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No, Gladys, build it and they won't come

The NSW Government has announced it will knock down and rebuild Allianz Stadium at Moore Park at a cost of $700 million and the Olympic Stadium at Homebush, only 17 years old, at a cost of $1.6 billion. However, there is little ‘business case’ evidence that new stadiums would make a material difference to attendances at football games, although Sports Minister, Stuart Ayres argues, “With better quality facilities, more people will come and attend matches.”

The politics are terrible for the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and her Government. Over 130,000 people signed an online petition against the proposal in only two weeks. The ABC reported NSW and National MPs were outraged by the weapon handed to the Opposition, quoting one MP as saying, “Labor has a narrative they can use every day until the next election – ‘you can’t have that money for the school but you can have $2 billion on stadiums’.”

Where is everybody?

On a sunny Sunday, 21 March 2010, a couple of hundred football (aka soccer) fans waited on The Domain for the luxury coach carrying the Sydney FC team to arrive direct from the airport. The previous day in Melbourne, Sydney had won the A-League Grand Final on penalties after extra time when South Korean Byun Sung-hwan scored the winner. A stage had been erected, food trucks arrived and it was a chance to celebrate with the returning heroes. Sydney FC had completed an historic double, delivering the Championship to go with the Premier’s Plate for winning the league, but the obvious question was: where is everybody?

In the following season, 2010/2011, the average home attendance was a dismal 8,014, half the number in the first season of 2005/2006.

Fast forward seven years and Sydney had not won a trophy in the intervening period. The 2012 excitement of Alessandro Del Piero (record holder for playing the most games for Juventus and 92 caps for Italy) had come and gone. But now something far more special was happening.

Sydney FC was playing the best football in its 13-year history. It was an enthralling season of exciting football built around player of the year, Milos Ninkovic. Sydney went on to hold the treble (including the FFA Cup) for the first time and broke records that may stand forever, including winning the league by an unbelievable 17 points.

Yet in the middle of that winning 2016/2017 season, Round 19, only 8,380 turned up to watch the Wellington game, and the average main season home game attendance was 16,001. In Del Piero’s first year, 2012/2013, it reached a record average of 18,737. Sydney’s home ground of Allianz Stadium holds 45,500. Where is everybody? Here is football at the highest standard Australia is ever likely to muster, and in the country’s biggest city, the crowds are disappointingly small.

What’s it like to watch games at Allianz Stadium?

In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, the Chairman of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, Tony Shepherd, wrote:

“People who claim the stadium is perfectly fine clearly don’t go there. The venue is rusted, ageing and doesn’t meet modern safety standards.”

Well, Mr Shepherd, I go there regularly. Watching Sydney FC at Allianz is one of my favourite activities. I am a Foundation Member and I have held a season ticket since 2005. I rarely miss a home game and sometimes travel to away games. I don’t sit in the corporate boxes but prefer the seats with the hoi polloi who sing the songs and love this Sydney team. I want to concentrate on the game, especially when Sydney is so enthrallingly good, rather than entertain guests or sip on champagne while eating canapes.

The irony of Mr Shepherd's claims is that the Trust's website has a page of endorsements on the wonderful stadium. At the recent FFA Cup Final, I asked a few people near me whether they wanted a new stadium. All said the existing stadium is fine.

Allianz is a rectangular field and fans sit close to the action. My season ticket is in the exact place I want. It’s near the halfway line, about 20 rows back under cover, behind where Graham Arnold prowls like an angry leopard. I can see him losing his temper, planning his moves, shouting at players. Heaven.

Last year, the Stadium made a stunning improvement. At each end, massive video screens fill the space behind the goals. The replays are excellent, in crystal clear dimensions on the best screens at any ground I’ve attended (and I’ve been to the last three World Cups in Germany, South Africa and Brazil).

The food is a poor effort, but that has little to do with the design of the Stadium. It could be significantly improved by realising not all football fans want weak beer for $9 to wash down a $6 meat pie. The toilets are bad and I understand facilities for people with physical disabilities are sub-standard, but they can surely be fixed.

A season ticket for Sydney’s 14 homes games for an adult costs as little at $270. It’s far more expensive to watch Paul McCartney for two hours. A modest $20 a game is an entertainment bargain in this expensive city where it costs $70 to park in the CBD for a day.

Australians love playing and watching soccer

Soccer is by far the largest participation sport in Australia. Reports Roy Morgan Research:

Soccer has been the big winner of the new century so far, gaining almost 200,000 regular participants (up 46 percent to 623,000). Now the most-played competitive sport in Australia, in 2001 soccer was fourth on the list.” 

Soccer fans also love to watch the game live. The Socceroos recently attracted 77,060 to the final World Cup qualifying game against Honduras. An incredible 163,652 attended two friendly Arsenal games (v Sydney FC 80,432 and v Western Sydney Wanderers 83,221) in July 2017. That’s more than watch Arsenal at their home ground in London. The Liverpool game against Sydney FC in May 2017 drew 72,892, despite Liverpool including several retired players such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. An ageing Steve McManaman was an embarrassment. These games have no competitive meaning and no tension but the public flocks to them.

There is simply no comparison with the excitement of a Sydney FC competition game from the reigning champions. Writing as someone who has followed Manchester United for 55 years, most of the fans at the Arsenal and Liverpool games show Euro snobbery and don’t realise how good the local game is.

The first game of the 2016/2017 in the A-League was amazing. Sydney FC played Wanderers at ANZ Stadium and a record club crowd of 61,880 turned up. It was a fantastic atmosphere. A few months later, where is everybody?

What’s the pool of available fans to attend regularly at Allianz?

Sydney FC has only 13,613 members, and it needs a lot of walkups for a decent attendance. The average crowd in 2017/2018 to date is 15,793 but that includes the Sydney home derby at 36,057. The worry is that Sydney has found a new attendance level of about 15,000 for regular games despite playing such excellent football. Only 10,044 watched Sydney play Brisbane recently. A new stadium of 30,000 or 45,000 will have masses of empty seats except at one or two games a year.

What about the rugby and league crowds?

Allianz is shared with rugby league’s Sydney Roosters and rugby’s NSW Waratahs.

In 2017, the NSW Waratahs recorded the lowest crowd in its 21-year history, 10,555 on 26 April 2017. The average for the season was 14,500.

In the 11 main season games played by the Sydney Roosters NRL team at Allianz in 2016/2017, the average attendance was 13,971.

Worse, what happens during the rebuilding?

When it was first announced that Allianz Stadium would be knocked down and rebuilt, the three major tenants said in a statement in April 2016:

“When teams are displaced from their established home ground, the impact is negative and of a long-term nature. Some clubs never recover.”

Exactly. The Government has indicated it may compensate the clubs while the new stadium is built. Western Sydney Wanderers may continue to suffer from their move away from Parramatta Stadium during its reconstruction. Wanderers now play at Spotless Stadium at Homebush in front of 8,000 people and the fan experience is a shadow of its former glory.

What will Sydney do during the rebuild, perish the thought? Three seasons at either Leichhardt Oval in Sydney inner west, Jubilee Oval down south in Kogarah or maybe the Sydney Cricket Ground. Every choice will alienate a large section of the fan base, and neither of the suburban grounds has much parking. Sydney fans from the north will not want to drive to Kogarah, Leichardt is in the crowded inner city with its traffic problems (and building of WestConnex) and the SCG would be a dust bowl of oval-shaped sadness. Little players kicking a ball in the distance on a field where nobody has played soccer for a good reason for many years.

Where to from here?

Last year, I noticed a small panel of plasterboard near my seat was coming unstuck. I advised Sydney FC and was told that they were only a tenant, and no money is being spent on the stadium because it is likely to be torn down. Little wonder it is ‘rusty and ageing’. All buildings, especially a public stadium built from steel, need maintenance. Mr Shepherd’s article outlined the safety, dressing room and toilet facilities that need fixing. Okay, fix them, maintain the place and find a better use for most of the $700 million.

If fans are not turning up to watch the best Sydney FC team in its history, despite the obvious popularity of soccer, a new stadium will do little to improve the numbers.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Cuffelinks. A version of this article was first published in and their Pearls and Irritations website.   

John Maconochie
May 11, 2018

Berejiklian and Tony shepherd obviously prefer purported stadium 'safety' to NW Metro safety Metro Roulette on a daily basis. It would cost at least $2 billion to bore the twin 15.5 km metro rail tunnels, comparable in cost to rebuilding the two footy stadiums. Berejilklian should fix the NW metro safety deficiencies now!

Graham Hand
December 15, 2017

Hi Michael, Buses go to Allianz from the city but low capacity and frequently caught in traffic. People can walk up from Central Station or catch a bus, but it's a bit of a slog. No heavy rail goes directly to the stadium, nor is one proposed. The new light rail due for completion in 2019 will go past the stadium but that's regardless of the rebuild.

The Olympic Stadium has its own station, which works quite well.

December 15, 2017

What's the public transport like around these stadia, Graham ? At the MCG, you have trains at Richmond and Jolimont both a few minutes away, and Flinders St and Parliament about 10-15 mins away. In the US and Germany, I've been to stadia where you have the stations right under the stadia which works brilliantly. The MCG (I think it was) did a survey a few years ago and this was a big factor in family considerations of coming to sports at the MCG.

David Y
December 15, 2017

It's interesting the Shute Shield (Sydney club rugby) grand final is now held at North Sydney Oval (old style ground with a grass hill and a stand moved from the SCG) and sells out with about 15,000 people. This oval is also where the Australian Women cricket team played the Ashes against England. This ground has atmosphere, good public transport and is what people want.

My point is that suburban type grounds can survive in Sydney if they fit in about 20,000 people and have good access (public transport and cars if necessary), facilities and atmosphere.

These mega stadiums, particularly ANZ, are just soulless and isolated (difficult public transport and plonked in the middle of nowhere).

Graham Hand
December 15, 2017

Ooops, seems Sydney FC's bosses forgot to tell Graham Arnold that the stadium will soon be bulldozed and they support the move. Said Arnold yesterday: "Round 11 at Fortress Allianz which is a fantastic stadium for us, it's where we feel at home ...". Arnold has built the success of Sydney FC around the 'Fortress Allianz' theme, and the fortress is about to fall.

December 15, 2017

Every Sydney suburb now has a massive increase in population growth due to the building of apartments . In fact within a couple of kilometres of the Sydney stadium we have the Zetland high-rise apartment blocks. I would have thought the money could have more sensibly been spent on schools and creating affordable housing for those that provide essential services ie teachers, nurses, police etc.

Where are the children of all these families going to attend school if we don’t build any?

Peter C
December 15, 2017

I forgot to mention, modern stadiums have good access and space for disabled fans and their carers.

Garry Mackrell
December 15, 2017

I agree with the observations that the money to be spent won’t attract sufficient attendees.
The argument that the various tribes won’t travel holds true in Sydney but not in other states.
The biggest problem is that Sydney’s sports centres are, in the main,located in widely dispersed places,with poor to non-existent integrated public transport access.
Most of the suburban rugby league/union grounds are substandard with small ground capacities.
In contrast,in our other state capitals the major sports venues are close to the centre of the cities and more importantly are supported by ready access to various means of public transport. Large crowds enjoy reasonable facilities and can readily get to and more critically, can disperse quickly and efficiently when games finish.
For example,Melbourne has only 2 AFL large seating capacity grounds close to the city centre,supporting 9 teams.
By contrast ,Sydney has 9 teams playing at 9 ovals-with the SFS the closest at 3 kilometres from the city but with only bus and car access and which descends into a traffic snarl when even a reasonable crowd attends.
With Gladys wanting to get to Murphy’s pub , she is starting from the wrong place.

Peter C
December 15, 2017

Having last visited the Sydney Football Stadium (from Melbourne) for the A-League grand final, my kindest description of the SFS is "dated." The SFS is nowhere near as good to watch sport as Melbourne's rectangular stadium (MRS).

As the AFL has shown if you want to increase crowds at sporting events you have to attract women and families. To do that, you need modern, comfortable facilities which make it easy for families to attend.

The Adelaide Oval, MRS and Docklands stadium are examples of the type of facilities you need today.

And they work,

Melboune Victory has over 25,000 members, many of those family memberships, and crowds of over 20,000 are the norm.

Both the Melbourne Victory and the Melbourne Storm have had increased average crowds and membership since they left the 50 year old Olympic Park and moved into the MRS, with families making up most of that increase.

Melbourne City/Heart and the Melbourne Rebels also use the MRS, so there is no issue of it being a white elephant.

Other events, such as the W-league grand final, Football, Rugby Union and Rugby league internationals are also played at the MRS and concerts at both the MRS and Docklands.

It's the little things that the new stadiums have that attract crowds, spacious and comfortable seating with good leg-room, clean and modern toilet facilities with at least equal space for women, family and prayer rooms, sharp clear large screens, variety in the food outlets, good bar facilities, and easy to get in our out of the stadium. Build them correctly and people will come.

Having experienced modern stadiums in both Melbourne and Adelaide, I believe the NSW Government is doing the right thing in rebuilding the outdated Parramatta and Sydney Football Stadiums. Sydney Olympic Park, perhaps can wait a decade.

P.S I don't like giving free plugs to insurance companies and airlines.

Graham Hand
December 15, 2017

Hi Peter, I've been to Melbourne's MRS to watch Sydney FC play Melbourne Victory a few times, and I noticed no superior viewing experience. Certainly the MV fans were vocal and impressive but that's the fans, not the stadium. The walk from the city is pleasant but access will not change in Sydney.

There's a cultural difference between Sydney and Melbourne (and maybe Adelaide and Perth) and their desire to watch live club football. Let's check crowds at the most popular football code in NSW. It's surprising to see how few people go to watch the major NRL teams. Average crowds last season Manly 10,580, St George 12,230, South Sydney 12,280, Cronulla (reigning Premiers) 12,744. Then there's Brisbane 32,701, Melbourne 16,604 and even Canberra 15,606.

We do not need to spend $700 million and three years of construction inconvenience to gain most of the things you mention - more toilets for women, better food and bars, clean toilets. We already have fantastic screens, and there's nothing wrong with the seats or the space between them. The public transport will be the same either way.

I would love to be wrong, but I'm prepared to bet good money that the year after the new stadium opens, Sydney FC will not have another 5,000 members in a city of 5,000,000.

Paul Travers
December 14, 2017

Although no longer residing in NSW I believe all sport CEO’s nationwide would benefit greatly from a weekend attending a simple Horticulture 101 course. They would learn that plants and trees depend on their roots being adequately catered for by applying food and water. It all starts at the bottom, the base, the roots. The CEO’s might come to the realisation that our young Aussie kids also need to be nurtured. Why not spend more money on encouraging our youngsters to participate in and ENJOY their chosen sport. In the end, maybe a generation from now, there may be a GENUINE need for better sporting stadiums to cater for the greater number of people interested in sport, simply because they were nurtured by people who had a long term view of their sport.

Scott Fitzpatrick
December 14, 2017

Imagine if 100 country towns had 10 million each for grassroots sports and the health of that community
I can't believe every mayor in every town has not commented on this.

December 14, 2017

G’day … nice article on the stadium stuff … the whole thing is hugely farcical (and sad) … bit like the Tibby Cotter bridge.

December 14, 2017

Thanks for the excellent article Graham. Good to here this story from an informed fan's perspective. I think the Directors of the SCG Trust should hang their heads in shame for allowing things at the Allianz Stadium (or 'SFS' as many of us still call it) to deteriorate to the point they have.

Keith Ward
December 14, 2017

Graham agree, perhaps we should look to Iceland for direction. Population around 350,000 ranked 21 & 22 in women's and mens FIFA rankings. Much credit for this achievement is directed toward the investment in grassroot facilities and coaching - not large stadia.

Gary M
December 14, 2017

Politicians love wasting money on pet political projects. That's what they do.

December 15, 2017

Unfortunately, Gary M, you are spot on !
To address the issues Graham also raises about part of the stadium becoming dilapidated, again, once the stadium (and most other government-owned and run infrastructure) is built, on-going maintenance and TLC falls by the wayside.

Ian Mannix
December 10, 2017

The experience of Port Adelaide Football Club suggests there is evidence that a new stadium might attract a bigger crowd. Since the shift from West Lakes to Adelaide Oval membership has increased substantially although PAFC remains mid-table. The advantage seems to come from a better (central) location and access to public transport although the new stadium plays its part with easy access to a seat via escalators which might tend to bring the half-hearted spectators who otherwise wouldn't come.

Graham Hand
December 10, 2017

Hi Ian, Thanks for the example. I don't know Adelaide well but as you say, the two stadiums are in different locations, on a quick check, 14 km apart, with the new one near the city. Better transport and catchment area. In Sydney's case, the new stadium will be in the same spot, so there is no difference in the transport arrangements. Sure, the light rail will go past the stadium in a year or so, but that's the same whether it's rebuilt or not. Another crucial difference about rebuilding an existing stadium is the teams must find somewhere else to play temporarily. They do not move directly into a wonderful new stadium. So for three years, the fan experience will be worse. How many people will be lost for good in this time?

December 10, 2017

Its pretty obvious that Bling FC needs a big name to get bums on seats. This wont happen under Arnie so their growth is stunted. Doesnt matter how many games they win. No one is turning up to see a Ninko or Bobo. No one cares.

Arnold even got rid of Janko because he was getting too popular for his liking.

Sure, he is gods gift to core fans but he does nothing to grow your base. Sydney FC needs a Crouch or Del Piero or Drogba. Not a Polish guy no one knows or Matt Simon, its the fan culture around SFC.

Graham Hand
December 10, 2017

Hi Scott (acknowledging this end-of-year indulgence to discuss football instead of investing) ... Del Piero cost $4 million a season, and while the owner of Sydney FC, David Traktovenko, has been called 'the best owner in the A-League' by the SMH (see below), he cannot be expected to write massive cheques every year (more than he does already, for which I am extremely grateful). Ninko and Bobo and now Mierzejewski are highly entertaining and great value for money.

Carlos Tevez is paid an unbelievable STG34 million a year to play for Shanghai Shenhua. I would not want to Sydney to waste that sort of money, and how many players are affordable that will bring in say 5,000 extra to the crowd every week?
Certainly not the likes of of Peter Crouch, although Drogba would drag a few in, but that would be true regardless of whether the stadium was new.

So if Traktovenko can achieve these results without a massive global name, that's as good as we can expect. Sydney FC is great fun to watch with no shortage of skill, yet people are not turning up (other than the derbies, and even they do not sell out anymore). Last night's performance against WSW was scintillating, but how many people will attend Allianz next Friday night? 15K tops. And after three years playing at Leichhardt, even that might look good.


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