Biggest loser in NRL’s ‘flawed strategy’

Wests Tigers fans may scoff, but their beloved venues at Leichhardt and Campbelltown must not be granted NSW taxpayer funds for upgrades. Revamping or even rebuilding these traditional suburban grounds is a flawed strategy that will never yield the same success achieved by Parramatta’s world class Bankwest Stadium.

The reason why is because Campbelltown and Leichhardt are lost in suburbia. They lack the surrounding infrastructure necessary to drive attendance growth. Attracting new fans requires reliable multimodal public transport, cosmopolitan cafes and a wide variety of trendy entertainment venues immediately adjacent to the game. Football attendance is just part of the outing for casual fans, and isolated suburban locations simply don’t entice them.

The state government is shortly expected to grant the NRL’s wish for several 20,000-seat stadiums. Numerous locations have been raised with Kogarah, Penrith, Campbelltown and Leichhardt contenders for this funding. The rare opportunity to spike Rugby League attendances via government investment cannot be wasted at these traditional grounds.

To illustrate just how ineffective suburban locations are in attracting fans, average stadium attendances since 1957 were collated and ranked. To ensure a fair comparison, only home and away fixtures were included, with finals and representative game attendances omitted. Post-Covid fixtures were also removed considering the pandemic compulsorily limited crowds.

Despite all the hyperbole surrounding the passion fans have for Leichardt Oval, it ranks second-last, marginally above the Wests Tigers other home venue at Campbelltown.

Other supposedly treasured grounds such as Belmore Sports Ground and Kogarah Oval, also rank very poorly. In fact, all the suburban venues sit at the bottom of the rankings. Yet traditionalists still yearn for a return to the halcyon days at their beloved venues.

The exact reason why the newly built Bankwest Stadium has been so successful is its location. Parramatta is a vibrant city of its own, exhibiting all of the aforementioned trendy attractions along with a broad network of transport options.

Similarly, Liverpool must be the long term priority for the NRL. Its proximity to Sydney’s second airport will ensure a massive influx of investment on surrounding infrastructure. Transport links and professional hubs inevitably attract hospitality and entertainment venues. Simply put, it will be the second Parramatta.

According to Liverpool’s Mayor Wendy Waller “Liverpool and the NRL … it’s a match made in heaven. We are a sport-loving community, and our population is growing fast – from 243,000 this year to almost 387,000 by 2041”.

The enthusiastic Mayor also points out, “Planes will be arriving and departing from the new Western Sydney International Airport in 2026 so it makes a lot of sense to plan for this in Liverpool now. Sydney’s third CBD is a natural choice for a stadium for NRL and other professional sport fixtures. There are many possible locations for a great stadium next to good transport connections and funding is available from other tiers of government”.

Yet some traditionalists still yearn for a return to their beloved venues of Kogarah, Leichhardt and Campbelltown. Romantic nostalgia often twisting the debate from opportunity to emotion.

But the NRL and NSW Government Premier Gladys Berejiklian must adopt a stadia strategy with Rugby League’s long term needs in mind. History has proven that isolated suburbs are not the future of the game. Major hubs are.

The numbers don’t lie.

Disclaimer: The NRL Economist Ramy Haidar is employed by NRL club the Manly Sea Eagles. The opinions expressed in the article are solely his and do not represent the views of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @ramy_haidar

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