I think the club needs to have a really good think about our home ground situation. This might sound reactionary after another home loss, but I think we have a problem at our club related to home game atmosphere which threatens the very existence of the club, and perhaps rugby league more broadly.
At our last three matches at Bankwest, Canberra and Roosters fan have had the more vocal support for their clubs. Souths fans didn’t have much presence in their match, because barely anyone was there. But what is the point of a home ground if doesn’t feel like a home ground? Even at the start of matches, when there was still some hope, there was much greater spirit from the opposition fans. I think this is a signal to the club that the home ground situation has become a problem. We’ve been moved about so often that there’s no longer a stable support base or routine or familiarity with game day. There’s virtually no point in going out to games anymore (beyond our blind loyalty).
I think the club has two options:
- Divide games between Leichhardt and Campbelltown (retaining the Tamworth game)
- Make Bankwest our home ground (also retaining the Tamworth game)
I like Bankwest stadium, it’s a much better option than ANZ stadium and it’s a good geographical spot for our club in between our two regions. However, I strongly favour returning to our traditional grounds because I believe this is where the roots of our club are and playing matches at Leichhardt and Campbelltown is the reason the club exists. The primary function of home matches are to expand the fan base of the club and to strengthen the bond fans have with the club. Doing so improves the financial position of the club and builds the quality of the junior catchment (by drawing more kids to the game). It should also be a profitable venture and it needs to be appealing to corporates as well, as so much of our game depends on their money, so I get why we play away from our home grounds. But I don’t think it’s working to the interests of the club long term.
The reasons I think we should move back to traditional venues:
- Home crowd numbers are dropping and with no prospect of consistent crowds above 20 000 it means that smaller grounds will have a better atmosphere for the foreseeable future.
- Juniors from both regions can’t easily get to Bankwest. Not making it easy for kids to get to games means we’re not as likely to retain the fanbase. Match day should be about kids running around on the field in mini matches and getting onto the field after it. These experiences make lifelong fans. Nobody walks away from our current home matches feeling inspired.
- This is perhaps a repeat of the previous point but Leichhardt and Campbelltown are two stadiums THAT ARE IN OUR REGIONS and are good. Why are we moving away from them? How have the Sharks and the Sea Eagles managed to stay at their home grounds and we can’t?
- These are our home grounds and they feel like our home grounds.
What is the point of our club existing if we can’t play at our home grounds? I get moving if we have too many fans and need to find a bigger stadium, but that isn’t our situation.
I think the club has a problem with Campbelltown and the south west of Sydney because we’ve never been able to draw crowds there. And I don’t really like going out there, nor do many fans from the Balmain side, but it’s the home base for our club and taking games away has alienated the fans more out there. I think the club needs to spend a good many years repairing the damage of their neglect. This region doesn’t just matter to us, it’s the most important region to rugby league and, as custodians of that area, we need to do better. And I think we need to get financial assistance from the NRL to do it.
The Balmain junior competitions has also been incredibly fruitful for us, and for rugby league, and so our reticence to play games at Leichhardt is very hard to figure out given how much positive media Leichhardt gets, how much affection it has from our fans and its historical significance to rugby league.
The second option of moving all games to Bankwest will take a strong commitment and will require years of development to make it work. The club will have to work out a way of making fans feel more like it is our home ground, because just playing more matches there isn’t going to work (and ANZ still doesn’t feel like a home ground after 15 years of playing there). I assume it would be the most desirable option for the corporates and is the best option for us in terms of generating profit from matches. But I think if crowd figures don’t improve then this stadium, like ANZ before it, is just going to continue to kill of our fan base. I’m not opposed to Bankwest, but I think even if it was eventually turned into a venue that felt like a home ground you still are not establishing strong connections to the communities around Leichhardt and Campbelltown and it’s never going to be an easy trip for juniors.
I am actually dreading next weeks game against the Eels. I feel they’ll get more support and they’ll win the game and this will be embarrassing for us as a club and potentially cripple our season. I don’t remember feeling less excited about a home match. The club will quote highest ever membership numbers and its profitable year last year, but the atmosphere at home games tells a different story.
The club has a problem and it needs to act.