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Sydney is way too lucky when it comes to public funding for football stadiums

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 2 June 2022

With Aussies, Brits and Americans among the world's most ardent sports fans, hosting some of the world's biggest football leagues of various codes in terms of average attendances, the populations of such countries generally frown upon the construction of expensive stadiums if they are hardly used.

Efficiency is important in such countries despite the extent of public funding for new and upgraded stadiums differing from city to city and country to country.

While most major English football teams play solely at their own grounds, with the Premier League hosting near-capacity crowds as the second most attended football league in the world, some major Australian and US cities have several teams sharing stadiums from the same or different football codes.


Yet, of all the major Australian, US and British cities where world-class stadiums exist, Sydney is one of the few that constantly demands ongoing public funds to build or upgrade football stadiums that are hardly ever in line with greater crowd demand when compared to other major cities.

Some Sydneysiders promote the mantra 'build the stadiums and the people will come', or we cannot be left out if we want to compete with other Australian cities in terms of attracting major events.

But Sydney has already spent billions of dollars since the late 1980s on stadiums that have hardly lifted average crowds despite the construction of three modern stadiums: the Sydney Football Stadium (1988), the Olympic Stadium (1999) and the rebuilt Parramatta Stadium (2019).

In terms of Sydney's major football code of rugby league, whereas Sydney's 12 teams averaged an aggregate 59,000 per week for six home games in 1979, the 2019 weekly average (prior to COVID) had barely risen to 60,561 with the remaining nine teams (4.5 games per week).

In other words, the construction of three expensive stadiums increased Sydney's weekly home rugby league crowd average from 9871 in 1979 to 13,458 in 2019.

While the new Parramatta Stadium averaged 18,665 for 12 home matches in 2019 (breaking its previous record average of 16,600 in 2001 at the former 20,000-seat stadium), the Olympic Stadium averaged just 13,212 for 20 matches in 2019, hardly better than the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) with 15,062 (ten matches), Brookvale 11,216 (ten), Campbelltown 12,038 (three), Cronulla 12,224 (12), Kogarah 9751 (five), Leichhardt 14,222 (three), Penrith 12,619 (11) and Wollongong 10,120 (five).


In contrast, the remaining ten Victorian teams in the Australian Football League (AFL) had an average crowd of 41,619 in 2019 for five weekly matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (53,694), Docklands (31,875) and Kardinia Park (27,811), to easily surpass the 1979 average crowd of 23,462 for the former Victorian Football League with six weekly matches.

Comparing the 1979 and 2019 weekly aggregate data, the Melbourne and Geelong average weekend attendance increased from 140,700 in 1979 to 208,095 in 2019, which helps justify the construction and/or upgrade of the three major Victorian AFL stadiums.

Unquestionably, there is a need for good facilities to attract spectators to the various football codes in this era when any sports and activities compete for the entertainment dollar, as noted by The Guardian on 13 April 2022 when it pointed to England's Super League's 2019 crowd average of 8828 being beaten in 2022 because of new stadiums and/or revamped old grounds.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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