Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

BUILD it and they will come.

Worked a treat for Kevin Costner, but Sporting Declaration is not so sure the same logic applies to rugby league.

After the state government announced two weeks ago that it had finally reached a decision and was preparing to spend more than $2.3 billion redeveloping the stadiums at Moore Park and Homebush, this columnist has been wondering if those in the corridors of power have somehow missed the real issue.

WIDE OPEN SPACES: ANZ Stadium regularly plays hosts to crowds of less than 15,000, which makes for an underwhelming atmosphere.

WIDE OPEN SPACES: ANZ Stadium regularly plays hosts to crowds of less than 15,000, which makes for an underwhelming atmosphere.

Rugby league crowds have been flat-lining for some time now, and I’m not convinced that the state of Sydney’s two main venues is the fundamental problem.

The NRL, of course, have been furiously lobbying for upgrades of ANZ and Allianz Stadiums, which, if they proceed, will follow the $300 million rebuild of Parramatta Stadium that is already under way.

NRL officials have used the grand final as leverage. If the stadiums are built, at taxpayers’ expense, the governing body will commit to staging premiership deciders in Sydney for the next 25 years.

Alternatively, the NRL are threatening to take grand finals to whatever states are willing to pay top dollar. The lure of millions of dollars in government funding for proposed rugby league centres of excellence is also being used as a bargaining chip.

It’s an intriguing game of brinkmanship. 

But I keep coming back to one question.

If the NRL are successful in securing three new, state-of-the-art, purpose-built rectangular stadiums, will they continue to allow television broadcasters to dictate scheduling?

Let’s face it, paying spectators, who were once the lifeblood of the game, come a very distant second these days to whatever suits Channel Nine and Foxtel.

For years, clubs and supporters endured Monday night football, which was just a crowd killer.

Finally the NRL abandoned Monday games and switched to Thursday nights, which are almost as problematic for ticket-holders, especially for those who have young families and have to battle Sydney traffic.

The Friday 6pm fixture introduced last year is another example where the NRL have sold out their most loyal fans, sacrificing bums on seats in stadiums in favour of TV audiences.

Then there is the annual two-month mid-season “twilight zone”, when teams field line-ups depleted by the absence of Origin representatives and every other week seems to feature split-rounds of four or five substandard games.

None of which makes it attractive for people to fork out their hard-earned at the turnstiles.

So, for the sake of the argument, let’s imagine that the new stadiums proceed, as planned.

Will the NRL change its policy to maximise patronage in the new facilities and ensure, for the first time in recent memory, that paying spectators are the priority?

Will they offer clubs decent input into the fixture list, given that they know what time-slots best suit their respective demographics? 

Or will they continue to negotiate billion-dollar deals that allow TV broadcasters to hold the game to ransom?

Surely they can’t have it both ways, yet it would be no surprise if they feel entitled to.

This effectively is the crux of the issue, because even if the government build a Taj Mahal at Moore Park, and Buckingham Palace at Homebush, if the NRL keep scheduling games on Thursday nights, then attendances will always be compromised.

Moreover, if the new stadiums are built, the government will no doubt be expecting a pound of flesh in return.

How will they obtain it?

Presumably by locking in various teams as long-term tenants. This is the other key factor that undermines whatever remote prospect there is of NRL crowds growing to the point where they one day challenge their rival code, AFL.

By using ANZ Stadium to host garden-variety club fixtures, the NRL is virtually guaranteeing an underwhelming game-day experience for fans who attend.

The capacity of ANZ 83,500. When it’s a full house or close to, the atmosphere is fantastic. But during season 2017, South Sydney’s average crowd for 10 games at ANZ was 10,818.  That equates to more than 72,500 vacant seats each game, which is embarrassing.

Other teams to use ANZ as a home ground last season, for at least some of their games, included Canterbury, Parramatta, St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers.

If ANZ is redeveloped at a cost of $1.25 billion, with a new capacity of 75,000, there will almost certainly be a push to get more teams playing there more regularly.

And all that would do is give fans even greater reason to stay at home and watch their team on TV.

My suggestion is that they stop playing club games at ANZ and use it, like Wembley in London, for marquee occasions only.

Grand finals, State of Origin, Bledisloe Cup, Socceroos internationals, pre-season visits by English Premier League teams, big rock concerts etc etc.

Relocate clubs such as Souths and the Bulldogs to Allianz and Parramatta Stadium respectively.

Above all, change the mentality to “crowds first, TV second” when scheduling games.

Rugby league has reached a pivotal point in its history.

Anyone who thinks it can be saved by building a few new stadiums has more faith than me.