While Gladys Berejiklian wants to drop a lazy few billion on stadiums, it’s the rough and ready suburban grounds that help make rugby league great.

You can see how accountants and politicians might think it’s a good idea. Especially when Sydney’s magnificently conflicted media tells them so. Shut down the suburban stadiums, sell the land to ICAC’s up-and-coming stars – fuck it, maybe even sell one to a Packer – and leave us with a couple of “entertainment venues” where football can be played if a concert hasn’t already been booked that night. It’s a sure-fire winner according to people who wouldn’t know Freddie Fittler from Freddie Mercury.

The problem these people have when assessing the value of our suburban stadiums is that some things can’t be explained by economics (not that the economics on this seem particularly sound), and you can’t calculate the cost of removing a soul.

Leichhardt is a decrepit mess with a ratio of one toilet per 8000 fans but it’s Balmain’s heart and it’s beautiful. Campbelltown lets the Magpies live. Brookie has 17 different stands, none of which connect with another, but it also has a Hill and if you’re Manly, it is home. Sharkies supporters aren’t allowed to cross Tom Uglys by law and Shark Park, Toyota Park, Redmondis Stadium or whatever it’s called this week is a rite of passage until your fake ID gets you in to Northies. Penrith are not generic Western Sydney. They are Penrith. That’s where MG played. That’s where they play. And dads should be able to take their kids to Kogarah and reminisce about St George’s 11 straight. No matter that the last one was 10 years before they were born. Because St George have a Ground and it is not at Homebush.

The media tells us we need to love Origin but it goes on for too long and takes players away from their teams and fucking Queensland always win. It’s actually the rough-and-ready local stadiums that make Rugby League unique and wonderful. They’re literally the best thing the game has going. They tie historic teams back to their communities, they create memories that last forever for families and mates, and while they could do with colder beer and warmer chips and something resembling fire safety, once these places are gone League will never be the same again.

If this sounds a touch over the top, it’s worth a look down the Hume Highway. Melbourne invented coffee and breakfast but it’s also where cold-hearted stadium rationalisation is most prominent. The AFL is without question an all-encompassing year-long money-spinner – and not only for drug dealers – but there’s one small problem: for many Melbournians the AFL isn’t much fun anymore.

The 10 Melbourne AFL teams play out of just two sporting arenas that are 37 laneway bars or a short tram ride across from each other. And whereas one is the mighty MCG, even that’s inhospitable when there’s no-one there and a pie costs $8.

Teams like Hawthorn and Collingwood are hugely successful but have bugger all connection to their original suburbs outside of a pokie-filled pub or two. Carlton has spent a decade as a shell of the club it once was – a result of losing a home ground and with it a good chunk of what once made them great. St Kilda is struggling big time. Fitzroy folded. North Melbourne nearly did. Everyone’s more comfortable at the footy but nobody seems much happier. Fully functioning wi-fi isn’t much chop without heart.

This is what Sydney League fans need to make sure never happens. Maybe the English Premier League shows the way; the most popular sporting competition in the world has never seen the need for 10 teams to share a mega-stadium. It’d make economic sense to rationalise things, but tell West Ham they’re playing home games at Arsenal and they’ll tell you they’d rather forfeit. Penrith should never have to play home games at Parramatta. If they take Penrith Stadium away from them, they should play games at Aqua Golf across the road.

Unfortunately, things are already heading in the wrong direction. Every week we see games at ANZ Stadium that are well supported but have 50,000 spare seats. It’s a sad sight when Souths or the Tigers score and there’s not a supporter to be seen. And this is when they’re going well. Empty stadiums do nobody any favours – even TV coverage suffers. Rabs is getting old and can only pump things up so much.

Closing suburban stadiums threatens to rip the heart from a game that, despite its best efforts, still undoubtedly has one. The AFL lost its years ago. League still has a chance. Supporters need to stand up for those places that they’ve gone to as kids and then taken their own to. They need to find joy in history and the ghosts of players past. Most of all, they need to tell the accountants and politicians to keep their noses out of it. Tell them to go off and focus on other things – like roads. Or hospitals. Or their reliance on Chinese property investors propping up the housing market so land tax revenue can keep the budget in surplus and fund study trips. Whatever it is – they need to be told to leave Footy alone.

And they need to be told pretty quickly. Because it doesn’t take the 20 different views required by the video ref to see that once the suburban stadiums are gone, they will be lost forever. And what makes Rugby League great will be lost with them.


Photo by Scott Brown, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence