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Some Post COVID-19 Questions for Australian Sport | Episode 4 Right Sizing Needs Right Thinking With Major Sporting Infrastructure

Posted By Dale Wood  
17:00 PM

“These here are crazy times.”  When Dale Ryder of Boom Crash Opera sang those words in Onion Skin, I wonder if he foresaw COVID-19? I’m sure he did. But did he ever believe they could be this crazy?

The sporting, entertainment and cultural sectors have provided me with employment and my own business for over 20 years now.  And it doesn’t make me Einstein suggesting we’ve seen nothing so threatening in that time.

Here, we continue a series on issues that the industry will need to address as we come out of COVID-19.

In the fourth of the series considering the critical questions that need to be answered post the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we consider major sporting infrastructure and sports planning for what they need and want.

Episode 4: Right Sizing Needs Right Thinking With Major Sporting Infrastructure

A bugbear of mine is the ignorance when it comes to the provision of major sporting infrastructure in this country. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m talking stadia and arenas. Media and some peers talk about these buildings like they are built of lego, can be easily pulled apart, put back together, resized, moved. They want the best amenity, the best technology, the best atmosphere. They want venues that are ‘right sized’. These are decisions ranging from $20 million to over a billion dollars. Not which takeaway we should get tonight.

Now whilst the best places to play and visit should be the aspiration, what many people don’t seem to get about our major stadia and arenas is:

  • They take years to plan
  • They are bloody expensive to build
  • The places people want to put them are typically built-up and the land is expensive
  • They are mostly funded by Government (one or more of the three levels)
  • Given the constrained resources of Government, they more often than not need to meet the needs of a variety of sports, other users and the community. They also need to be considered against the many other priorities of Government
  • There aren’t many benefactors in the Australian market willing to privately invest
  • You don’t click your fingers and magically reveal one or a network of buildings of significant size and complexity
  • They are also expensive to operate and maintain
  • Sports and entertainment promoters in Australia expect large financial returns from their events and rarely factor in the need to operate and maintain the buildings they perform in (and that is not a criticism of said sports and promoters)

This idea of ‘right-sized venues’ is a good one. That is, a venue of size and configuration that creates the desired intersection of ticket sales and atmosphere, where commercial returns are maximised, as is patron experience. However, what works for one sporting code, doesn’t seem to fit all that well for another. Rugby League and Football at Suncorp Stadium in Queensland is a good example

I have bleated about this before. Every sport seems to want something different. People within the same sport are often also without consensus. Not surprisingly, a number of the major sporting codes in Australia actually don’t have major sporting infrastructure strategies outlining exactly what they do want in the venues they play or desire to play.

And resourcing is now at a premium.  Government finances were under varying levels of duress before COVID-19 – now they are stretched like never before in my lifetime. And don’t be fooled by promised of mass spending on infrastructure – the intention is to bring forward projects and to still deliver outcomes for a range of stakeholders rather than necessarily adding new or different bespoke major projects to the waiting list.

My counsel, when the dust settles, is for sports to be very clear on what they want and need. And document this. Nothing annoys Government more than mixed messages from stakeholders that should the greater part, be aligned.

‘Centralisation’ and ‘multi-purpose’ will continue to be a strong focus for Government when considering funding for such infrastructure. Get your head around it, get organised, take a partnership approach and leverage as best you can. And take a long term view. The alternative for a sport is to fund the infrastructure themselves... (I’m hearing crickets).

In the meantime, the following questions need to be answered by sports: Do they have:

  • An evidence-based view of the optimum size of the venue for their sport (remembering building for the biggest event can leave empty seats for much of your other content)?
  • Whole of sport agreement on infrastructure requirements from training to playing (including with private owners where relevant)? It wouldn’t hurt for sports to also consider their very important community needs at the same time (although many are better catered for in this space)
  • An infrastructure strategy outlining these needs and the mechanism of fulfilling them?
  • A definite position on what their sport brings to a potential project in terms of content (say, events, training, tenancy for offices, etc.)?
  • A funding strategy for delivery and operations?
  • Alignment to relevant government policy, and the right connections in government?

The sports best prepared will succeed when it comes to getting government investment, even with the current promises of infrastructure spending to ease our way out of the pandemic. Whilst luck and politics plays a part, I wouldn’t be leaving it to chance.

Let us know if you have any questions you think need to be answered during and post the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In this series-

Some Post COVID-19 Questions for Australian Sport

Episode 1: The Commercialisation of Professional Women’s Sport

Episode 2: Revisiting How We Play

Episode 3: What Will Member-Based Sporting Organisations Give Back?