One of the pressing concerns for the newly created Australian Rugby League Commission is surely the call last week for NRL clubs to abandon their suburban grounds for the wide open and usually empty environs of the Allianz or ANZ stadia (or the SFS and Olympic as we used to call them). The Commission should boot the idea into touch right now, unequivocally and without further ado. The proposal seems to have emanated, surprise, surprise from the bigwigs of the big budget stadia themselves and their eagerness to drive revenue in a competitive and volatile market. OK may have a point for some of the larger, so called blockbuster games but only them – the vast majority of games should still be played at Brookvale, Parramatta, Leichardt, Penrith, Campbelltown, Kogarah and Shark Park. Once again this proposed move is couched as one the AFL undertook years ago. Melbourne games are now played exclusively at the MCG and Docklands and suburban grounds are now mistily recollected bygones of another age. Anything the AFL does or has done is viewed as the magic bullet, the cure all, the panacea but Sydney is an entirely different marketplace socially, logistically and geographically. Rugby league has a soul, a remarkable and resilient soul that survived the ravages of overt corporatisation due largely to the deep engagement of the communities surrounding the clubs. Try as they might, Rupert and Kerry couldn’t clone it, it is at a cellular level – part of the DNA of the code and everyone who supports it. And the venues form part of this complex nuclear model – part and parcel from grassroots to the elite. This has been soccer’s main problem – disengagement from grassroot fan who paid the bills. The sectarianism needed to be dismantled but in so doing the precious DNA of the sport was irrevocably altered. Some would argue that the suburban games are sell outs and therefore deserving of higher status. Maybe, but my sneaking suspicion is that the reason they sell out is not undersupply but the very fact they are being played in grounds close to the communities that support and nurture them at a time dictated by fans not television. The Commission is here to protect and uphold the traditions of the game, a tall order indeed but they would do well to listen to the suburban heartbeat of rugby league. No stethoscope required.
This post first appeared as Monday’s Expert in the Northern Star on April 14th