From the Folly of Subiaco to Greener Pastures

By Brad Carr

In last year’s Almanac, I wrote up the Round 7 game between West Coast and Hawthorn, and I referred to Subiaco Oval as “what sadly remains the worst stadium in the AFL”. In the course of editing the book, Paul Daffey picked up on this point, and asked that I elaborate on this for the Almanac website at some stage.

It’s taken me a year to prioritise doing this (it’s only been in the last month that a West Coast fan has really wanted to devote much attention to matters football, after all), but it’s worth exploring this in the context of the broader stadium issue in Perth, which is again topical in WA news – and in a way that appears somewhat more hopeful this time around.

Subiaco Oval and its Inadequacies

To start with the status quo, put simply, Subiaco fails on every count as a spectator. To start with, the largest grandstand sits behind the goals, and the smallest along the wing. TV viewers not familiar with the venue must be perplexed by the little mini-grandstand that sits in prime position along the outer wing– unfortunately it’s hard up against a major road.

This is a legacy of the long, narrow plot of land: hemmed in between Subiaco Rd and Roberts Rd, there is no room to build decent stands along the wings, so the majority must always watch the game from a sub-optimal angle.

The seats are significantly more cramped that those at the Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane & Adelaide venues, as are the access-points, with narrower stair-wells and corridors at the back of seating blocks. If you do manage to navigate those access-points at half-time (and it is really is a serious scrum at the back of the 3-tier stand), good luck with getting a pie or a beer before play resumes. Perhaps I’m spoilt by having lived in Melbourne, London & Sydney for the last 15 years, but every other city’s premier venue is more comfortable, offers a better view of the game, and has facilities that are both better and more plentiful.

However, the biggest of Subiaco’s shortcomings is its size – or more to the point, its lack thereof. Its capacity measures in at 43,000, well short of the principal sporting venue in the sightly smaller cities of Adelaide & Auckland. Not only is the current capacity smaller than the ground record of 52,781 (set in 1979) and the ground’s AFL record of 44,142 (in 1991), it clearly trails behind the demand from supporters of both WA clubs.

The Eagles membership permanently sells out the ground, but the club also has 10,000 would-be members, each prepared to pay an annual $59 for the club’s “In the Wings” (ie. a paid-up waiting list) membership package. And presumably many more that would join up if they could, but are sufficiently discouraged to not bother paying an annual fee to go nowhere. Fremantle are now achieving sell-outs and, are starting to have the same situation.

With such a glaringly inadequate venue, and no investment having been undertaken to either improve it or supersede it, the recent renaming to “Patersons Stadium” has the symbolism of very much papering over the cracks.

Consequences for the Football Culture

First and foremost, the greatest problem with this is the lack of accessibility for the public to watch live AFL-level football. With the ground being basically sold out exclusively to West Coast and Fremantle members every week, there’s virtually no opportunity for the father who wants to take his kids to 1 or 2 games, for the visiting supporter, or for Perth people who don’t follow a local club.

I fear this can have a long-term negative impact on both WA clubs, and for that matter the sport as a whole in WA. Our sport is best experienced live, but an ever-increasing proportion of a growing city has been denied that opportunity. Will the youth of WA take to footy with the same vigour if they’ve only ever experienced it on (delayed) TV?

Significantly, the small capacity has meant that Eagles members have been scared to not renew their seats – that if, when the club is at its lowest ebb and largely uncompetitive (think 2010), you’ll renew your membership anyway, because you’ll never get to go to a game ever again if you don’t. Whilst that can be a positive for the club from a perspective of short-term revenue, I don’t think it’s healthy for the long-term cultivation of the club’s supporter-base.

This manifests itself in some intriguing aspects of crowd behaviour. For one, Eagles and Dockers members are completely unfamiliar with the experience of having an opposing supporter sitting in their vicinity. Anne Fedorowytsch wrote in the 2010 Almanac of this experience as a visiting Crows supporter at Subi – amusingly written as her tale was, I was nevertheless embarrassed by it, and I know she was spot on in everything she related from her visit.

It also means that the membership of the Eagles and Dockers (and Crows, who have had similar capacity issues and similar membership renewal patterns) are the exact same people (sitting in the exact same seats) that they were last year. And the year before. And 5 years ago. And so the membership-base is getting a year older every year.

I was in Perth last week and went to the Eagles’ home game against Melbourne (yes, I renew my seat at Subi, even though I live 3,000 km away), and it really struck me how flat and lame the crowd was. This was a home team that had consistently lost for the last 3 years, pumping an opponent by 9 goals, and no-one seemed all that excited. I commented on this to my mate Geoffo, and his reply was spot on: “You’ve got to remember these are all the same people who were here when we winning every week in 05-06-07.”

Whilst this is a pretty common phenomena at a lot of the leading US & UK sporting teams, it’s quite distinct from the Victorian model, where the landscape is built around capacious stadia and the ability to walk-up on the day and choose a seat wherever you like. Essendon games at Docklands are perhaps the exception.

For both the long-term sustainability of a vibrant supporter-base and a healthier football culture, having sufficient capacity is paramount.

How We Got in This Position

Football being sited at Subiaco Oval is due partly to historical WAFL club-level jealousies. The sport may well have had its WA headquarters at the more spacious (and central) Perth Oval, were it not for East Perth’s historical strength and Subiaco’s then weakness – at who’s ground do you think the other clubs wanted finals to be held?

In embarking on a major plan for Subiaco, the WAFL built the 3-tier stand in 1969 (this still stands today, behind the goals at the Subiaco end, or right of tv screen), but as part of a plan to eventually re-orient the ground to run north-south, such that this stand would be the first stage of a large development along the wing. At this time, the WAFL owned the row of houses between Subiaco Rd and the railway line, which would’ve given sufficient scope for an ambitious plan at the site. Sadly, the WAFL subsequently sold those houses to clear debt, and the 2-tier stand was built along the northern wing in 1981, solidifying the ground on its current footprint.

The next landmark event was a classic case of ‘unintended consequences’. Seeking to help ease the financial plight of the WAFL (or by this stage, the WA Football Commission, WAFC), the WA Government gave it a 99-year (free) lease on Subiaco Oval in the early 90’s. For the following 2 decades, the WAFC has been blinkered on stadium issues – rather that considering the good of the game and the needs of the WA football public, the WAFC has only ever asked itself “Having been given this ‘asset’, how can we extract the maximum income from it?”

As public support for the Eagles soared in the 90’s, the WAFC’s pressing need was to convert standing room to premium reserved seats and corporate boxes. Outrageously, they managed to extract some state and federal government contributions (the latter having been diverted from other grants earmarked for WA) for piecemeal grandstand developments that did nothing to increase the WA public’s access to live football – but allowed the WAFC to charge them more.

It also needs to be said that the Perth AFL clubs (whose boards are predominantly WAFC-appointed) have completely toed the WAFC line all along, clinging to what I would call ‘the Folly of Subiaco’. Chris Connolly, as Freo’s then-coach in 2005, was perhaps the first club official to publicly speak (positively) of other stadium options.

The short-sightedness and pigheadedness of the WAFC has only been matched by the pigheadedness of other sports, and the weakness of successive state governments (of both colours). All sports have been totally obsessed with wanting to have their ‘own’ ground, and have lobbied for (and often received) grants to develop their own shabby little venue. So as well as a small, second-rate footy ground, Perth has a second-rate cricket ground, a pretty basic rugby ground, etc.

Unfortunately, successive state governments have been too gutless to bang heads together and force them to co-operate around a shared facility, instead just appeasing the sporting bodies. The closest things came was probably in the late-80’s when the WACA had plans to ultimately develop their ground to hold 70,000 for both football and cricket. But, as in other states, football couldn’t bring itself to have to defer to cricket’s ground, and/or cricket wouldn’t agree to football’s terms (credit to SA for getting past that in the last week).

Whilst the romantics would love for there to be 1 cricket ground, 1 rugby/soccer ground, 2 footy grounds (yes, in a perfect world Freo would have their own ground down there), the simple reality is that the population and economy can only support 1 first-class venue. Better to have 1 than 0, I would’ve thought.

Several city development issues in Perth have been stifled by a local culture that can, at times, seem resistant to any form of progress, and the stadium is no different. But the other truth of the issue is that WA football does, to a very large extent, have itself to blame for the predicament that it now finds itself in.

Public Financing Issues

There is inevitably considerable debate about the virtues of government funding for stadia. Neil de Mause & Joanna Cagan’s book Field of Schemes presents the case against, detailing many examples of private-owners of US professional franchises squeezing huge sums out of city/county/state governments. Often, this involved municipalities issuing truckloads of bonds to fund this (this is pre-GFC, obviously – the flood of new ballparks won’t be continuing in the near-term), though it should be acknowledged this is in the US context of a decentralised sales tax structure, where city councils are incentivised to attract as much of their region’s entertainment spend to within their municipal boundaries as possible.

There are obviously other demands on a state government’s finances, essentially being health, education, transport and police, and no government wants to be seen as endangering their state’s credit rating. WA has made some substantial hospital investments in recent years, and Premier Colin Barnett has spoken of a football stadium being the “next priority” to come after these major hospitals. WA has terrific quality roads for the relatively small number of users, a fact which is plainly obvious to anyone who has ever driven in both (i) WA and (ii) anywhere-else-in-the-world – but most country WA drivers haven’t driven elsewhere and don’t know how good they’ve got it, so there is a constant (and vocal) lobby for increased road funding.

Even so, Perth footy fans are inclined to ask why the booming WA economy can’t afford it all – after all, cities in more static economic zones (like Adelaide, Geelong & Launceston, not to mention half the Sydney communities that host NRL clubs) can afford stadium developments and extensions, and those places still need hospitals, schools, roads and police. To this, there are 2 key aspects of the WA government’s revenue streams that should be considered, each well highlighted by Paul Murray in The West Australian recently.

First of these is the allocation of GST revenue to the states. WA gets back about 70% of the GST raised in that state. Whilst in part, that’s fair enough, with the principle for richer states (like WA) to subsidise others in order to ensure all Australians can get the same level of services, there’s an interesting quirk in the formula applied. States’ wealth is measured by the revenue they raise through other means such as mining royalties, but revenue from poker machine taxes doesn’t get factored into this, and is an added bonus for the pokie-ridden states. It’s bizarre – it’s as though productive activity that generates export income should be penalised, but littering your communities with ugly gambling apparatus is to be encouraged (but I digress…).

The other element is a political problem of WA’s own doing: ‘royalties for regions’. The result of a bidding war between Liberal & Labor to woo National support to form a minority government after the last state election, the government committed to spend a set percentage of mining royalties income in rural and regional areas. I can’t say I really know whether this is going towards providing far-sighted infrastructure in boom towns like Geraldton & Karratha or just to pork-barrel wheat-belt electorates (that are, incidentally, nowhere near where the minerals are being dug up), but the end result is the same: an increasing proportion of the state’s budget can only be spent in regional areas. As a friend in Perth joked recently, “we could probably get a flash stadium in Bunbury or Merredin.”

The upshot is that there are competing needs on the public purse, and (even in a resources rich state in a mining boom) that public purse is not inexhaustible.

Financing Mix and Control

In support of funding a stadium is the fact that all sports fans would attest to: that a major stadium is an important part of a city’s infrastructure, and it provides social and cultural benefits that help improve a city’s quality of life – like how Perth would be a better city if access to the city’s predominant sport wasn’t restricted to 2 groups of 40,000 (gradually aging) people who chose to join up as club members 10 years ago.

Jeff Kennett has also highlighted that WA is currently missing out on interstate tourists because of this – that there are many people in the eastern cities who would love to go and watch their team play in Perth, but can’t because of the stadium’s capacity constraints. Having one of the league’s flagships venues might also prompt the AFL to give Perth a better scheduling deal with more prominent games (eg. Friday nights), if there was the potential for crowds of 60,000 or 70,000. As it is, the nation’s leading sporting competition views Perth as an insignificant little outpost, and Perth is doing little to make a case to the contrary.

But for those of us who would advocate the public expenditure from an altruistic perspective (and not just a self-interest one), there is an important caveat: the stadium must be for the public good, not just a means to help a private sporting body to increase its revenues.

Whilst the cause of a new Perth stadium has long been close to my heart, I cringe when the WAFC (and my club) publicly insist that a new sporting stadium must be fully-controlled by football. Presumably we think we can make money off other sports and events, charging the ARU a hefty rent to use ‘our’ ground for an annual rugby test, and getting our snouts in the trough on the still-too-rare occasions that a major musical act can be lured to Perth.

That would all be fair enough if football was proposing to pay for it ourselves – but, no, we want to be gifted a shiny first-class venue from the public purse, so that we can turn it into our own revenue stream. I think you’ll find this in Chapter 1 of “How to Inspire Taxpayer Resentment.” Or perhaps “How to Marginalise Yourself, and Turn a Positive Proposal for the City into an Unpopular One.” After all, the historical wastage of public funds for each sport’s own personal little venue has taught public scepticism.

To my mind, it is to the government’s credit that it is now talking about both (i) putting in a very large investment of public funds (close to $1b) for a new football stadium, and (ii) insisting that the AFL come to the party with a substantial cash contribution.

So Where To?

Premier Barnett seems to have us closer to progressing this than we’ve been for some time, and hopefully the AFL will come to the party – it is, after all, currently flush with cash, and it has historically given WA a disproportionately low share of its investment. It is also committed to recording average crowds greater than those of the Bundesliga and the English Premier League, and with 22 games at the Gold Coast and West Sydney set to dilute that statistic, boosting Perth crowds by 20,000 would be a timely jolt.

The questions then become (i) what form of venue should be built, (ii) how big, and (iii) at what site?

Ideally, there should be a multi-purpose venue, with the ability to have moveable seating in the bottom tiers, so as to generate maximise use. If a new first-class stadium was to be home to 2 AFL clubs, a Super Rugby team, and international and Twenty20 cricket, it would be used over 40 times annually. Not only would this help to justify (and defray) the initial construction costs, it would also help to attract the necessary supporting infrastructure outside of the stadium. As well as slick transport, you want to also generate the optimal social experience of going to a sporting event, through having a range of pubs, small bars and restaurants in the vicinity – and if the stadium is built outside of an existing entertainment precinct, you might need more than 22 nights of trading for businesses to be viable. I overheard one Eagles member at the Melbourne game bemoaning the prospect of the alternative Burswood site as “just having a highway” and “not a pub in sight.”

However, rugby now seems to be settled at its ‘own’ ground (on the site of the former Perth Oval, rather ironically). So the usage for a new stadium is likely to be limited to just football and occasional other events, such as an Ashes test and a major rugby international.

The next question is about size. With the Eagles already having 55,000 people paid-up (either as members or on the paid waiting-list) and who-knows-how-many who aren’t up for paying the $59 annually to go nowhere, Perth needs a venue for 65,000 now. That level should be adequate, so long as the stadium could be designed in a way that allows subsequent expansion as Perth’s rapid population growth continues. And whilst you don’t want to compromise the quality of the initial development for the sake of future extensions that may never happen (think Waverley or West Lakes), this can be done. Durban’s Absa Stadium, for instance, has spectacular, steep upper-tiers in the prime viewing areas along the wings and smaller stands behinds the goals (a direct contrast to Subiaco) – you could emulate this approach and leave scope for expansion behind the goals if needed in the future.

Location-wise, it has to be somewhere central.  If you build a stadium out ‘in the sticks’, a lot of people (particularly the wealthier ones, who are more concentrated in inner suburbs) invariably won’t bother going. Furthermore, if can locate your major venue bang in the middle of the town (as shown in a stack of US cities), it becomes a source of life in the CBD, and it’s easy to get to – your freeway and rail networks are all geared already to go right there, and CBD’s have multi-story carparks already there.

Unfortunately, in the stadium malaise of the last 30 years, the potential CBD sites are all gone, to other uses. Perth Oval is now rugby’s nib Stadium. The old West Perth Markets site now has a Harbour Town shopping centre and the RAC offices. The WACA and Gloucester Park are now consumed in the East Perth Redevelopment.

Consequently, Major Stadia Taskforce Report of the previous WA government of Alan Carpenter identified 3 prospective sites in its 2005 interim report:

  • Kitchener Park (the local suburban park right next door to Subiaco Oval)
  • the former East Perth Power Station site
  • the Burswood / Belmont Park precinct

Of these, Kitchener Park offered the least transition for the football community – you’d still go to the same suburb, drink at the same bar before the game, and we’d probably call it ‘the new Subiaco’, a la ‘the new Wembley’; there is a certain nostalgic value about it. The downside is that some of the same limitations of the current site would also exist; you’d probably be restricted to a 60,000 capacity (for ever), and you couldn’t build a spacious promenade around outside the ground like the MCG and the future Adelaide Oval.
The East Perth Power Station would be similarly constrained in terms of the footprint, but it would (like Burswood) offer an opportunity to showcase the city from its riverfront location. But there’s a downside to being riverfront (particularly in Perth, where the Swan is a very wide river, with relatively few bridges), in that it impedes the transport flows: you don’t get to use the full 360-degrees of the compass when getting people in and out.

The Burswood precinct shares this transport issue, and it also has engineering challenges with its foundations, being swampland and a former rubbish tip. It can doubtlessly be done, but it will cost more. Its advantage is that is unconstrained in terms of space.

With these factors in mind, John Langoulant and the Major Stadia Taskforce recommended in 2006 that a new multi-purpose stadium be built at either Kitchener Park or at East Perth. Carpenter supported the Kitchener Park option, but lost office in 2008 before he got around to committing the funding to do it.

There’s a fair bit of speculation in Perth that current premier Barnett will not pursue an option that the Carpenter government has proposed – that he wants to put his own stamp on any new development, rather than be seen to be carrying out Carpenter’s initiative. Whether he’s guilty of such a shallow motive or not, he clearly seems committed to Burswood.

With the added cost to stabilise the foundations, the added transport investments required, and the limited range of supporting entertainment options available in the area, Burswood is not a perfect option. But neither are any of the other options left. And it’s the closest thing to a true ‘greenfields’ site, a large footprint where an optimal facility could be designed.

It also seems to this is the most likely opportunity for Perth to finally get on with it. As more people continued to be denied the chance to see live football, and as the West Coast and Freo membership-bases quietly age, that’s enough reason to grab this opportunity with both hands – and for football to dig into own pockets and contribute.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Brad

    As the cliche goes, they do things differently in the West. Or do they?

    I now know a lot more about the state of footy economics in WA than before.

    If fans in Victoria were denied access to the footy, the government would fall.

    Cheers

  2. PeterB says:

    Extraordinarily detailed and well researched. I also agree with all your conclusions. Thanks Brad.

    As an Eastern Stater that has lived in Perth for the last 14 years, I find much to enjoy in the relaxed lifestyle and entrepreneurial spirit in WA. My main addition to Brad’s commentary would be the effect of Isolation on locals’ attitude and knowledge. Perth is the most isolated city of over a million population in the world – ie furthest from another city of similar size. Similarly, I recollect reading that a surprisingly small percentage of West Australians have been to another Australian state let alone another country.

    The tyranny of distance breeds a certain insularity. Listen to talkback radio and the majority of callers (and I suspect) voters – like things (including Subi Oval) just the way they have always been. Largely because they have not travelled to see how they could be different – for better or for worse. Humans attitudes are driven by comparison.

    There is a groundswell of ‘bigger thinkers’ (including the current Premier) that are likely to make a new Stadium a reality in the coming years. But that will be against a backlash from a majority who distrust politicians and elites – and would prefer many extra local police stations or parks – to one stadium. A 65,000 seat stadium does not serve the majority in a city of 1.7 million people. Most get their footy on TV, so the number in the stadium is of peripheral concern to the majority.

  3. Smithy says:

    Great article Brad, you really lay out the issue in detail.

    Although you note that Kitchener may not ever be able to be expanded beywond 60k I’ve got to say that I find Barnett’s clear pig-headed preference for the Burswood site very frustrating. You can’t have government picking winners, it needs to be backed up by the research. And the Stadia Taskforce found that the Kitchener park option was the best. I can’t see how things have changed dramatically enough in a few years to divert from the Report’s recommendation. Hence why people question Barnett’s motivations re the previous Labour govt and even Langoulant.

    One of the findings from the report was the cultural argument (by Landry if I recall) that there’s good reasons to site stadiums in communites that are used to having a stadium nearby. Subiaco has cultural ties to the stadium and will “integrate” a new stadium better than East Perth or Burswood. I like this idea of building on a existing stadium culture/community rather than creating a new one in a “blank” cultural space. It’s like that unsettling feeling you get at Docklands of a transplanted site with no cultural connection (compared to the SCG or Adelaide Oval for example).

    Also, the idea of 50-60k people (esp. families) being delivered to the doorstep of Burswood casino complex 25+ weekends a year is very unsettling in my view and I can’t comprehend why there hasn’t been greater public/media discussion about this. They stand to reap serious long-term profits from a new stadium at the Burswood site.

  4. lee donovan says:

    Great article . As a Fremantle member who suffers Subi oval a change is long overdue. Once you have been to either stadium in Melbourne you just don’t relish going to Subiaco,but we have to get out of the Subiaco area. The public transport and parking are a joke. I don’t care where but the new stadium is, but it has to be somewhere else. Most West Australians I talk to can’t figure out why we can’t afford one considering we supply over 35% of the nations wealth but don’t seem to get our fair share back.

  5. Chalkdog says:

    Great read Brad
    I had the good fortune to work at Subi for 3 seasons in the early days of the Weagles. I have never laughed so much as I watched the “chardonnay sipping theatre go-ers” roll in every second Sunday. Most had no idea about football, but they knew that it was the place to be and be seen. Those were the days when the outer was standing room as was the Kitchener Park end goals.
    Over those years I often wondered why the 3 tier was at one end. Your article has solved that riddle for me.
    In those days there was plenty of undeveloped land out on the coast between Swanbourne and Scarboro that I thought could have housed a purpose built stadium, and even enhanced the area by providing infrastructure etc. Probably all gone now.
    Theire is an elephant in the room whenever Perth people talk about development. The West Perth end of Kings Park is the ideal place to build the new Perth Stadium. I know the good citizens would be marching on parliament with ptchforks a waving, but a trade off could be returning the current football precinct to a natural state, which would benefit more people. After all is the entire area of Kings Park ever used?
    Hopefully sanity will prevail, but my time in WA tells me that
    1 it will be a long time coming,
    2 it will happen but there will be high level of “self interest” on behalf of the decision maker and
    3 that the final stadium will be too small and unable to be expanded when it does come.
    Good luck WA

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