Modern day sports administrators in the harbour city must feel some affinity to the pioneers of America’s western frontier country – they know that there is potential for fortune in the west, yet like the same pioneers, they are fast realising that success in the west is not so easy to come by.
With ever-expanding borders and a surging population, Sydney’s west is one of New South Wales’ fastest-growing areas. After being labelled a must-win area in this year’s Federal and State Elections it is now home to record infrastructure investment. As a result, the heads of almost all major sports in Australia are fighting hard for the hearts and minds of the people in this area and also for a piece of the aforementioned record government investment, with one possible omission.
In the last couple of years, rugby union’s footprint – particularly in the professional space – has been shrinking noticeably. This has been highlighted in the last few years with teams like the Greater Sydney Rams being culled from the NRC and Penrith from the Shute Shield.
Their neighbours, the Western Sydney Two Blues – formerly Parramatta – are perennial cellar-dwellers and the Australian Wallabies are playing fewer games at ANZ Stadium, a venue which in its formative years was routinely packed out by the men in green and gold. These are only a couple of glaring examples of the codes recent regression.
The fact that very little was made – at least to an outsider – of Penrith and the Rams’ omission looked like proof that rugby had little desire to win the hearts of sports fans in the west.
Perhaps it was that their main supporter base was on the other side of the city or maybe the game’s resources are just too stretched? Whatever the reason, capturing Western Sydney did not seem high on the list of rugby’s priorities.
That was until the new Bankwest Stadium was constructed. That became somewhat of a game-changer for all of the codes in the west. The ultra-modern, easily accessible fan-friendly stadium right in the heart of a Parramatta has breathed life into the area and reinvigorated the stadiums two main tenants – the NRL’s Parramatta Eels and the A-League’s Western Sydney Wanderers.
Both teams have come off recent disappointing seasons in the Olympic Park wilderness, but – partially as a result of the new stadium – the Eels have had a major bump in their home crowd averages and have shown on-field improvement while the Wanderers have great expectations for this season after a crowd of over 24,000 attended a pre-season friendly between the Wanderers and the mighty Leeds United.
Even though it appears that the appeal of Bankwest Stadium is too big a carrot to ignore, rugby’s experience so far seems to stand in glaring contrast to the other codes with lacklustre crowds and minimal coverage at the local, state and international level at each outing at the new venue.
No matter how Rugby Australia tries to spin it, the fact that they were unable to get even 20,000 to last Saturday night’s World Cup warm-up game against Samoa – especially considering the team was captained by retiring legend David Pocock – is nothing short of alarming. In addition, NSW’s only Super Rugby franchise – the Waratahs – have constantly had sluggish crowds and struggled for fan interaction at Bankwest Stadium.
Perhaps the real evidence that Western Sydney may be out of reach for rugby was the recent Shute Shield grand final. It seemed that no matter how dire things got for the contemporary rugby game in Australia, Sydney Club Rugby was always a shining light – growing in recent times in spite of the game’s shortfalls.
The Shute Shield grand final has always been the jewel in the crown of Sydney Club Rugby, yet this year the fixture had a forty per cent reduction in its attendance, driven mostly by the governing bodies decision to move the game to Parramatta.
Sydney Rugby’s President David Begg has come out in staunch defence of the decision to move the game from last year’s venue – North Sydney Oval – to Parramatta sighting that the general feedback from the crowd of 9,247 was overall positive and the excellent corporate facilities at Bankwest Stadium allowed for a financial windfall for the organisation.
But the fact that over 5,000 fewer people attended the match in comparison to 2018 is cause for concern indeed.
Sydney’s west is a broad geographical area with a very diverse and varied population. Its borders and demographics are constantly evolving and it makes for a very exciting but also challenging market.
Almost all of the sporting codes in this region at some point have experienced issues with low attendances. Even the AFL – after gifting the Greater Western Sydney Giants hundreds of millions of dollars – have had issues in converting their 30,000 strong memberships into consistent crowds throughout the season.
Many of the NRL clubs who are based in the west have had well-documented seas of empty seats as they try to find the right balance between suburban nostalgia and modern conveniences.
Sydney’s west is one of the most hotly contested markets in the country and the competition for supporters and investment has been intense at times.
Though the days of Kevin Sheedy charging into town and signing rival players while making inflammatory statements to anyone who would listen thankfully seem behind us, there is still a healthy rivalry between all involved so perhaps the market is just too crowded and competitive for rugby to get a toe hold – or possibly the people of the region struggle to identify with the historical rugby culture.
One fact seems inevitable – with each passing season rugby seems to become less relevant in the region, which should send a clear message to the other codes that this is an exciting though challenging and very dynamic market that if not stewarded well can slip from your grasp quickly, no matter how many fixtures you schedule.