suitable pre/post-match activity. When you add in the fact it’s incredibly inconvenient to get to via public transport, it’s not hard to see why fans of all codes increasingly don’t feel like making the trip.

Here are some more tables to digest.

Average crowds at Olympic Park

Season Sydney Swans NRL
2009 36,875 17,515
2010 35,208 19,618
2011 30,387 17,455
2012 35,532 22,231
2013 34,766 22,218
2014 32,693 20,080
2015 29,569 19,178
2016 16,917
2017 14,410
2018 14,984
2019 13,825

Apart from a small bump around six years ago, both codes have seen noticeable steady declines over the last decade in matches at ANZ Stadium. I didn’t go all the way back to 2000 for brevity’s sake, but it’s worth pointing out the Swans were pulling in over 40,000 a game until 2008.

Even the A-League’s Wanderers, who’s supposed captivation of western Sydney is the envy of other codes, had a miserable tenancy at Spotless Stadium during the renovations at Parramatta, averaging just 9778 fans in 17 matches across three seasons.

You can say what you like about the long-term viability of Australian rules football in western Sydney, but the struggles of other football codes getting fans to the same venue proves location is playing an enormous part.

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In fact, I’ll just say it; picking Sydney Showgrounds as Greater Western Sydney’s home was a huge blunder on the AFL’s part.

I’m not going to pretend to know the ins and outs of why that venue got redeveloped, but that’s all irrelevant now. If the AFL want to give the Giants a chance of pulling non-cringeworthy numbers one day, they need a new venue.

I appreciate how utterly incredulous the idea of Gillon McLachlan spending another cent on propping up the Giants sounds. The very idea being floated in the current fan environment could very well see AFL House burned to the ground.

Gillon McLachlan

Gillon McLachlan isn’t super popular at the moment. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Recent years, however, have shown us just how rejuvenating a new venue can be for a sports team. Sure, the Crows, Eagles and Dockers all had no issues filling their grounds up before they moved, but people are quick to forget just how dead Port Adelaide looked before they moved across to the Adelaide Oval.

Sub-20,000 crowds at AAMI Stadium were a regular occurrence for the Power towards the end of their tenancy but, in just their first season at the new venue, they were raking in more than double that.

Sydney itself has seen fans flock to BankWest Stadium in Parramatta since it reopened, with the common denominator among the successes Adelaide Oval, BankWest and Perth’s Optus Stadium all being vastly superior ease of access.

Blacktown City Council are looking to have the International Sportspark – a 2000 Sydney Olympics venue – transformed into a first-class multi-sport venue by 2036. Blacktown, unlike Homebush, is actually in Sydney’s west, with the Giants training there before they joined the AFL and even playing one home game at the venue in 2012. Blacktown City Council was also the most populous local government area in Sydney before 2016’s council mergers.

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The complex has ample parking, is close to Rooty Hill station (on Sydney’s main train line) and would put the club in closer contact with the people they’ve been trying to drag to their home games for the last eight years.

If the AFL’s serious about the Giants succeeding, they’d do well to get in on this project soon.