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Sydney is way too lucky when it comes to public funding for football stadiums

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Roar Guru
23rd May, 2022
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With Aussies, Brits and Americans among the world’s most ardent sports fans, hosting some of the world’s biggest football leagues of various codes in terms of average attendances, the populations of such countries generally frown upon the construction of expensive stadiums if they are hardly used.

Efficiency is important in such countries despite the extent of public funding for new and upgraded stadiums differing from city to city and country to country.

While most major English football teams play solely at their own grounds, with the Premier League hosting near-capacity crowds as the second most attended football league in the world, some major Australian and US cities have several teams sharing stadiums from the same or different football codes.

Yet, of all the major Australian, US and British cities where world-class stadiums exist, Sydney is one of the few that constantly demands ongoing public funds to build or upgrade football stadiums that are hardly ever in line with greater crowd demand when compared to other major cities.

Some Sydneysiders promote the mantra ‘build the stadiums and the people will come’, or we cannot be left out if we want to compete with other Australian cities in terms of attracting major events.

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But Sydney has already spent billions of dollars since the late 1980s on stadiums that have hardly lifted average crowds despite the construction of three modern stadiums: the Sydney Football Stadium (1988), the Olympic Stadium (1999) and the rebuilt Parramatta Stadium (2019).

The new Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta.

(Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

In terms of Sydney’s major football code of rugby league, whereas Sydney’s 12 teams averaged an aggregate 59,000 per week for six home games in 1979, the 2019 weekly average (prior to COVID) had barely risen to 60,561 with the remaining nine teams (4.5 games per week).

In other words, the construction of three expensive stadiums increased Sydney’s weekly home rugby league crowd average from 9871 in 1979 to 13,458 in 2019.

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While the new Parramatta Stadium averaged 18,665 for 12 home matches in 2019 (breaking its previous record average of 16,600 in 2001 at the former 20,000-seat stadium), the Olympic Stadium averaged just 13,212 for 20 matches in 2019, hardly better than the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) with 15,062 (ten matches), Brookvale 11,216 (ten), Campbelltown 12,038 (three), Cronulla 12,224 (12), Kogarah 9751 (five), Leichhardt 14,222 (three), Penrith 12,619 (11) and Wollongong 10,120 (five).

In contrast, the remaining ten Victorian teams in the Australian Football League (AFL) had an average crowd of 41,619 in 2019 for five weekly matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (53,694), Docklands (31,875) and Kardinia Park (27,811), to easily surpass the 1979 average crowd of 23,462 for the former Victorian Football League with six weekly matches.

Comparing the 1979 and 2019 weekly aggregate data, the Melbourne and Geelong average weekend attendance increased from 140,700 in 1979 to 208,095 in 2019, which helps justify the construction and/or upgrade of the three major Victorian AFL stadiums.

Unquestionably, there is a need for good facilities to attract spectators to the various football codes in this era when any sports and activities compete for the entertainment dollar, as noted by The Guardian on 13 April 2022 when it pointed to England’s Super League’s 2019 crowd average of 8828 being beaten in 2022 because of new stadiums and/or revamped old grounds.

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But, for Sydney, capacity increases and upgrades need to be sensible and in line with growing public demand, as is the case in England where many English football clubs have built new grounds or upgraded facilities in recent decades.

Empty NRL stadium

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Beyond major new stadiums and upgrades for the Premier League giants in London, Manchester and Liverpool for stadiums, which now have capacities of 50,000 or higher and were mostly full in the 2018-19 season prior to the COVID disaster, even smaller English clubs will take heed of public demand before considering new stadiums.

For example, Leicester City’s new stadium from 2002 (32,200) was only constructed after their promotion to the Premier League in 1994-95 after their previous ground (Filbert Street since 1891) was regularly sold out (21,500 capacity) during the late 1990s.

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Sunderland, with a new stadium from 1997 (current capacity 49,000), still achieved a crowd average of 31,000 during the 2021-22 season playing in England’s third tier.

But the Sydney push for more public funding continues despite Sydney already having considerable depth of reasonable stadiums, which can easily cater for their crowds.

The Olympic Stadium (83,000) has only achieved an average NRL home-and-away crowd of above 20,000 three times since 2005 (2012 to 2014).

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The historical SCG (48,000) easily caters for the AFL’s Sydney Swans, which had an average crowd of 31,000 in 2019.

The second Sydney AFL club Greater Western Sydney has the modern Showgrounds Stadium (24,000), but had averaged less than 6000 for their three home matches in 2022 after averaging 12,400 in 2019.

Given that the Sydney Roosters averaged just 15,800 in 2018 at the previous Sydney Football Stadium with its 45,000 capacity, good luck to anyone thinking that the new version (42,000) from 2023 will achieve a much higher average home crowd.

Penrith, on track for a record home crowd average in 2022 with 19,800 so far, are also hoping that a new $300 million stadium (25,000-30,000) will also boost crowds, albeit that team has only averaged over 15,000 for home games just three times since their inception in 1967 (2003-2005).

A Panthers fan shows his frustration

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Sydney is indeed lucky with its stadiums – perhaps the luckiest of all Australian, British and American cities.

As it stands, the new stadiums for the Parramatta Eels and Sydney Roosters have provided great facilities for other football teams that mostly get much smaller crows such as the rugby union NSW Waratahs and football teams Western Sydney and Sydney FC.

To this end, any upgrade of existing stadiums can help serve the many needs of Sydney’s many rectangle football codes of football, rugby league and rugby union, along with the growing female versions of such sports.

But the bickering for public funding continues on a scale that suggests that Sydney is some sort of great world city for football crowds, which it is clearly not besides the large crowds it gets for a few rugby league and major football and rugby union internationals each year.

The NRL want hundreds of millions to be spent on suburban NRL grounds, while Football Australia and rugby union officials want the Olympic Stadium to be upgraded with better seating and/or a roof to help secure major sporting event finals such as the Rugby World Cup.

But does mild Sydney really need a roof for the odd day when a football match confronts hard rain?

Does Sydney really need further new stadiums for a few NRL clubs where moderate spending can easily upgrade pretty good existing stadiums to enhance the NRL’s thinking of gaining local support, then make it local or at distance where many can easily get to?

Souths could, and are likely to, play at the new Sydney Football Stadium.

Roosters fans

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

St George Illawarra and Cronulla have decent home grounds with around 20,000 capacity.

Canterbury, rather than get a brand new stadium at Liverpool, may be able to upgrade Belmore to get a decent stadium in line with a 2020 discussion that a 25,000-seat stadium there was a possibility.

The same would be true of Manly’s Brookvale, which probably needs a significant upgrade most.

The odd big games that may demand bigger crowds could be shifted to Sydney’s four larger stadiums that can host crowds of 30,000 to 82,500 as they do in England with regard to the odd rugby code match that generates a large club crowd, namely Old Trafford, Wembley and Twickenham.

Ultimately Sydney’s NRL clubs have to build community support if they truly want to get bigger regular crowds that can then justify greater capacity facilities.

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For the Wests Tigers, with their $6 million decade-long agreement to play at the Olympic Stadium ending after the 2023 season, they have recently indicated a preference to play their home games at their spiritual homes of Leichhardt and Campbelltown to permanently base themselves in suburbia and establish a clear identity.

While it has been noted that Leichhardt Oval can only accommodate 400 corporate guests compared to over 2500 for the relatively new Parramatta Stadium, the Wests Tigers have generated a profit of about $3 million for the past two years, which has reduced pressure to chase deals at bigger stadiums that offer financial incentives.

Playing a game at Tamworth each year also remains an option for the Tigers because of the financial and game-day support they receive from the region.

But, as it stands, it remains to be seen how long such large amounts of public finance can be thrown at football stadiums for Sydney given its longstanding low crowds hardly justify such extensive taxpayer spending.

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