South Sydney Rabbitohs chief executive Shane Richardson has called for Sydney NRL clubs to move home games away from their traditional suburban grounds.
Richardson believes all games should be played at the two major Sydney venues: ANZ Stadium at Homebush and Allianz Stadium (formerly the Sydney Football Stadium) at Moore Park.
The AFL has moved to a similar model in Melbourne with games held at the MCG and Etihad Stadium. Geelong is the only exception, playing at Simonds Stadium which has undergone major redevelopments in recent years.
Sydney’s smaller suburban grounds include Leichhardt Oval, Campbelltown Stadium, WIN Jubilee Oval, Parramatta Stadium, Penrith Stadium, Toyota Stadium and Brookvale Oval.
While Richardson acknowledged there would be a backlash, he believed it was a necessary step to ensure the long-term growth of the code. The state government, through Sports Minister and former NRL chief operating officer Graham Annesley, has commissioned a report into a stadium policy, given the money that has been spent on upgrading stadiums in recent years and the regular requests from clubs for more funding. It is being put together by auditor KPMG.
''It may not be popular, but the reality is it's for the betterment of the game both short and long term,'' Richardson said. ''It should be a major part of [the ARL Commission's agenda] that we have stadium policy; a clear-cut and long-term plan where we have a situation where they can assist clubs with attendances. It's not that they don't, but how can we drive more people to games, and genuinely look at the benefits of driving attendances?''
Asked about the loss of traditionally popular suburban venues, he said: ''People say they love going to Leichhardt. That's great … but we want to get new people to the game, and a lot of people don't want to go to Leichhardt. They want to go to a stadium that is secure, where they have a seat, good toilet facilities, great public transport, that's the future of growing the people coming to our game.
''Do you think there wasn't a backlash when we moved away from the SFS, do you think there wasn't a backlash when we weren't able to play at Redfern Oval? Do you think there wasn't a backlash from the Collingwood fans? Do you think there wasn't a backlash from Wests Tigers when they moved games to the football stadium away from Campbelltown? Why did they do it? To grow revenue. It's better than losing a club. I care about the dollars coming through the gates. The Gold Coast Titans are one of many clubs struggling financially this year. It's a two-speed economy and we're all struggling. We have a situation where eight of the 16 clubs lose money on game day over the course of the year. In other words, every game they put on, they don't make any money.''
Fellow club CEOs agreed there should be a unified stadium policy, but stopped short of advocating Richardson's cull.
''I wouldn't sign up to a two-stadia position that Richo made, but I support the notion that we, as a game, should have a stadia policy,'' Wests Tigers chief executive Stephen Humphreys said. Bulldogs boss Todd Greenberg echoed his position.
Commission chief executive David Gallop said transport and geography made any debate ''complex''. He argued Melbourne has different geographical and sporting landscapes to Sydney; the former's stadiums are both near the central business district while Sydney's NRL teams are not clustered like the southern AFL clubs.
''We need to play big games in big stadiums … [but] while playing out of improved grounds has many financial benefits, we should never underestimate the difficulties of transport and geography in Sydney,'' he said.
''Many fans from areas like the northern beaches, Campbelltown, Penrith or Cronulla travel all week to work and, on the weekend, they have a rest. If our clubs aren't playing some games in suburban or heartland areas, some fans will stay at home rather than add another day of travel to their week.
''The difference with Melbourne is the ease of travel in a city built on a flat plain and no water to cross over. Building community support while making money is the balancing act.''