No place like home

As published in Inside Sport, May 2011

Parramatta, Brookvale, Skilled Stadium, Leichardt Oval…

There aren’t too many bastions of old school football clinging to life, these relics of a bygone era where representing or following the local team really meant something.

A common lament, nay accusation directed at so many of our professional clubs is they appear to be football franchises in the business of making money.  What’s more, those abandoning their heartland risk a nomadic existence, losing a crucial element that differentiates and maintains a special connection in the eyes of their members.

Home is where the heart is, they say.  As pressure mounts on clubs to refurbish or relocate, what have big-time clubs lost in their efforts to turn a buck?  Or as pawns in league administrators’ grand holistic plans?  Have they really considered the cost of diluting their brand so?

The AFL sets the benchmark for hyper-rationalisation, where the nine Melbourne clubs share two venues.  Several times a season a club can expect home games to be scheduled at the other (non-home) venue, or for an easy buck, some far flung destination such as Darwin.  You better check your fixture for the fine print.  Long-time MCG tenants Richmond and Melbourne occasionally play eachother at Etihad Stadium, whilst the latter sold its soul to ‘host’ Brisbane several times at the Gabba (surely a low water mark inMelbourne’s 150 year history).  A cynic would suggest the true motive behind Hawthorn’s embrace of the Apple Isle is more fuzzy than warm.  Ironically, about the only location North Melbourne hasn’t courted isKangaroo Island.  It’s a slippery slide to oblivion.

For older IS readers, part and parcel of the season’s journey used to be the sense of adventure trekking out to unfamiliar suburban fortresses, where exiting with all your teeth was a minor victory, and a win on the scoreboard a triumph to quietly savor.  Clubs would endure decades without winning at the most despised suburban battlefields such as Victoria Park and Windy Hill.  Little better was Moorabbin, complete with the ‘animal cage’ members’ enclosure, where the skill deprived Saints of the mid-‘80’s would blatantly curate a bog to pinch a win.  Increasingly they sit idle and unloved, awaiting the developer’s wrecking ball.  Sadder still, many a diehard’s ashes have been laid to rest on these fields of dreams.

It’s almost shameful some of the old grounds have decayed to the point where new training bases and social clubs are located on the outskirts of town, not within a bull’s roar of the club’s heartland.  The name might retain a marketable value, but clubs are fast becoming mere concepts.

Apart from the supporters’ frustration at the lack of fixturing continuity or logic, is the bigger picture loss of a real home, from a competitive perspective, advantageous?  Are games any less predictable?  Struggling teams at least had half a chance on their old-time dung heaps, where the visitors’ warmest shower was experienced down the players’ race, courtesy of rabid opposition fans’ excess saliva maladies.

Sure, in these more enlightened times, only an ardent minority would choose the seething terraces of yore.  It’s common sense the Man Uniteds, Liverpools, Arsenals, and even the Collingwoods of world sport have forsaken their rudimentary abodes to accommodate their mass support bases.  But how many others have been sold on the allure of a shiny new monolith and later regretted taking up digs, having found themselves at the mercy of profit driven operators?  Small need not equate to ‘shabby’.  Manly’s Brookvale Oval might not compare to ANZ Stadium or the MCG on some levels, but it’s a good fit for the Sea Eagles, with its own charm.

It’s a realisation Wests Tigers found the hard way during their brief sojourn at Homebush.  Meanwhile, Melbourne clubs tied to Etihad Stadium have complained long and loud about their inability to make their tenancy economically viable.  The problem with a one-size-fits-all scenario is that you’re bound to rub people the wrong way.  Essendon is shoe-horned into the dome at a premium to members, whilst North can’t give away tickets.  And with so many tenants, haphazard scheduling and a dodgy surface unable to handle the traffic are added bugbears.

Similarly, ANZ Stadium induced Souths (who share withCanterbury), with a deal too good to refuse, yet the fans’ enthusiasm is curbed by sitting miles from the action.  Neither are the Sydney Swans faithful (who otherwise enjoy a strong record and superb viewing at the SCG) great fans of the 83,500 seat plastic fantastic.  You know, building it is no guarantee they’ll come…  at least not to the wrong side of town, to a Stadium that is rarely more than a third full.  Even a final against North Melbourne in 2008 drew less than 20,000.  And it’s these few Swans’ games each year which necessitated a venue reconfiguration so inappropriate for rugby!  Apart from the business end of the NRL season, the stadium seemingly holds the allure of an airport trip to watch planes land.

The challenge for these new architectural wonders is to create a sense of home for punters, and a viewing experience superior to one’s couch.  And to do so at an affordable price.

For example, like a chameleon New Jersey’s new $US1.3b Meadowlands Stadium ingeniously utilises an eight-story mega display called the “great wall” – 120m x 12m panels that rotate between the Giants and Jets logos.  Similarly, at the press of a few buttons, sophisticated merchandise outlets undergo a more startling transformation than the Roosters’ Todd Carney.  Locally, Melbourne’s new AAMI Park rectangular stadium roof resembles a UFO at night, with over 1500 LED lights that replicate the colours of the four home clubs of various codes.  Though the effect is lost inside, the atmosphere and proximity is second to none.

Aesthetics aside, if clubs are still in the business of winning games, there’s little to dispute the many real or imagined advantages of genuine home turf.  And nothing builds the coffers better than on-field success.

A 2006 study by The Times found in English Premier League, which still employs meaningful ‘home and away’ fixtures, a home team can be expected to score 37% more goals than the away team.  In A-League last year, where travel is more a factor than massive partisan crowds, home teams scored 41% more goals.  Another EPL study by Ryan Boyko of Harvard University’s Psychology Department found that across 5,000 games between 1992 and 2006, home team advantage increased by 0.1 goals for every additional 10,000 people attending.   Additionally, Boyko’s study proved widespread suspicions that home teams are likely to be awarded more penalty kicks.

As football clubs of most persuasions seek some semblance of advantage amid the tyranny of salary caps and drafts, for the saturated Sydney NRL and Melbourne AFL markets a ‘home’ game often means little more than being listed left of the ‘v’.

The rationalisation of grounds, a ‘big is better’ mentality and unwarranted transferring of games to neutral venues threatens to diminish a club’s soul and mystique.  The strength of any football code owes much to its traditions and historical and cultural significance in the community.  For the most important fans, which provide financial, physical and vocal support at the ground, the experience should entail more than a metaphorical trip to the mega mart.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Bill Barbagiannis says:

    I agree but people are to blame also, as people were staying away from football in the late eighties and early nineties complaining on talkback radio to Harry Beitzel about poor seating, prices and horrible weather. They werent that romantic back then, thats for sure.

    Like

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