In the year before each Federal Election, there’s one issue that continually bubbles to the surface. That of funding home grounds for various Sydney NRL clubs. It’s a sure fire way for politicians to show how much they support their local area when they promise an upgrade to local, “grassroots” facilities. The pull on the public purse has been significant. There’s been Penrith Stadium, in the heart of Lindsay (though, it hasn’t cost all that much for Centrebet to assume the naming for the facility built with public money), Brookvale Oval, which is waiting for an Abbott Government for its $10 million, Campbelltown Stadium, Belmore Oval (even though it’s not going to be an NRL ground), Jubilee Oval in Kogarah (which received money from the NSW Labor Government a year before their departure) and Endeavour Oval / Shark Park in Cronulla.
I like suburban rugby league grounds – the game has an vibrant atmosphere that fans enjoy being a part of. When Preston Towers was where I lived, I used to be able to take a 5 minute walk to Penrith Stadium, pay not a lot to get in, buy a pie, take a seat and get a good view of a good Sunday afternoon game. The ground is a relic of a bygone era, especially the 80s built Eastern Grandstand, with its tiny corporate boxes, still fitted with 80s era small CRT TVs. There aren’t many companies using those boxes these days. Corporate people usually sit in the more recently upgraded Western Grandstand. It was certainly a startling atmosphere for my fiancee, who was more used to AFL games at Docklands or the MCG. Or maybe the more startling was the meat eating competition at half time.
While those nostalgic for bygone eras would love for this atmosphere to remain, it’s becoming clear that such a nostalgic vision for the NRL is an economically unsustainable one. As Richard Hinds wrote in his SMH column, grounds with inadequate catering and toilet facilities, as well as poor corporate facilities, can’t be sustainable in the long term. Sport supporters are increasingly expecting to have a game day experience that is free from stress and inconvenience. The current suburban grounds won’t be able to do that into the future. This is especially the case with grounds like Leichhardt and Parramatta Stadium, with their woefully inadequate parking and public transport access. The future for the NRL is the same that is being seen in Melbourne, with its two stadiums with easy access to transport and parking; Adelaide with the move from Football Park to the Adelaide Oval. The NRL must be cursing their missed opportunity in not organising the kind of deal the AFL secured with the excellent Skoda Stadium in Homebush. Also in the picture is the increasing reality that sporting clubs make a lot of their revenue from fans unable to get to games but watch on TV. They can’t watch night games from Leichhardt. This future has been clearly supported by the NSW Government, who have recently stated that keeping grounds like Leichhardt are financially unsustainable – where the sport minister, former rugby league referee Graham Annesley stating:
“Review of stadia has identified the number of current venues requiring ongoing maintenance and or upgrading is financially unsustainable… Stakeholders suggested there are too many Tier 2 stadia in Greater Sydney, and the present decentralised approach leads to under-utilisation of venues.”
This hasn’t stopped the appeal for grounds to be funded by the Federal election barrel of pork. It’s Leichhardt Oval that is again the focus of a pre Federal election demand for money. The same Leichhardt that is in the middle of Grayndler, the seat of the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese. The seat that was closely fought in the last Federal election against the Greens in 2010. Now the newly elected Labor Mayor of Leichhardt, Darcy Byrne, has made Federal money for Leichhardt Oval a major issue, saying it would be a “disaster” if the Wests Tigers didn’t play their four games a year at Leichhardt.
It would not be a disaster for the Tigers if they played more games at Olympic Park, for example – after all, more Campbelltown based Tigers fans would be able to get to games there – getting to Leichhardt from Campbelltown is a virtual impossibility. It’s also not a big journey from Balmain / Leichhardt to Homebush. It would also not be a financial disaster for the Tigers club, who don’t have a leagues club facility close to Leichhardt and can’t be making a great deal of money from games at their old ground. This kind of emotive campaign is more about the politics, not the football. We can wait to see if the other NRL grounds get promised all sorts of grants in the lead up to the next Federal election – money pledged more as a sign of political expediency than in supporting the game.