Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

FULL HOUSE: The crowd at No.1 Sportsground in 2007, when a NSW team featuring Andrew Johns played a T20 game against South Australia. Picture: Ryan Osland
FULL HOUSE: The crowd at No.1 Sportsground in 2007, when a NSW team featuring Andrew Johns played a T20 game against South Australia. Picture: Ryan Osland

WHAT would you rather – a V8 Supercars race in Newcastle, or a Big Bash League cricket franchise?

That’s the question Sporting Declaration has been pondering this week after opening the envelope from the good people at Newcastle City Council and noticing – according to my less-than-reliable arithmetic – a rates rise of approximately 7.6 per cent.

Now, I’m not averse to spending a few extra dollars each year if I can see some benefit for the community.

If council announced, for instance, that rates were rising to cover the cost of restoring the old Newcastle Post Office to its former glory, I’d say about bloody time.

If they decided to build an overpass to replace Adamstown railway gates, I’d be cheering with thousands of others.

But if, as I suspect, part of my rates are contributing towards the construction zone formerly known as the Foreshore, which will become a V8 Supercars race later this month, I’m suddenly not so enamoured.

I’m not anti-revheads. If the predictions are accurate – 16,000 new visitors to Newcastle, 150,000 spectators, a TV audience of about 220 million, and potentially $57 million coming into the city over the next five years – I appreciate the benefits.

But I can’t help comparing the upheaval-causing enthusiasm council have shown for V8 racing with their apparent indifference to Australia’s most popular sporting code, cricket.

It’s a bit more than two years ago now that council were offered a chance to host a Big Bash League trial game featuring the Sydney Sixers at No.1 Sportsground.

Council responded by asking Cricket NSW to stump up an estimated $7000 – to cover the costs of security, ground preparation and post-match clean-up – a request that was not surprisingly interpreted as a cold shoulder. The game was instead played at Drummoyne Oval, to the dismay of the Novocastrian cricket fraternity.

Cricket NSW haven’t been back to play since.

There are plenty of other regional venues eager for a piece of interstate action, in particular Wollongong, which staged a Sheffield Shield match last season and will do so again this summer.

Meanwhile, Coffs Harbour recently hosted a women’s one-day international, Geelong’s Kardinia Park was used last season for a men’s T20 international between Australia and Sri Lanka, and Canberra was a World Cup venue in 2015 and next year will host a Test match.

Moreover, Canberrans are already lobbying to be first port of call if and when Cricket Australia decides to expand the Big Bash League.

Last I heard, Newcastle had a larger population than Canberra and routinely drew bigger crowds to sporting events. 

And on this subject, I speak with some authority, having lived in the national capital for four years.

Yet what hope is there of Newcastle hosting a BBL match in the near future, let alone accommodating a franchise?

Buckley’s would be my guess, all things considered.

Cricket NSW, as the Newcastle Herald has revealed, has launched an ambitious bid for government funding to build a specialist cricket stadium at Broadmeadow.

This might not be required if council had shown a touch of foresight.

The decision almost a decade ago to redevelop No.2 Sportsground surely ranks as one of the most dubious exercises of recent times.

No.2, which cost an estimated $7.5 million, of which $2 million came in federal government funding, is now used almost exclusively for club rugby union – and in particular one club.

If only council had shown enough common sense to instead spend that money next door, building another grandstand and modernising No.1 Sportsground with TV-standard floodlights.

The rah-rahs would still have been able to use No.1 in winter, along with AFL. In summer we might have had a cricket arena suitable for interstate and international events.

Indeed, just imagine if the grandstand at No.2 had been built at No.1, and then the undisclosed (commercial in-confidence) millions council is investing in a V8 race had instead been spent on further improvements to transform No.1 from a sportsground into a stadium.

Novocastrians have shown time and again over the years that they will turn out in big numbers to watch elite-level cricket.

In 2007, 10,652 fans attended a Twenty20 match (featuring Andrew Johns), while the crowds of 16,500 and 17,654 respectively for Sheffield Shield matches (starring Steve Waugh) in seasons 2002-03 and 2003-04 respectively were far larger than any turnouts at the SCG.

One of my fondest memories of No.1 was the tour match between England and NSW in 1986-87, featuring names like Ian Botham, David Gower, Mike Gatting, Steve and Mark Waugh, Mike Whitney, Mark Taylor, Greg Matthews and the late, great Robert “Dutchy” Holland.

For many years, touring international sides regularly played in Newcastle, against either the state team or Northern NSW.

It’s now three seasons since we were allocated even a Sheffield Shield game, and who knows when or if the Blues will return.

The most disappointing part is that, if the city had a stadium capable of hosting BBL matches, I have no doubt that it would be consistently bursting at the seams.

Even in their lean seasons, the Knights and Jets have traditionally enjoyed home-crowd support other teams can only envy. If we had a BBL outfit to call our own, it is not hard to imagine it would generate similar support and parochialism.

The prospects of that dream ever becoming a reality would appear remote. 

Instead we have a car race, an iconic post office in disrepair, and a rates rise. Some would say it’s just not cricket.

Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration