The AFL is on the mark in choosing the home ground format that will spearhead its challenge in rugby league’s Western Sydney heartland.

The announcement by Andrew Demetriou that the new Sydney AFL team will be based at a new oval at Rooty Hill to be developed in conjunction with Blacktown City Council also shows that the AFL has been keenly watching crowd trends in the National Rugby League.

The unmistakable trend in the NRL is away from venues such as the Sydney Olympic Stadium, which are not purpose built, or configured, for rugby league. Next year will see a significant shift in NRL match venues in Sydney away from the 80,000 seat stadium to local and traditional rugby league grounds that hold between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators.

The shift in games to the Sydney Olympic Stadium has been a PR disaster for NRL clubs this year. Crowds, if you can call them that, of less than 10,000 in the 80,000 seat venue have become commonplace. They look terrible on the television. Anyone who suggests that it is anything less than a total embarrassment is being economical with the truth.

The AFL’s announcement of a 10,000 capacity $30 million stadium — a joint venture between the AFL and the Blacktown Council — will be the home of the new Sydney team.  It’s a move that allows the AFL the flexibility of shifting individual games to a larger stadium when warranted.

While the Sydney Swans have been drawing good crowds at select games played at the Olympic Stadium, the totals are down by about a third this year. That may in part relate to the Swans’ form, but there is no doubt that the Olympic Stadium is proving to be less of a draw card for both the AFL and the NRL.

It is no coincidence that the two NRL grounds leading the pack in attendances — Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium and the Gold Coast’s Skilled Stadium — are purpose built, modern stadiums. The latter is one of the great success stories of Australian sports venues. The Titans are drawing close to a full capacity (26,000) at all their home games.

When the AFL gets around to choosing the ground for its new Gold Coast team, it will no doubt look at the Titans’ success — a purpose built stadium that is very player friendly and even more spectator friendly.

Which bring us to the key issue here. For AFL fans, for whom a crowd somewhere in the 30,000 to 50,000 range is fairly normal, shouldn’t worry the Rooty Hill ground only has a capacity of around 10,000. The average crowd at Sydney NRL matches this season is just over 14,000! The AFL’s strategic move will cause the NRL to sit up and take notice.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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