A TRIP to New York over Christmas to watch ice hockey’s Rangers at Madison Square Garden has Dave Smith convinced more NRL games need to be played in front of sellout crowds — at smaller stadiums.
On the day Smith announced a record $50 million profit for the game at the annual general meeting, the NRL boss also said a decision on future expansion would be decided by the end of this year.
But Smith put himself on a potential collision course with Shane Richardson, who joins League Central next week as the head of game strategy and development, over the debate of how to grow crowds.
While the former South Sydney boss has been bullish in the past in his support for bigger stadiums like ANZ at Homebush, Smith gave a clear view on how he would like to see the state government spend $600 million on Sydney stadia upgrades.
“Ultimately what I want to do is have a great experience myself and make sure all the fans that pay their hard earned money have a great experience,” Smith said.
“And I think you do have a greater experience if you are in a packed stadium, whatever that size is, and there is lots of atmosphere.
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“That is what we are planning for and that is what we hope the government plans for too.
“This is a once-in-a-generation decision for all of the great people who live in Sydney.”
There has been ongoing battle in Sydney footy over the future of suburban grounds like Brookvale and Leichhardt and the atmosphere they provide, versus the giant ANZ Stadium where so much rugby league is played these days.
Smith has already spent $750,000 on a feasibility study for the Moore Park venue and it seems he thinks the future is somewhere between traditional and supersized stadiums.
But Smith’s view is in direct opposition to how Richardson has previously stated the best way to grow crowds. When ANZ was under attack at the start of last year after record low crowds, Richardson was outspoken when he hit back at criticism ANZ lacked soul and had too many empty seats.
“I don’t care about the crowd numbers. I care about the yield. Who cares about the look?” Richardson said. “What’s important is what you’re bringing through the gate. People want to highlight how many seats were empty. The whole mentality makes me puke.”
But Smith said what he and his family took home from New York was a wonderful memory.
Asked how he would advise the government to spend the $600 million, Smith was adamant atmosphere is everything.
“There was 25,000 people, an amazing stadium,” Smith explained of Madison Square Garden.
“The entertainment was fantastic. There were more kids than you could shake a stick at. It was great. And it was a great thing to watch. I’d never watched ice hockey in my life and my kids loved it and I loved it.
“If we can recreate with a wonderful atmosphere that we have across our big events and indeed our 20,000 people events in that modern contemporary way, I think you will see crowds grow exponentially.
“This isn’t about stadiums, this is about infrastructure and it is a very, very big decision and I am very happy that we have got $600 million committed.”
Meanwhile, Smith said one of Richardson’s first jobs was to investigate the possibilities for expansion. Asked if he expected a decision to be ready by the end of the year, Smith said: “Absolutely, it is a key question and it feeds into broadcast rights.
“But more importantly it feeds into keeping the momentum and progress that we have seen across the game.”