Recently an English acquaintance who is spending the summer in Australia asked me which of Melbourne’s many stadiums was hosting an A-League game he hoped to attend.
I told him it was AAMI Park before adding rather apologetically that: “It’s a great stadium for football, rugby and rugby league, but it only holds about 28,000.”
“Only 28,000?” he replied. “That’s a bloody big stadium where I come from.”
The response was informative because it exposes both the common misconception about sports attendance in many other nations and also our increasingly outmoded addiction to much bigger and supposedly better venues.
The outcome of these long-held beliefs is that now, increasingly, we are seeing sport played in big venues attended by small crowds, meaning an inevitable lack of atmosphere and intimacy for those who have turned up.
Venues are being downsized all over the world
Yet the trend toward smaller crowds, and in turn smaller venues, has long been recognised elsewhere, amid the common perception a new generation of device-clutching fans are less inclined to abandon their couch and their flat screen to attend sport.
The downsizing has been particularly noticeable in the US where Major League Baseball clubs such as the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins and Minnesota Twins have built new stadiums that are smaller than their previous models.
This might reflect a gradual decline in interest in what was once America’s “national pastime”.
However, even American colleges with popular football teams that once boasted massive attendances that were the source of wonder to Australians unacquainted with the traditions of varsity athletics are gradually reducing stadium sizes.
While we might marvel at the electric atmosphere created in packed English football stadiums, the mega-venues such as Old Trafford (75,000) and The Emirates (60,000) remain the outliers.
More than half the 20 current EPL venues hold less than 35,000 and, with some clubs such as Sunderland badly burnt by over-extension of venues followed by ruinous relegation, the trend is again for smaller, traditional stadiums.
This, in turn, creates the capacity for iniquitous price gouging, with the laws of demand and (lack of) supply pricing out some long-time fans, something less likely in Australia where there are almost always general admission seats available at the biggest grounds.
‘It can look like a five-year-old wearing his parents’ overalls’
A major dilemma in Australia has been the large disparity in average live attendance between the most active stadium builder, the AFL, and other sports sharing the venues for which they have expertly garnered taxpayer funding.
The new Perth Stadium, Adelaide Oval, the MCG, SCG and Lang Park are all now built or modified to fit AFL-sized (or Brisbane Broncos-sized) crowds.
Yet other sports, including the BBL this season, can look like a five-year-old wearing his parents’ overalls when they try to fill them.
The A-League, particularly, suffers when its crowds rattle around in the 45,000 to 50,000 capacity at Docklands, Lang Park and, until it was knocked down, Sydney Football Stadium.
With the A-League’s average attendance hovering just over the 10,000 mark, small crowds in large stadiums have had a detrimental impact on one of the game’s greatest selling points — the electric atmosphere created by its active supporters.
Yet despite its vast participation base, football now lacks the lobbying clout to get funding for more purpose-built stadiums such as the excellent AAMI Park and, too often, is forced share a second-hand surface with other codes or be a rectangular peg in the AFL’s oval hole.
Counterintuitively the relative smaller attendances for burgeoning women’s competitions, and the realistic expectations of competition organisers, is ensuring games are being played in more appropriate, and often more lively, venues.
The current women’s tri-series cricket matches and impending World T20 games at smaller venues provide a good example of best fit for both crowd sizes and the atmosphere they can generate — until they attempt to fill the MCG for the final.
Building crowds through smaller stadiums
Similarly, against the trend, the start of the AFLW season has provided an excellent reminder that suburban venues forsaken by AFL teams and converted to training facilities and community hubs can have an enduring value.
Perth Stadium is well sized for AFL games, but other sports can be lost at the venue. (ABC News: Jacob Kagi)
St Kilda was able to boast that its first AFLW game at the club’s old home ground and recently reclaimed training base Moorabbin was a lockout with 8,000 in attendance.
The same crowd at any currently active AFL venue would have seemed relatively miniscule.
But at Collingwood’s Victoria Park, North Melbourne’s Arden St and Carlton’s Princes Park, old footy grounds are proving the best fit for a league in its infancy.
There is even some momentum at AFL Commission level to build a third boutique stadium in Melbourne with a 35,000 capacity that would be better suited for AFL games between smaller local AFL teams and non-Victorian clubs.
The irony is that building a smaller stadium is seen as a way to increase attendances because the atmosphere — or “game day experience” as it is now known — will be far better.
Despite the continuing argument about stadium building in Sydney particularly, none of this is an argument against building new stadiums that better accommodate and even attract fans.
But across the summer the sight of empty seats in vast stadiums has been a reminder that, even in a country that has built venues to accommodate massive crowds, such turn-outs are increasingly the exception, not the rule, and that the best venue for most games is the one that best fits.