Sell-out Cronulla crowd shows why the NRL must reconsider playing more games at suburban venues

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Shark Park in all its glory. Photo – Sharks Membership

It’s one of the oldest debates in rugby league – should more games be taken to suburban venues in place of those played at soulless big event stadiums like ANZ Stadium and Allianz?

Take one glance at the sell-out crowd at Cronulla’s SCG Stadium on Saturday night and there’s a strong case for doing so.

But before the NRL jumps the gun and changes all Wests Tigers’ home games in 2017 from ANZ to Leichhardt, there are a few things that must be cleared up.

Firstly, the crowd on Saturday night may have been inflated somewhat due to the half-time dancing spectacular put on as a marketing ploy by Cronulla officials to sell extra tickets.

Secondly, the Sharks are fresh off a premiership victory, meaning more fans may be inclined to visit the ground rather than opting to watch the game on television.

Lastly, the Bulldogs were visiting Shark Park for the first time since 2011 and generally have a large following wherever they travel, particularly within NSW.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen excellent suburban crowds push the case for more games to be scheduled at grounds with less seating and a more intimate atmosphere.

The pay off, however, is that these particular grounds very rarely offer the same facilities as large scale venues with public transport access, video replay screens that can be seen by a patron sitting in row Z and a surplus of public amenities.

Brookvale Oval is one of the last suburban venues used on a regular basis in the NRL but even it is stuck in the 1990’s as far as facilities go.

So we must find a middle ground.

This means playing local derbies, such as Cronulla against the Dragons, exclusively at suburban venues while the box-office clashes that have no local appeal and where tickets are in higher demand remain at the game’s bigger venues.

Games such as the Easter Monday clash between Parramatta and Wests, which currently takes place at ANZ stadium due to its popularity, is one exception given the availability of Leichhardt Oval and the atmosphere that can be created by supporters packed onto the Wayne Pearce hill.

Some fans would miss out on tickets but rugby league is fast becoming a sport designed for television, so leaving a few fans dismayed by being unable to attend in person is a risk the NRL must take to prevent itself from being left red in the face over empty grandstands.

It’s not a matter of shifting all home matches to suburban venues but rather allocating a few more games, which would otherwise leave a venue like Allianz half empty, to grounds with a more intimate atmosphere.

Games like the Roosters against the Dogs, which would generally attract a crowd of 15,000 at Allianz or ANZ, could instead be taken to Bellmore where it would almost certainly sell-out and create a more attractive and engaging spectacle for both fans at the ground and those watching on at home.

But the NRL have been slow to move on this debate and it is easy to see why when you consider that they receive a greater slice of the pie at corporate venues through food and drink sales.

Moving the Easter Monday game away from ANZ and into Leichardt would also mean the NRL sells just 20,000 tickets as opposed 50,000 plus, and for a game that operates on the revenue it generates, this approach makes little business sense. Particularly given their current financial situation.

But it is something that must be done to save us the pain of watching a game at Allianz where the players can hear a pin drop when the game hits a lull.

Not all NRL teams have the luxury of playing at suburban venues anyway and most grounds around the country have undergone redevelopment to allow for increased seating due to a rise in attendance figures. So it would take only a few minor tweaks to the fixtures list on the NRL’s behalf to set the wheels in motion and give suburban venues more games.