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Sun setting on suburban stadiums

Date

Another piece of history slips away as suburban ovals face extinction, writes Adrian Proszenko.

Fading fast … Leichhardt Oval is below the NRL standard for venues.

Fading fast … Leichhardt Oval is below the NRL standard for venues. Photo: Getty Images

Manly powerbrokers will hold a crisis meeting on Tuesday amid fears the state government's stadiums strategy has sounded the death knell for Brookvale Oval.

And it is likely to spell the end for another of Sydney's most historic grounds, Leichhardt Oval, with Wests Tigers chief executive Stephen Humphreys conceding it is now ''very difficult for us to continue to maintain Leichhardt as an NRL-standard venue''.

The Sea Eagles have formed a committee to tackle the issue of how to bring their dilapidated home ground, arguably in the worst shape of all the major rugby league venues, up to sufficient NRL standard.

Below par ... Brookvale Oval is in much need of a revamp.

Below par ... Brookvale Oval is in much need of a revamp. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

The report, tabled by the NSW Minister for Sport, Graham Annesley, outlined a strategy to invest in major venues, such as ANZ Stadium and Allianz Stadium, rather than a scattergun approach to funding suburban grounds. The study also signalled the prospect of a ''tier two'' stadium in western Sydney, which could mean a new venue or the redevelopment of Parramatta Stadium, Centrebet Stadium or Campbelltown stadium into a hub with a greater capacity.

While politicians will never dictate where games should be played, the moves are part of a concerted push for an AFL-style model, where the majority of games are played at large stadiums such as the MCG and Etihad Stadium.

However, none of the news was positive for Sea Eagles fans, with history showing they are not prepared to travel to Gosford or Allianz Stadium to support their team. At a finals fixture shifted to Moore Park against North Queensland last year, the crowd was only 13,972 as many supporters opted against making the short trip across the Spit Bridge. Under the club's constitution, 10 games per year must be played at Brookvale Oval. While Tony Abbott pledged $10 million towards the upkeep of Brookvale last election, there are fears it could miss out on the funds required to survive if the opposition leader does not gain office.

The former Senate president Kerry Sibraa is heading up a Brookvale Oval Committee war council which will meet on Tuesday for discussions before a club board meeting. He was reluctant to comment before the meeting - which will include chairman Scott Penn, general manager David Perry and representatives from council, sponsors and the football club - other than to say: ''We're going to be working with the council, the state government and the federal government to examine ways to allow us to stay at Brookvale Oval.''

However, Fairfax Media understands the committee is planning to approach the ARLC in the hope the commission will lobby governments for funds on its behalf. Another option is to attempt to come under the Venues NSW umbrella, following the lead of WIN, Parramatta and Hunter stadiums. Meetings have been set up with the NSW Treasurer, Michael Baird, also the local member for Manly, and Annesley in January. ''If you want to turn all of the north side of Sydney - all 1.2 million of us - towards another code, forcing us out of Brookvale would be a good way of doing it,'' a source said.

''The Bulldogs have been able to get $9 million of funding for a training facility but we haven't got a single cent from the federal government.''

Humphreys said the strategy would not affect the four scheduled Leichhardt games next year but there is a strong chance they could be the last at the colourful inner-west ground.

''The review in isolation would suggest that, in the absence of any investment, it will be very difficult for us to continue to maintain Leichhardt as an NRL-standard venue,'' he said. ''There are lots of people, myself included, who like the nostalgic, rustic experience that is Leichhardt Oval. But the fact is spectators expect levels of comfort and convenience that Leichhardt is unable to deliver.

''If you read the strategy, it suggests that Leichhardt Oval and a couple of other venues in Sydney are being set up to be transformed to having a different purpose in the future.''

The Parramatta chief executive, Ken Edwards, a former ANZ Stadium boss, described the lack of suitably sized stadiums as ''the biggest constraint on growth of rugby league in western Sydney''. For that reason, he welcomed the report and will unveil a detailed response for Eels members this week.

''We put out a public target of 20,000 members for 2013 but as part of our strategic plan, which falls under the NRL's strategic plan, the club desires to have up to 40,000 members by 2017,'' Edwards said.

''The only way to do that is if there is a significant increase in the capacity of Parramatta Stadium or if there is a new purpose-built rectangular stadium built somewhere in western Sydney.

Penrith supremo Phil Gould believes the strategy is a crucial plank in rugby league securing its future in the west. ''We're comfortable with what's been announced by the state government and we acknowledge that they see the importance of western Sydney and the possibility of a new or refurbished venue. We're confident we'll be included in any discussions towards that end.''

Gould said the announcement did not necessarily mean the death knell of suburban grounds such as Leichhardt Oval, although the game needed to strike the right balance between staging events at boutique and major venues.

''Whilst we do enjoy that trip down memory lane, the bottom line is fans and corporates today demand state-of-the-art corporate facilities. That's where you grow your money and your business. The move to ANZ Stadium has increased the Bulldogs' and South Sydney's memberships significantly. Would a move to ANZ increase the Panthers' membership significantly? I'd have to be convinced that would happen. We've got to go down the line of whatever strategy they've got for a third [major] stadium.''

Tigers officials are hoping any new or refurbished venue will happen in their Campbelltown heartland. ''The report itself talks about how south-west Sydney is the key growth area in greater Sydney and also makes that link between stadiums investment and population growth patterns. To me, it would be quite a diversion from the report if it were not in south-west Sydney,'' Humphreys said.

St George Illawarra split their 12 matches between Kogarah and Wollongong, with both grounds the beneficiaries of recent funding and development. The Dragons' chief executive, Peter Doust, welcomed the report as ''appropriate and timely'', though he would have liked to have seen a more detailed action plan. He supported the strategy of scheduling games at their most appropriate grounds, pointing to the fact that teams such as Souths take the occasional fixture to Perth or the Bulldogs to Mackay.

''They are going there to spread the take-up of their brand, knowing that playing smaller brand games in big venues don't have the right economics,'' Doust said.

Crosstown rivals Cronulla are in a unique situation in that they own their stadium. The Sharks chairman Damian Irvine outlines their long-term strategy, estimated to take about nine years to complete, as redeveloping Toyota Stadium into a ''world-leading boutique ground for a 22,000- to 23,000-seat stadium''.

''Our master plan prior to this stadiums strategy was to improve the stadium but, on commercial terms, it was never about relying solely on handouts and government grants,'' Irvine said.

Only one thing is certain - homeground advantage will take on a whole new meaning in the near future.

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