Amid the outrage about the “astronomical price tag” and the tub-thumping of the Stop the Stadiums campaigners, the most significant question about Sydney’s proposed $2.5 billion venue redevelopment has been lost.
Ask not whether Sydney can afford better places to play rugby league, football and rugby. Ask whether the leagues who administer those sports and the clubs who play them deserve palatial new homes.
More than a decade ago, as a Victorian working in the Sydney media, the plan now embraced by the NSW Government seemed as obvious as the rain pouring through the roof at the Sydney Football Stadium.
As I wrote then, the Olympic Stadium was famed for a few great moments but despised by week-to-week fans of all codes because of its lack of intimacy and atmosphere. Thus it must kick the AFL to the kerbside and become a rectangle if it was to attract larger crowds for NRL and possibly A-League and Super Rugby games.
The SFS and Parramatta Stadium were laughably outdated by contemporary standards, a common problem with the bland cookie cutter stadiums built in the 1980s. Knock them down and build modern facilities that would not only cater for existing crowds but attract more fans and corporate clients.
That it took so long for the NSW Government and the various stakeholders to reach this seemingly obvious conclusion says much about the byzantine nature of Sydney sports politics.
The SCG Trust is mistrusted and the Sydney Olympic Park Authority lacks authority. Meanwhile sports not only fight each other but also among themselves because clubs have opposing interests. The outcome — lots of grandstanding but few new grandstands.
Then there was ingrained resistance of the Sydney public. The self-defeating arguments that Sydney has “unique geographical problems”, “rugby league is a TV game”, “we’ve got better things to do” and “we love our suburban grounds — although we don’t actually go to them”.
It was this can’t-do attitude, even more than the governmental dithering and petty squabbling between stadium operators that surprised me when I dared suggest Sydney fans deserved better stadiums.
Back then, however, I assumed the various codes would unlock their potential or heighten demand and crowds would increase. Just as — Sydney sports fans will hate to hear — the AFL had done when it moved from relatively poorly populated suburban venues to impressive new or refurbished stadiums.
There is compelling evidence that better stadiums help improve attendances. But even as the NSW Government ticks every box on the stadium wish list, it is hard to make a case that the three codes that would benefit from redevelopment have done enough to grow their games and, in turn, justify such extravagant expenditure.
The historic bungling by Sydney’s three rectangular codes is exemplified by how the AFL’s savvy lobbyists snatched the lion’s share of stadium funding from under their noses. The NRL, FFA and ARU, or their predecessors, stood by as the southern interlopers occupied the Olympic Stadium, won funding for the redevelopment of the SCG and built Blacktown Olympic Park (subsequently abandoned) and the Showgrounds Stadium.
All while NRL clubs were getting meagre grants to put another lick of paint on crumbling suburban fortresses attended by relatively meagre crowds.
The NRL has made some attempts to take its sport beyond its hard-core constituency and grow the game. Membership models have improved somewhat and some blockbuster games have been initiated.
Yet rugby league won’t cut the cord with the self-interested club war lords, muck-raking media crisis merchants and underworld figures who cast a pall over a brilliant game now played close to its optimal level. A game with big stadium potential is thus retarded by its small-minded suburban past.
After a promising start, the A-League has stagnated, even as the standard of the games improve. The Western Sydney Wanderers’ belated inclusion and inevitable popularity made the case for a new Parramatta Stadium compelling. But the current lack of momentum invites scepticism Sydney FC would fill a flexible new SFS in “championship”, “club” or even “wet day against the Wellington Phoenix” mode.
Rugby? You can understand why former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons initiated an anti-stadiums petition that has more than 120,000 signatories. To a Waratahs fan, investing in anything more than a new shoe box to accommodate dwindling crowds would seem an indulgence.
FitzSimons has pushed predictable populist buttons by suggesting $2.5 billion would be better spent on hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. The argument is valid, perhaps even inarguable, although I suspect it would not seem so compelling had stadium building commenced earlier and expenditure been spread over many years.
Instead the one fat, seemingly extravagant $2.5 billion price tag is an easy target for those who believe Sydney had its chance to get better stadiums when it built new venues at Moore Park and Parramatta and won the Sydney Olympics and blew it. No do-overs!
The irony is that Sydneysiders have long been ridiculed for their fickle sporting allegiance. Now some are passionate about a sporting cause — they are determined to ensure their city does not have better stadiums.
Meanwhile thousands nestle into comfortable seats with superb sightlines at Adelaide Oval, the MCG, Lang Park and, soon, the new Perth Stadium and enjoy the game.