Ditching ‘mega-stadia’ in favour of local sport venues


[Editor’s note: this piece was written prior to Australia’s Ashes victory]

By Simon Sharwood*

Australia’s men’s cricket team is a joke [they’re not really a joke as they won the Ashes]. The Wallabies aren’t much better and our Olympians flopped.

But this can all be fixed if Australia’s three tiers of government change the way they fund sport.

The London Olympics result means we can assume from the get-go that the feds can butt out. That model’s had its day.

State governments can also do better. To understand why, look no further than the New South Wales and Victorian state governments and their policy of preferring central mega-stadia over local arenas.

The lunacy of these policies is easy to understand if one considers Rugby League’s annual showpiece: the three-match State of Origin series.

Origin’s success is built on its supposed restoration of sporting justice, after players from Queensland were for decades forced to play for NSW if they lived there.

If a statute existed to enforce this rule it would have said something like “Residents may only play Rugby League for the jurisdiction in which they reside”. Origin’s amendment means our hypothetical statute now reads “Rugby League players are only eligible to represent the jurisdiction in which they first played Rugby League after the age of 16”.

That small change has created a colossal annual industry in which supporters of Rugby League players from different jurisdictions insist the accident of birth that resulted in players playing their formative footy in one jurisdiction or another makes them more noble, more worthy of support and more deserving of kind treatment from whatever footballing deities watch over them.

Which is ridiculous, except for the fact that Australian sport is built on such tiny and trivial rivalries between notional entities.

Consider the AFL’s inner-city AFL teams. Collingwood, Carlton and Richmond are all cheek-by jowl. Yet more than a century after their respective teams were founded, supporters are still honouring ancient rivalries that seldom had deep foundations. Sydney’s teams had the same cross-border feuds: Souths, Easts, Balmain and Newtown were all home to working class families when their teams were founded.

Those rivalries and countless others in different sports that struggled to reach the limelight, produced decades of athlete-hardening rivalries fought over uncelebrated borders. Those suburban stoushes brought us the tennis glories of the 60s and 70s, generations of flint-eyed cricketers, world-beating Olympians galore footballers who knew what it was to climb the sporting pyramid instead of being talent-spotted and put on an elevator to its upper reaches.

This brings us back to state governments’ preference for mega-stadia, a policy surely now recognisable as needlessly diluting the suburban rivalries that served Australian sport so well.

But as has recently been pointed out in Sydney, where Leichhardt Council lacks the funds to upgrade NRL venue Leichhardt Oval, local government lacks the financial resources to bring venues back into the condition fans now expect when they decide to attend events organised by the spontaneous athletic competition branch of the entertainment industry.

Hence this column’s suggestion: take money from the feds, send it to the councils, bring back suburban sport and watch everything get better. We’re not only advocating the likes of Leichhardt Oval receive more funds. Many a cricket pitch has been converted from turf to plastic to save costs. Velodromes have been detonated. Tennis courts left to run to seed.

By sending money back to those grass roots, literally and metaphorically, Australia can once again hone athletic talent on the edge of petty suburban rivalries.

That doing so also gives local government a more prominent role in the community is a nice by-product.

Who knows? Such a scheme may also be the best possible way of showing Australians that constitutional reform to ensure the legality of the Commonwealth passing funds to the third tier of government is not just warranted, but necessary.

And if anyone from an adjacent jurisdiction disagrees with that logic, why this son of Sydney’s Inner West will show them how we’re made of sterner stuff that those from any other jurisdiction.

*Simon Sharwood is a Sydney-based journalist and editor.

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