Local Footy: Sydney footy makes up for unfortunate events of a century ago to claim new home at Blacktown

By Rod Gillett

The recent Sydney AFL Grand Final was played at the new stadium at the Blacktown Olympic Park, which has become the new “home” for local footy in Sydney. It is significant location given that the GWS AFL team is to be based at this facility. GWS is of course, the acronym being given to the new Western Sydney franchise just as the Gold Coast team is referred to as GC17. Not sure what all that means.

East Coast Eagles won its first ever premiership in the Sydney competition by beating UNSW-Eastern Suburbs by 56 points. The club based on the north-western fringe of Sydney – further away from the coast of any team in the Sydney league – also began playing matches from a new home-ground this season, Bruce Purser Oval, in Rouse Hill. Earlier this season the Swans played the Western Bulldogs in a NAB Challenge match at this venue.

However, it’s the Blacktown facility that is the focus of this story. It’s, from all reports, most impressive. A new stadium for AFL football and cricket with a capacity for 10,000 spectators has been constructed at the site along with two ovals and an indoor practice facility. This complements the existing facilities for baseball, softball and athletics; Blacktown hosted softball at this site for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The cost of the facilities built for footy and cricket is estimated at $20 million, which represents a major investment by the AFL, Cricket NSW and the Blacktown City Council. Its location just off the M7 – linked to Sydney’s orbital road system – leads to access from the south by the M4 and the north by the M2.

The Sydney AFL has already started to make good use of the ground; it played the senior representative match against the ACT here in June along with a host of junior representative fixtures as well as the Sydney AFL finals series. The GWS Under 18 to play in the TAC Cup from 2010 will also be based at the complex.

A permanent “home” for local footy in Sydney is long overdue; in actual fact it has taken over 100 years for the game to have control of a venue by virtue of a long-term lease of twenty years with two 20 year options – although shared with Cricket NSW that also recognises the need to have a major presence in western Sydney.

The closest Sydney has gone to having a permanent home for the game was in 1911 when the NSW  Football League (NSWFL) purchased the northern section of the Roseberry Racecourse for £1,945 from the renowned Victorian racing and gambling entrepreneur John Wren.

It represented a massive investment by the fledgling league that had considerable difficulty in securing enclosed grounds for competition matches due to the limited availability of grounds and stiff competition from the NSW Rugby League. The only enclosed ground that the league had a lease on was Erskineville Oval in Newtown, for which they had to pay 55% of the gate takings to the Trust responsible for management of the ground.

Known as the “Australian Football Ground” the NSWFL had funded the purchase of the ground through a scheme of arrangement with a group of prominent Sydney business and industry figures that were called the  “League’s Trustees”.  The major event to pay off the loan was to be the 1914 ANFC interstate carnival to be held in Sydney with matches played on the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The carnival was due to open on 6 August 1914 but on 4 August when all the state teams were assembled at the Australian Football Ground for the opening ceremony the news was received that England had declared war on Germany and as a result World War I had begun.

The carnival went ahead but it received scant public attention with the nation focused on events in Europe, consequently the carnival was a financial disaster for the hosts.

Another major consequence was that the NSWFL had to sell the Australian Football Ground to pay the debts for staging the carnival, with the result that local footy in Sydney has essentially remained without a permanent home based – until the advent of the new stadium at Blacktown Olympic Park this year.

The strategy of working closely with local government bodies and often in tandem with Cricket NSW is paying dividends for AFL NSW in the highly competitive Sydney sporting environment where competition for space is intense as it is for junior playing numbers and public attention.

East Coast Eagles’ new home ground, Bruce Purser Reserve, is also the result of AFL NSW working closely with local government and Cricket NSW to secure funding for the facility. Their respective interests are aligned as the oval configuration provides the perfect shape for co-operation.

The securing of these two new major grounds in western Sydney, along with the upgrading of the Gipps Road Reserve for the Holroyd-Parramatta senior and junior clubs, show that the west is the way to go for the AFL in Sydney.

Comments

  1. Interesting article Rocket. Your comment about the competition for venues in Sydney is correct and something often overlooked in the ‘code wars’ in Sydney. The ultimate limitation on expansion of any code of football will be access to facilities, and we are already seeing this in regards to the expansion of soccer. Football NSW (the soccer parent body) does absolutely nothing in regards to facilities, preferring to put all their capital into building a new home for themselves which centralises their strategy. They put the onus on facility development back on the clubs and impose stringent facility conditions for participation in their premier competitions without making any contribution themselves.
    Cricket NSW has a capital fund which provides matching funding to clubs or councils that wish to develop facilities – this is why AFL NSW has hitched their wagon to cricket. I don’t think either Rugby or League has the capital resources to respond to what the AFL is doing.
    Rugby League tends to rely on local councils developing and maintaining facilities and this is risky as councils no longer have the capacity to keep up with the demands of their old facilities, especially in the inner city where demand for space puts a premium on land value, and developers compete for the limited remaining open space.

  2. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Thanks Mark, yes it has been a very productive strategy by the AFL to secure playing grounds and facilities; ironic really about the partnership with cricket given this historic antipathy between the two respective games, perhaps more in the southern states than in NSW.

    However, its not just been in western Sydney that AFL NSW have worked to secure grounds and facilities all over Sydney. Some spectacular success have been Alan Davidson Oval in Sydney Park shared by the Newtown Swans junior footy club and the South Sydney District Cricket Club and Mahoney Park in Marrickville which has become the home of the Sydney Women’s AFL and is also used for junior football.

    Not sure what the future holds for Henson Park – the old home of the Newtown Rugby League Club – that was upgraded for AFL and used as the finals venue for the past 4-5 years. Great old setting – embedded in the suburb of Marrickville – gate on every corner with a pub or club nearby – but no club based at the venue.

  3. Dave Nadel says:

    I attended a softball “double header” at Blacktown during the Olympics. It was a great ground but it was incredibly hot and dry and the Olympics were in late September. How hot will Blacktown Oval be in March?

  4. Rod Gillett says:

    No hotter than Campbelltown, Coolamon, Culcairn, Coonabarabran, and Coffs Harbour, but not as cool as Coogee or Collaroy!

    Reckon most of the GWS players will want to live near the beaches – be it in the eastern suburbs or on the northern beaches.

  5. George Callum says:

    Going west is a good strategy by the AFL. There is no major sporting franchise in the Blacktown area, it a massive local government area – that’s why soccer and rugby have their eyes on the prize. Soccer have failed there before with the Blacktown City Demons! No NRL club either, Parra and Penriff are not actually that close. The AFL might just be on a winner.

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