On the weekend sports journalist and former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons let fly over the New South Wales government’s plan to spend $2 billion on demolishing and rebuilding two football stadiums in Sydney.
The reaction, he says, was like nothing he’s seen before in 30 years of writing, and he thinks the government “is facing a political nightmare on it”.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s government announced the 18-year-old Sydney Olympic Stadium at Homebush and 30-year-old Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park would be replaced with “colosseum-inspired” designs as an investment in the tourism industry.
Allianz Stadium, designed by Philip Cox and opened in 1988, would be torn down and rebuilt over three years at an estimated cost of $705 million, while the Olympic stadium rebuild has a $1.25 billion price tag that changes the ground to rectangular configuration for league, union and soccer.
FitzSimons said that to most people the decision “seems like the Big End of Town looking after the Big End of Town” without the public demand to justify it.
“If you are going to put that kind of money to sport, what about the grass-roots? How much good could a mere fraction of that money do, building sporting facilities around the state, funding sporting programs, training volunteers and all the rest?” he said.
“Beyond the sheer waste, the staggering disbursement of largesse to answer a need that is not there – all while other under-resourced areas of the public domain are crying out for help – two particular themes from my piece seemed to resonate with the public, he wrote.
“Firstly, as one reader put it, why the hell is it ‘one-way traffic between Sydney’s professional sport and taxpayer largesse?’
“Secondly, if you are going to put that kind of money to sport, what about the grass-roots?”
So FitzSimons started a change.org petition calling on the Premier to reconsider the decision, which has attracted nearly 130,000 signatures in just four days.
And while Opposition leader Luke Foley, City of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore and some other councils vowed to oppose the government’s plan, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg has threatened to take the league grand final interstate if the stadiums were not built, saying the code’s pledge to host it in Sydney for the next 25 years was “contingent on the stadiums program being delivered”.
He told the Daily Telegraph any variation on the $2 billion plan would send “marquee matches” to Queensland and Victoria.
While Queensland reportedly offered $10 million to lure the final across the border, Brisbane’s largest football stadium, Suncorp, is around 30% smaller than ANZ at 52,500 seats, and the state is home to just three NRL teams. AAMI Park, home of the Melbourne Storm, holds 30,000.
The grand final is reportedly worth $50 million to the NSW economy — around $625 per fan attending the game.
But NRL crowds for home and away games at ANZ stadium at Homebush hit an all-time low this season of just 14,410 average in the 83,500 seat venue. Two games had less than 7,000 there, less than 10% of the capacity. Crowds at the Sydney Football Stadium average just under 14,000. Average NRL crowds are now below 15,000, their lowest level since 2004.
Greenberg argues a new stadium is essential to bring fans back to the game.
But the NRL was accused of inflating crowd figures during the final series as fans watched games on TV amid empty stadiums. Brisbane’s Courier Mail accused the NRL upping the attendance by 15% as it campaigned to bring the grand final to the city.
Meanwhile, Tony Shepherd, chairman of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, which is responsible for the Sydney Football Stadium, defended the demolition plan in an opinion piece for Fairfax, saying of Allianz Stadium that “people who claim the stadium is perfectly fine clearly don’t attend the venue. The stadium doesn’t meet modern safety standards, the venue is rusted and ageing”.
Shepherd said the SFS monorail and Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, another Cox building demolished and rebuilt, “were not built with the same vision” towards the future in the 1980s.
“The 1988 stadium was built in a different era. Back then it hosted only male players, a time when your average league player was a labourer, a milkman or garbo who played footy on the weekend, ” he said.
The chairman lists a series of concerns about facilities at the ground, from a lack of toilets and change rooms for women to a 20-minute wait for a beer or pie.
“Before being told that we can just renovate to put in more bathrooms, food outlets and other facilities I can tell you first that there simply isn’t room in the current structure,” he said.
Shepherd says between 2014 to 2016, “sporting events attracted 300,000 overnight visitors to Sydney and contributed more than $190 million to the local economy”.
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