Does Rugby League need new big stadiums?

The new, sparkling $300M Parramatta BankWest Stadium opens this week but in this age of all immersive digital experience do we still need big, new, expensive stadiums?

This was the serious question asked by The Naked Punt Footy Show team to viewers recently.

Firstly, it’s fundamentally important to understand that nearly all stadiums in Australia are a government/ public asset with the exceptions of Cronulla’s Shark Park/ PointsBet Stadium and the AFL purchasing Etihad Stadium.

As a government or public asset there is the need to attract major local and global sporting events in order to generate some return on investment for all stakeholders.

It’s also important to note that the return on investment is not only a short term financial but also long term and social – that any investment impacts multiple stakeholders for many years – ie government, the football codes, clubs, teams, players, fans, sponsors, media, production partners, local businesses, but also the other competition for the investment dollar (think schools, hospitals, local grounds etc).

Apart from the build cost there is also the ongoing investment required to upkeep venues (an ageing Shark Park annual maintenance bill is reported at around $1.5M per year) and all the event costs – staff, security, police, ticketing, big screens, LED signage, sound systems, food and beverage etc. etc. These cost all passed through the venue hire to eventually us – the consumer.

The Dragons on record saying it costs more than $100k just to open the gates before one fan walked through the gates.

The case for (or against) stadium investment

New, big, shiny stadiums generate economic activity (Government Policy 101 – In a building and construction industry dip then build major infrastructure) but the outcome is what we, as sports consumers will increasingly expect and demand from our live sporting experience – ie, access, great undercover seats, bigger screens, screens everywhere, great sound, clean amenities, easy access to food and beverage AND safety!

BUT, the research also shows that game day atmosphere ranks as one of the most important factors to an overall positive customer or fan experience and ongoing retention.

A packed Campbelltown Stadium for the West Tigers game.

In terms of atmosphere at a Rugby League game you just can’t compare a packed Shark Park, Brookvale Oval, Leichhardt Oval or even a Newtown Jets game at Henson Park with 8,792 – 12,000 people, to that of an often empty large Stadium.

Note: It’s worth noting that teams “winning games” is the greatest factor in attracting the majority of “social” and “premier” segmented fan groups.

Some of the average 16,924 Roosters Fans – Photo Courtesy – The Daily Telegraph

Hence the conundrum – teams are incentivised to play in bigger stadiums; the corporate facilities are often bigger and better; broadcasters love the modern stadiums – they’re built and wired for media – OB (Outside Broadcast) vans; have good media facilities with thick data cables back to the studios, but the TV wide shots of empty stadiums look dismal.

Do we need more fans at games?

Will the new stadiums attract more fans? That’s a good question BUT also does it matter? Do we really need more fans at games?

Yes, and No, it’s important to understand that a large part of professional sport revenue is about media rights (and/ or future digital rights included).

Follow the money trail – we’re talking billions of dollars for TV Rights deals because major sport delivers customer eyeballs to advertisers. You get say 12,000 people to an NRL game or 40,000 to an AFL but there’s another 150,000 – 450,000 people watching it at home, at the local pub or club or increasingly streaming on their mobile device.

Packed crowds are a great backdrop for much better TV and social media content.


With the improvement of production technology, you don’t necessarily need a new stadium to do that! (it’s just easier to produce)

Scott Maxworthy

It’s about the angle

Rugby League is a great TV and mobile product – the reasons being –

  1. The NRL competition is tight – in any week the team coming last may beat the team coming first
  2. From a production point of view – rugby league action is primarily focused on tight shots around the “ball play” compared to kicking games such as soccer (football) and AFL (Aussie Rules) where the future direction of the ball or “off the ball” action is key & therefore wide camera shots are more important.

With that in mind stadium design for each football code is critical to the fan experience.

Melbourne Vs Sydney

People in Sydney often compare sporting attendances and infrastructure to Melbourne…citing the attendances they get to sporting events in Melbourne and that Sydney sports fans are ‘apathetic’.

There is no doubt the NRL are envious of the at game attendances generated by the AFL…but it’s worth noting the differences between both cities and the attendance culture that has been developed in the AFL over a long period.

Whether it’s by good management or good luck is uncertain…..but the major stadia in Melbourne are all located in and around the city surrounds….and through rationalisation, all of the Melbourne based AFL games are played across just two major stadia.

Yes, Melbourne doesn’t have a stunning harbour dominating its heart but it has the transport infrastructure – trams, trains and buses to get to and from sporting events easily and is integrated into the city culture. Fans simply walking to and from from the nearest local establishment where they have enjoyed a pre or post-game beverage.

Brookvale to ANZ – 23km as the crow flies – 1 hour 35 minutes

The comparison in Sydney is very different.

The population is spread across a larger geographical area with major stadia developed in different parts, supported by a network of suburban grounds that service different geographical regions.

The main issue in Sydney is actually getting around, the infrastructure simply hasn’t developed at the rate the population so jumping in a car or on public transport and trying to get across Sydney to go and cheer on your team for on a Thursday or Friday night is a significant logistical challenge than simply doesn’t exist in Melbourne.

The NSW Government are trying to improve the infrastructure challenges in Sydney through record investment…but it’s a slow burn!!

Are Sydney fans less avid?

Are Sydney based sports fans any less avid than their southern counterparts or is it just easier to watch at the local or on TV?

The AFL has had a focus on building an attendance culture in their sport for much longer than the NRL.

In the past, when Australian Rules ran a Melbourne based competition and Rugby League was a Sydney based competition.

Aussie Rules clubs were ‘early adopters’ in creating a strong membership culture and driving attendances, while their Rugby League counterparts were funded almost entirely by rich licensed clubs generating most of their revenue through gaming…and attendances at games were never seen as the ultimate priority.

NRL Clubs and their Stadiums

At the home of Queensland Rugby League, the Brisbane Broncos (24,380 – 2018 average home game attendance) are a one team town of a couple of million people and have the potential fan base size to regularly fill your mid-sized Suncorp Stadium (52,500 capacity).

The Melbourne Storm (21,956) are fortunate to live in the sporting capital of Australia with AAMI Park (30,050) as their home and access to a public transport infrastructure second to none in Australia. They’re in AFL heartland so the challenge is how to capture some of the much applauded Melbourne sporting culture and cross-code activate and convert.

Souths (19,718), while the new Allianz is being demolished & built and the Bulldogs (18,069) play out ANZ Stadium (the old Sydney Olympic Stadium) (capacity 84,000)
ANZ was not designed for rectangular games – the fans are too far away from the action. An interstate clash on a poor time slot can look lonelier than an Adelaide Rams supporter (previously failed ARL expansion team) at an AFL game.

The Warriors (18, 410) have all of New Zealand plus a large part of the South Pacific Islands with Mt Smart Stadium (30,000) (and a Round 19 Sharks game at Westpac Stadium (32,000) in Wellington) but are also in dominant Rugby Union territory.

Merged teams the Wests Tigers (17,563) have Campbelltown Stadium (20,000); ANZ (84,000) and arguably the best local ground to watch a game of footy Leichhardt Oval (20,000) –
As a fan, parking or public transport is a nightmare!
Note to self – try and get a media pass 🙂

The St George Illawarra Dragons (17,562) fans have to check which of their three home game stadiums they’re playing at each week! ANZ (84,000), Jubilee (20,500) and WIN (23,770)

The Cowboys (17,280) are building a new stadium close to the Townsville CBD (instead of the current 20 minutes drive through suburbia). That will make life much easier for everyone. The current 1300 Smiles Stadium has a capacity of 26,500. The new stadium will have a 25,000-seat capacity with the option to expand to 30,000 seats.

New Cowboys Stadium – Artist impression

Last years Premiers The Roosters (16,924) is at the SCG while the new stadium is being built. This average crowd number looks apparently more creative than the Rooters salary cap but they do come out of Bondi when they’re winning.

The new Parramatta Eels (16,444) / Sydney Wanderers BankWest Stadium (30,000) to open this weekend is right next to Parramatta Leagues Club located on the edge of Parramatta City.
This should be the Rugby League stadium showcase (at least until the new Allianz/ Sydney CBD Stadium is built).

New Parramatta BankWest Stadium – Artist impression

Regional teams the Newcastle Knights (15,790) at McDonald Jones Stadium (33,000);
Gold Coast Titans (13,977) at Cbus Super Stadium (27,400);
and the Canberra Raiders (11,647) at GIO Stadium (25,011) have relatively good local regional stadiums.

It’s really just another congested Sydney problem

So the core problem is really just a few remaining Sydney NRL teams.

Sharks (15,074) at Shark Park (22,000) and Manly (14,285) at Brookvale Oval / Lottoland Stadium (23,000) are showing their age. Fortunately, Brooky just received a promised $20M-$30M grant.

There’s a real challenge for the Sharks Board and management – at a cost of about $1.5-$2m a year to maintain and manage Shark Park will they have to eventually sell off the land to developers and move games to the new Allianz, relocate or have the smarts to leverage the digital/ first-party data potential of the asset?

A packed Penrith Panthers home game (14,173 attendance) at Panthers Stadium (22,500) when they’re winning is the next best thing to an old night out at Panthers Reflections nightclub (or was that infections?).

So, where does that leave us?

The Fan Experience

The customer experience is central to everything – the ongoing challenge of every business to remain constantly relevant. The greatest challenge for the NRL is that the average fan is a 42-year-old male (approximately 70% male audience).

From a stadium investment perspective, how does that remain relevant to the maturing Millennial and emerging Gen Z’s whose local sports media consumption is decreasing?

Relevance – Customer Experience and “LoveMarks” at the centre between what you’re selling, what the customer wants and social circles

Successful businesses focus on removing the pain points along the customer journey in order to make the customers decision making the process easier. Customers will tolerate some pain for a great experience (“the character of the place”).

The future is live customer experience focused & digital creation and distribution.

You adapt or eventually die.

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