Phil Gould: Nostalgia just doesn't pay the bills

PHIL GOULD
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014

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OPINION: The Brisbane Broncos attracted a crowd of over 42,000 to their Friday night clash at Suncorp Stadium.

Is it any wonder Sydney teams are finding themselves faced with the dilemma of leaving historical suburban home bases to play in the larger stadiums?

Fans protest. We get locked in a time warp from a period in our lives we cherish. In truth we look back on these memories through rose-tinted glasses rather than with any real clarity or honesty.

I loved Kogarah Jubilee cheering my favourite team. I loved the Sunday trek to other suburban grounds - Brookvale, the old North Sydney, Henson Park, Leichhardt, Redfern, Belmore, Lidcombe, Parramatta, Cronulla, Penrith; the old Sports Ground or the mighty SCG. Great days.

However, there is a commercial reality to the business of sport these days that cannot be ignored.

If fans want their team to be competitive, if fans want their club to SURVIVE, then they must understand the landscape has changed.

When I was growing up, the major rugby league competition was based exclusively in Sydney. It was district versus district: Manly, Norths, Easts, Souths, Wests, Newtown, Balmain, St George, Cronulla, Canterbury, Parramatta, Penrith. In 2014 these district clubs compete with New Zealand, Melbourne, Brisbane and North Queensland. Rugby league competes with other professional codes which are well funded and well organised.

So, when your club makes the decision to move its home game from the suburbs to the big stadium, rather than sitting back and scoffing at all the empty blue seats you can see on your television screen, why not look for ways we can fill those seats?

Why wouldn't we want the Dragons and Tigers playing in front of 50,000 fans on a Sunday afternoon in Sydney? Instead of boycotting the event and watching on TV, ask yourselves WHY your club made the decision to move to a larger stadium. Is there a financial reality to this move that will ultimately determine your club's very existence?

Almost three years ago, it's fair to say the Panthers were seriously threatened. Actually, we were headed over a waterfall. When the new board and management finally started to turn the big boat around and head for smoother waters, we began the process of determining what kind of club we wanted the Penrith Panthers to become, to ensure it was never again in this precarious position.

We visited major sports clubs around the country. During this last off-season, our management team travelled to the US, England and Dubai, studying major sporting franchises and venues.

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We now have a master plan for the next 15 years. Everything planned for the Panthers is designed to be of major benefit to our growing regional City of Penrith; our hospitality club, community and sporting precinct at Mulgoa Road Penrith; plus our junior league and professional football programmes at Panthers.

Despite travelling the world in our search for answers, there was no greater inspiration to us than the Brisbane Broncos.

When we visited the Broncos, CEO Paul White and coach Anthony Griffin could not have been more accommodating. They showed us every facet of their business, their venue and game day management, their game development programmes for rugby league in South East Queensland, and their highly professional player development programmes.

I can give you a brief comparison between the Broncos and Panthers at that time. The Broncos were on target for 30,000 fully ticketed members, expected growth to 35,000 over the next few seasons. The Panthers had less than 5000 ticketed members.

The Broncos were generating over three times the revenue of the Panthers, attracting three times the game day attendance numbers. Their merchandise sales were off the scale.

At Panthers' home games, our corporate entertainment area seated on average 280 people to a great pre-match function. The Broncos would cater for over 3000 people in similar function areas at each home game.

The Broncos were budgeting for a significant profit. The Panthers football programme would lose over A$5m that year.

At the end of our visit I remember heading to the airport in the taxi with my head spinning. I was travelling with Panthers Group CEO Warren Wilson. I said to him, "Can you believe we are in the same competition as those guys?" Warren shook his head and replied, "We have some work to do."

We wanted the Panthers to be a source of inspiration and aspiration for Sydney's west. We wanted Panthers to be used as a platform for governments and corporates to engage with the people of the west and provide them with the support, facilities, education and employment opportunities they deserve. That's our dream. We can deliver these outcomes for the community.

However, we cannot hope to be the club we want to be if we continue to draw only 10,000 fans to home games. The business of supporting community needs and rugby league is expensive, let alone trying to maintain a respectable profile in the NRL.

In recent times the Panthers have suffered the lowest home game attendances in the NRL, lowest membership numbers in the NRL, lowest merchandise sales, lowest sponsorship yield, and inexplicably an average of only 50 per cent of our members (season ticket holders) bothered to attend home games.

In the honesty stakes we acknowledged, based on external research commissioned by the NRL, Penrith was also one of the poorest game day experiences.

Last weekend we introduced significant changes to our stadium, along with other game day initiatives, all previously unimaginable at Panthers.

Of course we had complaints. Some people dislike change. What we are most proud of, however, is the overwhelming response from fans has been positive and upbeat. Ideally, we would love the west of Sydney to have a new modern stadium, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and quality corporate hospitality attractions. I'm sure the crowds would come and our business would be then strong enough to deliver on our other goals for the City of Penrith and the community.

Until such times as that becomes a possibility, we have to get on with the reality of survival.

- Sunday News

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