When governments spend money on projects for the public good, like welfare, national broadband schemes, school halls and the like, there is a segment of the population who cry about the cost of such ventures. Spending money on sporting venues almost never attracts the same level of criticism. So it will go for the $136 million being spent by the NSW and Federal Governments on the announced upgrade to the Sydney Cricket Ground. There should be, however, disquiet in the community about the bankrolling of an elite institution wishing to upgrade its facilities for its existing members and some non-member patrons.
The Sydney Cricket Ground is a magnificent cricket ground with a long and proud history and is a special location for the players of the game. The fact it has retained its Edwardian pavilions for its members is a rare and commendable achievement. The money being spent by the government, however, won’t be spent preserving those, nor on increasing capacity for most of the everyday cricket fans. Instead, it is being spent upgrading stands that will be mostly reserved for SCG members who cannot be seated in the Members’ or Ladies’ pavilions. These are the Noble Stand, which acts as a Members’ stand and the Bradman stand, whose top decks performs the same role during test matches. It does also include the dilapidated Dally Messenger Stand, which is for the general public. The net result, though, will be one stand that will provide more room for members’ seats – and possibly for the guests of members. That is why this upgrade isn’t really about providing more seats for non-members. Indeed, the chairman of the SCG Trust, Rodney Cavalier, said to ABC radio that “It’s not about extra seats. If I had my way, it would be a smaller capacity. The future of spectator sport is not in capacity but comfort for those who come”. For those who can pay the $1100 (Membership only) or $1500 (Membership plus guest) annual fee to sit on the Members’ side of the ground, this upgrade is wonderful news.
It’s not such good news for the decreasing number of ordinary patrons who sit on the other side of the ground. The SCG for them is one of the most unwelcoming venues for test cricket in Australia.
Ticket prices are the first problem. Seats in the “bronze” general admission areas in front of the Trumper and O’Reilly Stands, as well as the exposed Dally Messenger stand, are $60 – twice the price of those in every other ground in Australia. $80 buys “silver” seats next to the boundary in front of the Brewongle Stand or western sun exposed seats in the Bill O’Reilly Stand. Seats behind the bowler’s arm in the “Gold” section of the Trumper Stand are $110 – equivalent seats at the MCG are $45. Seats in the stands next to the Ladies’ Stand, the “Platinum” seats in the Brewongle and Churchill, are $125. For a single day. I’m not sure there are that many people prepared to pay more for a day of cricket than see a U2 concert or an opera. It’s little wonder that we frequently see a virtually empty Trumper Stand by Day 3 of any test match. The half empty O’Reilly Stand in yesterday’s play is testament to the ridiculously high price – especially when a ticket in that stand cost me $55 in 2009.
These prices are reportedly set by Cricket Australia, rather than the SCG Trust. It is odd, however, to see just how much more these seats are than in any other test venue. In the past, it may have been possible to justify it by pointing to full capacity on Days 1 – 3 in tests gone by – not surprising in a city of 4 million people. The empty sections, however, demonstrate that the reason doesn’t hold much water.
It isn’t all about ticket prices, however. The facilities on the non-member side of the ground aren’t up to scratch, either – even in the brand new Trumper Stand. The food outlets are scarce – food queues are a common feature of an SCG experience. While the beer outlets are fairly common – smaller queues – the coffee outlets are almost non-existent. This sends the message that if you’re at the cricket on the non-members’ side, you are there to drink beer, not drink coffee. It is not much different in the part under the Brewongle and Churchill Stands. If people were more familiar with the facilities of the Olympic Stadium in Homebush, the MCG or the Docklands Stadium in Melbourne, they would find the SCG pretty poor in contrast. These conditions will not change with the upgrade – the new members’ facilities, however, will be excellent, no doubt.
There is also the continuing vexed issue of parking at the ground, as well as transport. Parking at the ground for non-members is extremely limited and the two adjacent high schools – Sydney Boys’ and Girls’ P&Cs make plenty of money by charging $15 to park in their grounds. The Trust tried to fix the parking issue by attempting to take control of Moore Park – they would be envious of the MCC’s use of Yarra Park as a parking station during sporting events. This proposed takeover was eventually considered to be detrimental, however, to the local community’s use of the space throughout the rest of the year – explaining the opposition by people like Clover Moore and Malcolm Turnbull. The decision by the Keneally Government to not award control to the trust wasn’t received well by members of the trust, especially broadcaster Alan Jones, who said the opponents “hated cars”. This decision would be no reason, however, to take this as the end of possible parking options. The Trust could have tried to persuade the various governments to fund a multi level carpark somewhere nearby or institute more park and ride arrangements, rather than an upgrade of grandstands for members.
For those who don’t drive, there is currently the notorious wait for buses to take patrons from the city or from Central Station. These buses chug their way up Albion Street and down Foveaux Streets, delaying a trip to the ground by anything up to half an hour. This is why Cavalier is effusive about a light rail that would travel past the SCG, so “future generations [can] follow their forefathers’ journeys to the SCG” – and possibly catch a play written by Cavalier about Dally Messenger and Victor Trumper coming back to life. In the meantime, however, the Trust have not shown interest in helping to fund such a transport option either.
There is a use for the SCG other than cricket, however. It is also the home ground of the Sydney Swans. I have often sensed that the Trust aren’t entirely interested in the football from south of the border, with no former AFL players on the trust – even if the deputy chair is from QBE, the major sponsor of the Swans. This new development will not benefit the Swans to any great degree, and will severely compromise their games for the upcoming 2012 and 2013 seasons. Reading the statement from the Swans’ CEO, Andrew Ireland, we can see that the Swans will welcome the third phase of the redevelopment, which would see an upgrade to their training facilities. One can sense, though, that the Swans might have been taken by surprise with the announcement, especially with the line “We will meet with the SCG Trust to determine the timing and specific impacts of the redevelopment. Our first priority is to minimise any impact on the match day experience for our members”. Will meet? It would have been reasonable to assume that the Trust would have included the Swans in discussions about the full range of outcomes from day one. The loss of three stands for two years would have some impact, it can be assumed, which will mean that while SCG and Swans members will still have seats – non-members will find it much harder to go to games for the next two seasons. For a code that still varies in its spectator numbers, it is not a positive for the club, with a net result being a moderate improvement in spectator capacity and improved seating.
I am not totally against government subsidy towards developing sporting venues. When state governments fund upgrades to regional rugby league home grounds, they are adding to the quality of publicly accessed local infrastructure. It is reasonable for governments to support the teams that are followed by the public in those areas. There is also the example of the comparatively modest $20 million dollars provided by the State Government towards the upgrade of the Sydney Showground. It will not only accommodate the GWS Giants, but delivers a new stadium that could be used by a number of groups well into the future, in an easily accessible location for cars, buses and trains.
This upgrade of the SCG, however, is a different issue. The SCG Trust appear to have solid financial stocks as well as trustees with good connections with major corporations. This is why there should have been no need for them to call upon the State and Federal Government for the $136 million that has been forwarded for this upgrade of facilities that will largely be available just to members. The government money could have been better spent on any number of things, but if it had to be spent on the SCG, it would have been better to invest in infrastucture that would help non-members have a better experience before and after the game. It is possible, however, that at least for now, Alan Jones might praise Julia Gillard her for her government’s gift to the SCG Trust, as well as the present from Barry O’Farrell. He should, because it is generous.