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Subiaco set for world class upgrade as footy facilities become an issue

  • Wednesday, May 31 2006 @ 02:09 am ACST
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General News

A key part of maintaining Australian Football as the premier sport in its homeland is providing first-class facilities for spectators, and ensuring they are not denied the opportunity to attend matches. With soccer now rising as the main threat to the AFL, Australian Football administrators can no longer afford the luxury of looking at their sold out stadiums and assuming all is well. Many other sports are bidding for the family budget's entertainment dollar, and people turned away will increasingly embrace alternative options. Over time the stadia may continue to sell out, but the overall supporter-base and TV audience could slowly be eroded. However footy has not been idle, with most states enjoying major upgrades of facilities, and Western Australia is about to do likewise, leaving only South Australia as the major AFL stronghold with an insufficient ground.

In the last two years the Melbourne Cricket Ground has undergone a major renewal as part of the 2006 Commonwealth Games preparations. Although the capacity is relatively unchanged at around 100000, facilities are much improved. Similarly in recent years Melbourne has also enjoyed the addition of start-of-the-art Telstra Dome (initially called Docklands Stadium), with a capacity of 56000, unparalleled viewing from steeply rising stands and a sliding roof making it the only indoor AFL venue.

Heading north, the Sydney Cricket Ground shows its age, and the capacity of 44000 is a concern, as is the smaller playing area. A small upgrade of facilities is planned, but only an extra 2800 seats. With Sydney having premiership success in 2005 the average crowds are around 32000. The pressure valve is Telstra Stadium (formerly Stadium Australia). Built for the 2000 Olympics, this magnificent venue is the stage for most of the "blockbuster" matches in Sydney, and seats 83000 (perhaps slightly less for AFL matches).

Further north, in Queensland the 'Gabba has seen massive changes, with a social club built, new stands, and the maximum possible crowd rise to 42000. With the Brisbane Lions having a tremendous run of three premierships, the improved facilities allowed the sport to grow with that success.

Occasionally used grounds are Aurora in Tasmania, Manuka in Canberra, Carrara in Queensland and Marrara in Darwin. Most have had recent upgrades and are sufficient for the small number of AFL matches staged there each year, though Carrara will be developed further to support more matches in the coming years.

This leaves two traditional Aussie Rules states, WA and SA. The former has seen support for the West Coast Eagles continue at high levels, with Subiaco Oval generally full at 40000 for their matches. With Fremantle having modest success, often in amongst the finals though yet to go all the way, their crowds are now averaging 36000 so far in 2006. And when the two play the local derby twice a year, probably 80000 tickets could be sold if the venue supported it. So it is great news for footy that the Western Australian Football Commission has revealed plans to overhaul the oval over the next 10 years, raising capacity to 60000 and providing excellent facilities. The plans include a desire to incorporate cricket at Subiaco, though no word on funding. More details can be found at Subi masterplan unveiled and an animation of the development stages can be seen here.

Once completed, both WA AFL clubs will have room to grow their attendances to massive followings, without fear that other sports can simply offer availability of tickets as a drawcard. Unfortunately this is not so for AAMI Stadium (formerly Football Park) in South Australia. The Adelaide Crows sell out every match and have a waiting list for season tickets. With an average crowd of 42000 in 2005, it's possible the club would sell 15000 more each game (attendances are always somewhat less than ticket sales due to season ticket holders and members not always attending all matches). Although the stadium has been upgraded several times since the SANFL first entered a team in the AFL, the addition of corporate boxes has actually eroded capacity - the ground once held close to 60000. The record crowd remains 67000 for the 1976 SANFL Grand Final between Sturt and Port Adelaide, though admittedly the stadium was beyond capacity as fans spilled inside the fence.

Anecdotal evidence is that Port Power have been the main beneficiaries of AAMI's limitations. So much work is done by the Adelaide Crows promoting the game at junior level, but when families new to the sport wish to go to an AFL match for the first time, unless they are quick to snap up limited tickets in advance, then a Power match is the only option. Nevertheless, this hasn't stemmed a slide in Port's following in 2006 - as their form has fallen away from the premiership in 2004 so has their crowd, with the 2006 average at 25000. This as much as anything else will reduce the chance of AAMI Stadium being upgraded in capacity, a cruel irony for local rivals Adelaide who have reasonable claim to being the biggest club in the AFL but have no spare seats to prove it. Meanwhile tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers money was spent on providing soccer with a top local venue, which is now being put to full use in the A-League over summer. There is talk of improving the quality of AAMI's facilities, but without a capacity increase it seems the Crows will be left behind.

With most major Aussie cities soon to be well catered for with top notch footy stadia, it will be interesting to see if the AFL will be able to find funding to secure or encourage the upgrading and building of new suburban grounds to support grass-roots footy. Australian readers will probably be familiar with all the new suburbs popping up on the outskirts of Australian cities, along with major urban infill. Despite the strong numbers of players at junior levels, how many of these developments include Australian Football ovals?

Some good sites for information on stadiums and crowd figures are Austadiums and AFL Tables.