Sport

Drama and atmosphere should be the only metrics in Australia’s stadium wars

Most fans don’t ask for much when they go to an Australian sports stadium. A fair ticket price, a reasonable seat, accurate scoreboard, quality alcoholic beverage and a meat pie somewhere between corpse cold and Hades hot. The stadium itself – the architecture, access points, the jiggery-pokery on the big screens before and after – is pretty immaterial. We’re there for the show on that gleaming green field. Everything else is window-dressing.

A great stadium should be a family-friendly battleground showcasing grassroots tribalism, athletic excellence and the unifying human experience of watching games played to their limits. And most weekends, they are. That’s what makes it so unedifying to see greedy, grandstanding administrators and governments use our major stadiums as bargaining chips and indexes for content, sponsor satisfaction, consumer outlay and broadcasting deals.

There is a golden decade of major events coming to Australia: the 2023 Fifa Women’s Football World Cup, 2032 Olympics and Paralympics, 2027 men’s and 2030 women’s Rugby World Cups, not to mention all the finals, grand finals and other tournaments in between. It means millions of dollars in ticket sales, tourism dollars, hotel tariffs and entertainment up for grabs for the stadiums of the cities who host.

So begins the jibber-jabbering of premiers, ministers, administrators and stadium landlords. And unfortunately, like most private schoolboy fracas, it boils down to who’s got the biggest.

Melbourne has the largest stadium, the MCG, with seats for 100,024 – a whopping capacity that adds millions to any code’s coffers. Although it has a long record of hosting Olympics, AFL grand finals and other extravaganzas, its only disadvantage when it comes to hosting a rugby or football World Cup final is that it is an oval peg for a rectangular game.

But fans don’t care when they can walk into the old ground past the scar tree on Yarra Hill, filleted by the Wurundjeri for canoes and shields and still standing after 800 years. And sightlines don’t matter when the sonic boom of an MCG crowd reverberates in big moments.

When Cathy Freeman blazed her way into history at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium it was oval and it held 109,874 for a Bledisloe Cup Test the same year. It can still hold 83,500 but Rugby Australia announced in May that it is taking Wallabies-All Blacks Tests to Victoria for the first time since 2010: at Marvel Stadium (capacity 52,500) in 2022, and the MCG in 2023.

Curiously, this year’s rugby showpiece, the Australia v England Test in July, is at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where the two nations have not met since 1975. In a game built on tradition, that’s a smart play and a win for fans who troop or tram up the hill from Central, past (or via) the pubs, where the massive mural of Adam Goodes looks down, entering the ancient gates by skirting the pond where Dougie Walters once plonked a six from centre wicket.

Perth’s Optus Stadium is a new, multipurpose arena capable of switching from oval to rectangle while maintaining great sightlines for spectators and upping capacity to 65,000. It has hosted the 2021 AFL grand final, a Bledisloe victory in 2019 and NRL State of Origin II is there on 26 June. Perth’s three-hour time difference puts it in the box seat for richer primetime TV slots with any northern hemisphere broadcasters on international games too.

But on the ground the fans like to see their colours shimmer in the Swan River as you cross Matagarup Bridge on the way in. It’s the same on the way to Adelaide Oval where people pour out of the city to cross the curve of the footbridge, colours rippling in the Torrens. If it’s Suncorp you walk (or run) the boozy Brisbane gauntlet of Caxton Street to the “Cauldron”.

This is the metric of the fans. For them the path to a great stadium begins first on the path itself. We march in, led by the glow of the lights or following the low din of the crowd. Tribal colours come from south, north, east, west, building from streams into rivers. It’s the most important metric of any major event and this is how it begins: switching off the box, getting off your bum and stumping up for the privilege of being there.

This coming together creates something those bickering premiers and code chieftains can’t hear, feel or measure in a boardroom or glassed-off corporate box: drama and atmosphere. A stadium is nothing without it, just as it is nothing without the game and the players in it. Yet, instead of seeing sport as a circus of freaks, marvels and heroes, they see only the ring. They build stadiums on public land with public funds for a public who love their games but then sell ‘our’ home ground naming rights to betting agencies, telcos, banks and breweries.

Fans will cop that if those funds go into making the pies hotter, the beers drinkable, the queues shorter, the parking easier, the security sharper, and the public transport safer, smarter and faster. But there’s too much jostling at the trough to care about those metrics.

Everyone knows you could mow and rope a paddock in Humpty Doo and people would still endure the sponsor bombardment and sideline cash grabs to witness Collingwood v Carlton, Rabbitohs v Roosters, Wallabies v All Blacks, Victory v Sydney FC, Australia against the World. Such spectacles sell themselves, regardless of the stadium. Fans just want to get close to that green field at its heart, and the heroes close to ours.

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