Should we really be moving away from suburban grounds?

What do fans really want at suburban grounds?

This piece is in response to an article written by the NRL Economist for Fox Sports.

The NRL Economist argues that in today’s age of sport being a business that, for all the nostalgia, suburban grounds do not provide the crowd numbers needed for them to remain sustainable.

In their piece, the Economist states that Campbelltown, Leichhardt, Belmore and Brookvale all boast the lowest crowd figures. According to their article, Leichhardt averages a crowd of 9,410. Belmore has averaged a crowd of 12,401 since it reopened in 2015 in comparison with the Dogs all time ANZ average of 18,188.

As to why they’re using two different sample periods is beyond me. Basic statistics would dictate you’d take the same sample period, especially given the Bulldogs called ANZ home for all their games in the mid-2000s and were a stronger side back then, than they have been since 2015.

For an Economist, the numbers lack investigation. Are those numbers inclusive of finals? How successful have those sides been in the period being analysed?

The number one impact on crowds and ticket sales is the success of the home team. Even the weather has a lesser impact on crowd numbers.

In 2018, when the Eels ran last and played out of ANZ Stadium, their average crowd was 11,175. In 2017, the Eels ran fourth, again they played out of ANZ Stadium and their crowd average was 14,562. In both seasons they played the same number of games with ANZ as their home ground – 11.

Every single home ground the Economist points out has a team, that in the last five seasons, have been far from consistently good.

The Dragons have been a basket case since Wayne Bennett left.The Bulldogs haven’t played finals since 2016. The Tigers have perennially finished 9th since their last foray into the finals in 2011. Even Manly have only played two finals series since 2015 and have had three different coaches.

The issue with suburban grounds is touched on in the Economist’s article, but largely ignored. They present the AFL plan of centralising all games to try and boost crowd numbers.

NRL fans have already voted with their feet when it comes to playing games out of Moore Park and Homebush. They don’t like it. You centralise games either around the new SFS (whenever that’s built) or a rebuilt ANZ and you’re going to have a bad time.

Again, we can look at the Eels. Their 2017 home crowd average at ANZ of 14,562 is admirable, but their home crowd average in 2019, with Bankwest Stadium in play, bumped their average up to 21,201 when playing out of their new home ground. They played 11 games at ANZ in 2017, 9 games at Bankwest in 2019.

The debate around suburban grounds always seems to be a debate centred on current/historical crowd numbers with a mix of local geography thrown in.

Often what the debate fails to zero in on is what fans actually want. And it’s fairly simple.

To be clear, the Economist does touch on this, but it’s skimmed over as an after-thought, not seen as a solution.

The Economist mentions that facilities fans want outside the grounds aren’t available. That there aren’t cafes and restaurants. I suspect they haven’t seen where Penrith Stadium is located, then.

But this builds into my point that rather than centralise all games, why not make those suburban grounds a better experience for fans? It makes no sense to have Penrith move when the stadium is situated in one of the fastest growing areas in the country when it comes to housing and population.

Fans want easy access to the ground through parking and public transport. They want affordable tickets. They want good facilities. They want good food and beverage.

Essentially, stadiums have to provide a unique experience that fans can’t get at home.

You combine that with a successful team and fans will come to live games.

Some fans may be resistant to upgrading historical grounds like Leichhardt, but I’d bet they’d have a bigger problem if they were told to move to ANZ.

Bankwest has enjoyed its popularity not only because it’s new, but because its experience is the best live rugby league experience you can get outside of State of Origin.

It is easily accessible to fans, it’s family friendly with a fresh suite of parent rooms as well as a large amount of disabled accessibility.

It’s little wonder that the bottom eight grounds in terms of crowd attendance averages are the grounds most in need of upgrades including Brookvale, Kogarah, Wollongong, Shark Park, Belmore, Penrith, Leichhardt and Campbelltown.

So you can argue about crowd numbers and geography until you’re blue in the face, but if that is all you focus on then you should just pack up and go home because you’re disregarding the fans.

If you want to see more fans at suburban grounds, those teams need to play well and those grounds need to be upgraded for the 21st century.

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