Thursday 21 August 2008

Can Homebush thrive as an NRL venue?

"In the long run, playing at Homebush equals no crowds, equals no atmosphere, equals no TV money - which is sport's greatest source of income.” John Singleton, April 30 2005. With ANZ Stadium hosting its first Double Header since 2004 this Saturday night, the NRL should be mounting the first of many operations to draw football fans back to Homebush. With attendance at the ground dropping by over one thousand people in the space of a year the NRL should be looking at staging regular Double Headers to regain the legions of fans that have deserted the stadium for club games in the years since it opened in 1999. While hosting the two biggest games of the Rugby League calendar each year (the Grand Final and at least one State of Origin), ANZ/Stadium Australia has also been the regular season home of the Canterbury club since 1999 (although the Bulldogs did play the majority of their home games at the neighbouring Sydney Showground during the 2001 and 2002 seasons and part time from 2003 to 2005) and the South Sydney Rabbitohs since 2006 (who moved from the Sydney Football Stadium on a lucrative three year contract and have since extended their deal). Both core supporter groups turn out faithfully each week to see the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs run around but the advantage of having a stadium big enough to cater for the casual fan has never truly been realised at the turnstiles. Considering the frequency of the casual fan attending is the difference maker financially for a club that plays in a big stadium and thus needs a big crowd to make a profit – it is a realisation that cannot afford keep failing at the gate. In fact the longest serving tenants – The Bulldogs – have seen their home crowd at Homebush (Stadium/Showground only) average drop from 21,117 in 2003 to 15,592 in 2008 (not including their Round 22 clash with North Queensland at Suncorp) highlighting the struggle the team faces in attracting the casual fan to their home venue, especially with the team struggling this season on the field. Despite the five clubs who use Stadium Australia in 2008 (including part time tenants the Wests Tigers, St.George-Illawarra Dragons and Parramatta Eels) averaging 15,472 per game at the venue – and only 225 people per game short of the NRL’s home ground average across the competition (15,697) – the stadium remains a cavernous wasteland for regular season contests. Without the casual fan finding a compelling reason to shell out in excess of $20.00 a ticket to sit in the outer at the end of the ground and partake in the at times non-existent atmosphere each week, the crowd figures for Stadium Australia will continue to fall. And as far as compelling reasons go – sitting 14th and 15th on the NRL table respectively, the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs haven’t delivered one on the field in 2008. As a big event stadium, the ground stacks up favourably with world standards and when a truly epic sporting contest is held in the arena, it rises to the occasion. But the site of the 2000 Sydney Olympics has never been able to adapt and become a place that fans enjoy coming to for anything but a major event in the sporting or entertainment calendar. In short it rocks on the big stage but has a distinct Michael Bolton sound for the bulk of its performances. Painful, awful, flat… you get the idea. If the ground is to ever realise the potential of having so many seats for fans to sit in, it is important that we look at why Stadium Australia has had such a torrid run this season in attracting significant crowds. In 2008 there have been only four ‘marquee’ games. Only one of which has managed to break the 30,000 mark for attendance and that was the Bulldogs v Roosters Round 4 Friday Night clash which saw Willie Mason face off against the club he walked out on at the end of 2007. The promise of (the then loyal) Sonny Bill Williams letting Big Willie know how he felt about the defection; saw a season high 36,526 turn out at the ground. The Bulldogs faithful went home disappointed as the Roosters ran out convincing 40-12 winners in a game that didn’t deliver a great deal of spectacle for the paying customer – but at least they were there in the first place. The season opener between the Rabbitohs and Roosters managed to draw a credible 29,386 and being Round 1 ground and club officials must have thought that bigger and better crowds lay ahead. But the hyped ANZAC Day clash of the Dragons and Roosters could only pull 21,596 fans on a public holiday Friday afternoon and co-tenants South Sydney and the Bulldogs played on Good Friday in front of only 21,839. The only non-marquee game to have broken the 25,000 mark in 2008 so far was the Eels v Bulldogs season opener on a Saturday evening in the normally unfavourable 5:30pm slot (25,065). So the story the figures tell is that in 28 games played at Stadium Australia just one game has broken 30,000 (Bulldogs v Roosters 36,526 in Round 4) and tallied inside the 20,000 to 29,999 bracket on seven occasions (only two of which were above 25,000). When you compare the 2008 figures to the 2007 ones the scary downturn in crowds over just the last 12 months becomes evident. Splitting the regular season Stadium Australia attendances into the following crowd brackets you can compare the 2007 and 2008 figures: A. 30,000+, B. 20,000-29,999, C. 10,000-19,999 and D. 1-9,999. Stadium Australia 2007 Season: Attendance Range: A: 2 Games, B: 6 Games, C: 16 Games, D: 2 Games. Total Crowd: 413,048. 25 Game Average: 16,522. Stadium Australia 2008 Season: Attendance Range: A: 1 Game, B: 7 Games, C: 12 Games, D: 9 Games. Total Crowd: 448,679. 29 Game Average: 15,472. Granted there are have already been four more fixtures at Stadium Australia in 2008 than there was throughout 2007, but the last 2008 bracket of 9 Games where the crowd has failed to crack the 10,000 mark is a major concern. In fact in Round 15 when the ground hosted the Dragons v Panthers, Bulldogs v Raiders and Rabbitohs v Titans on the same weekend – no game had a crowd figure higher than the 9,845 the Bulldogs-Raiders clash recorded. In what looks like a sign of desperation (if it remains a one-off gimmick too boost flagging crowd figures in the run home to the Finals) the NRL finally scheduled a Double Header for this coming Round 24. Stadium Australia will host two games on Saturday August 23 starting at 5:30pm with the Tigers v Sea Eagles and followed by the Bulldogs v Eels at 7:30pm. Given all four sides are Sydney-based the Double Header should pull at least 40,000 people. The crowd could even push the 50,000 mark now that the Eels have started to get their act together and have stayed in the playoff hunt by winning their past two games – and we all know how much Parra fans love to turn out when their team is winning. Outside of the Double Header there is only one stand alone game that the Stadium Australia schedule throws up before the Finals that could break the 25,000 mark and that is the Dragons v Eels in Round 25. Without the scheduling of a Double Header in Round 24, the NRL’s Stadium Australia tenants would be facing a regular season in which just one game drew over 30,000 at the game’s official home. With Suncorp Stadium taking the mantle as the game’s best ground (and now clearly its ‘spiritual home’ with the World Cup Final being played in Brisbane later this year) the game of Rugby League must use the Double Header as a marketing hurricane to make Stadium Australia a place fans want to go and watch football at. Because at the moment – outside of State of Origin (where the ticket prices were a major factor in keeping the NSWRL from selling out their two games this year) and the Grand Final – Stadium Australia just doesn’t appeal to fans as a footballing venue. But the reality is that the Double Header ‘gimmick’ might be the catalyst for saving Rugby League at Stadium Australia during the regular season in the coming years. But clubs aren’t going to just sign up for multiple Double Headers because the NRL likes the idea – it has to have a financial incentive that takes advantage of the potentially higher crowds. Under the Double Header model, the financial advantages of a crowd in excess of 40,000 has to be particularly appealing for the two main tenants of Stadium Australia. The Rabbitohs and Bulldogs have averaged home crowds of 15,684 and 15,592 respectively at the ground in 2008 and both sides have had poor seasons on the field. Souths have just one game remaining at Stadium Australia with the Raiders in Round 24 visiting the day after the Double Header, while the Bulldogs also have two left against the Eels (Round 24) and Broncos (Round 25). The cost of the average ticket to stand alone games in 2008 (Category One & Two) hovers around $25 and when we’re talking purely gate takings in 2008 here are some speculative figures on what both all Stadium Australia tenants have earned so far in 2008: Gate Takings from Stand Alone Games in 2008 Regular Tenants (Home Crowd Average): SOUTH SYDNEY (15,684) – 10 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $3,920,925.00 BULLDOGS (15,592) – 9 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $3,508,250.00 Part Time Tenants (Home Crowd Average): PARRAMATTA (20,689) – 2 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $1,034,450.00 WESTS TIGERS (16,489) – 3 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $1,236,000.00 DRAGONS (12,126) – 5 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $1,515,725.00 Now there are financial benefits to simply playing at the venue under the contractual agreements each club has with the Stadium Australia management. The above figures are predictions based on the face value of gate takings and the reality is not all clubs get the total value of the gate takings directly fed back into their bank accounts. But for the purpose of highlighting the broader value of the Double Header in ensuring that Stadium Australia can be a viable place for both the bank balance and attracting crowds – we’ll operate on the assumption that gate takings has a big impact on any club’s desire to play at the ground. For example, if South Sydney and the Bulldogs played in 4 Double Headers during the 2009 season as the one of the two home teams and each fixture attracted an average crowd of 40,000, then the financial benefits of those four fixtures coupled with playing the rest of their home games as stand alone fixtures (calculated on 2008 home crowd average), the revenue from all their home games would be: (It must be noted that as a Double Header gate takings would be split 50/50 by the two hosting clubs hence the ticket being represented as $12.50 rather than $25.00) Projected 2009 Gate Takings: SOUTH SYDNEY – 8 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $3,136,800.00 – 4 Games at $12.50 per ticket = $2,000,000.00 – 12 Game Total = $5,136,800.00 BULLDOGS – 8 Games at $25.00 per ticket = 3,118,400.00 – 4 Games at $12.50 per ticket = $2,000,000.00 – 12 Game Total = $5,118,400.00 Simplified the value of a regular season with 4 Double Headers is worth about $431,690.00 to the Rabbitohs and $440,733.00 to the Bulldogs. And that is based solely on 2008 crowd figures which are somewhat lower due to the respective sides struggles this season. For interest’s sake if the other part time tenants of Stadium Australia played all their club games at the ground and also took part (as one of the two home teams) in the 4 Double Header format among their 12 home games it would be worth $787,460 to the St.George-Illawarra Dragons annually (they have averaged just 12,126 at Stadium Australia in three games in 2008), $351,000 to the Wests Tigers and playing Devil’s Advocate for us, the Parramatta Eels would in fact lose money ($68,900) because they have averaged just over the 20,000 mark in their two Stadium Australia games in 2008 and the projected 40,000 crowd for a Double Header actually reduces their profit per game. Ask any punter, fan or casual acquaintance with the game whether they would be more likely to pay $25.00 to go see one match in a stadium that will be just under a fifth full or by paying a similar amount (Category One tickets to the Round 24 Double Header are $35.00 an Adult but Category Two are still $25.00) to sit in a stadium that would be at least half full and brimming with the atmosphere that a crowd like that generates as a result – you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out which option would win that poll convincingly. An NSC snap poll asking whether frequent Double Headers would attract more fans saw 56% say ‘Yes it would regardless of who was playing’, 32% say ‘It would have no bearing on their attendance’ and 12% say they preferred Stand Alone Games. The Double Header needs to return to the Rugby League schedule with a vengeance in 2009 and with it we might see fans actually embrace Stadium Australia as a footballing venue. At the moment the upcoming Double Header is the NRL’s single token effort to try and fill the out of favour ground. Unless the decision makers in the game are serious about dispelling the fans current view of the stadium as a place with absolutely no value or appeal to the code outside of the fact it hosts the two biggest events on the annual calendar, then the Double Header has to be used regularly and strategically in 2009. The fans have shown in 2008 that they won’t pony up their hard earned to see stand alone club football at the ground and there’s no guarantee we’ll see a sold out Grand Final if Melbourne and Brisbane go at it again for the second time in three years on October 5. Granted there’s no guarantee current contractual agreements clubs have with Stadium Australia will easily allow this exciting venture to go forward – but if the code is truly in trouble (depends on your glass half full/half empty prerogative) then surely this would be a major positive step in getting the game back on track in Sydney and boost the participating club’s coffers which have suffered at the gate in 2008 at Stadium Australia.