At a time when most Sydney NRL clubs are struggling financially the Cronulla Sharks are considering a $60 million stock market float to finance a property development that could secure the clubs long term future.
The Sharks are one of a number of clubs that are asset rich, especially prime land holdings, but cash flow poor because of the downturn in poker machine revenue.
If the plan to fund 200 apartments and retail and commercial premises on land surrounding the club’s homeground, Toyota Park, goes ahead, the Sharks could well move from being one of the most financially vulnerable clubs in the NRL to one of the most secure.
But the history of stockmarket floats by NRL clubs is mixed. An $800 million joint venture scheme between the Bulldogs Football Club, Liverpool City Council and Macquarie Bank collapsed in 2002 with disastrous consequences for the Bulldogs. It emerged the club was using funds from the project to make secret payments to players, resulting in the Bulldogs being relegated from the top to the bottom of the premiership table.
The one float that has succeeded was the Brisbane Broncos in 1989, soon after the club was admitted to the competition. While the Broncos are now profitable, shares are trading at just over 20 cents.
The news that the Sharks are considering a float could not be better timed for the club. Under coach Ricky Stuart the Sharks have gone from being relative easy-beats in recent years to one of the genuine contenders for the 2008 premiership, currently sharing the lead with four other clubs. But the Sharks are having problems getting fans to their home matches, even though the team has been doing much better on the field.
The last thing NRL clubs, suffering from a collapse in poker machine revenue, can stand is even lower attendances, yet that is what is happening. Today’s Daily Telegraph reports that since the start of the Origin series average attendances in Sydney have dropped from 16,000 to 12,000.
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While Sydney attendances are not at alarming levels, the Broncos and the Gold Coast Titans are enjoying boom times attendance-wise. The Broncos home attendances are averaging well over 30,000 while the Titans are averaging around 22,000.
With Sydney clubs in dire financial straits, and attendances in freefalling, is it any wonder that the AFL is stepping up its efforts to establish a Western Sydney base?
The float being planned by the Sharks, centred on capitalising on the value of land holdings, may end up being not only the saviour of the Sharks, but the way to save the NRL competition itself.