Illawarra sport: are the glory days over?

The Dragons celebrate their grand final win against the Rooster in 2010.

The Dragons celebrate their grand final win against the Rooster in 2010.

Christmas has come and gone and now all Illawarra fans want is a new set of fortunes for 2014, with the region’s fragile economy plunging sport to one of its lowest ebbs in recent memory. With the Dragons taking games away from the region, major doubts surrounding the Hawks’ major sponsor and football  again fleeced of a permanent home, ADAM PENGILLY examines what’s next for our major sporting clubs and codes.

How fitting is it that a Crown Street kebab shop, the one-stop cure all for the morning after hangover, provides us with a reminder of the headache-inducing state Wollongong sport finds itself in?

Adorning the kebab shop, Esen's, are glimpses of the region's glory days. It was only a little over a decade ago when the Wollongong Wolves were two-time National Soccer League champions, commemorated with the framed jersey which reminds every late-night customer how good we had it.

Their success was mirrored by the title-winning Wollongong Hawks, who surged to what remains their only National Basketball League triumph.

And it's hard to forget the frenzy the St George Illawarra Dragons, a couple of years removed from a headline-grabbing joint venture, were whipping their fans into with a star-studded roster.

Wollongong's sporting utopia, I tell you.

Roll the tape forward a few years and the last couple of months have all but condemned local sports enthusiasts to their worst hangover in a decade.

Wollongong’s WIN Stadium will host only four St George Illawarra games in 2014 as the Dragons seek the higher revenue generated by other venues.

Wollongong’s WIN Stadium will host only four St George Illawarra games in 2014 as the Dragons seek the higher revenue generated by other venues.

Take the cash-strapped Dragons, whose circus has added permanent stops like ANZ Stadium and the Sydney Cricket Ground to its schedule for the next four years at the expense of traditional heartlands like Wollongong and Kogarah. They will host only four games each for the next four years.

Then there's the Hawks' white knight, Indian mining magnate Arun Jagatramka, whose rapidly diminishing fortune meant workers at his Gujarat mine went unpaid for weeks. Four years earlier he had single-handedly pulled the region's much-loved basketball side out of its coffin, long administered last rites.

And then there's the Wolves, forcibly removed from their traditional home at Brandon Park and even further removed from football's booming A-League. The sport's peak body, Football South Coast, has also had a promised $7.4 million grant for a home of football at West Dapto reneged in the past month.

Former Gujarat NRE boss Arun Jagatramka shows his support at a Hawks home game. Gujarat’s troubles have put pressure on the Hawks.

Former Gujarat NRE boss Arun Jagatramka shows his support at a Hawks home game. Gujarat’s troubles have put pressure on the Hawks.

So what next for a sporting environment, long rusted on to the region's mining and manufacturing fortunes, when the money dries up?

"In the past we were very much focused on heavy industry and manufacturing so we've now obviously engaged a number of other industries and markets which has helped a little bit in the downturn with people not being able to sponsor as much as they like," says Hawks general manager Stuart Wilkinson.

"There's a perception that things are rough, but we talk to a lot of our partners and they are buoyant and positive about where things are at."

And so Wilkinson remains upbeat about the NBL's sole remaining foundation club, despite watching anxiously as Jagatramka's Gujarat NRE Coking Coal was taken over by Jindal Steel and Power.

The Hawks run on the smell of an oily rag. Wilkinson says they have even more community and basketball programs begging to be activated if the money and resources were there.

On the court, they somehow find a way to be competitive with a salary cap which is unfulfilled and imports coach Gordie McLeod nurses to prominence and then reluctantly lets loose as the financial reality bites.

Losing their naming rights sponsor in a sport still marginalised in an overcrowded Australian landscape is big business.

"From our point of view we understand they [Gujarat NRE] need to get their own things in order before we can push too hard moving forward," Wilkinson says. "The approach myself and the board are taking is there won't be another Save The Hawks campaign. That's been done and dusted.

"To sit on the fact everything will be all right and we'll address it when it pops up definitely isn't the approach we're taking."

The Hawks will have quietly done their own diligence on another major sponsor if the need arises. All the while they have been loudly doing their research on how to get bums on seats.

That warm and fuzzy feeling they generate in the community has only garnered an average home court attendance of roughly 2500 each for the last nine years.

"Everyone seems to be a supporter of the Hawks and the benefit the Hawks brand has is that the community does embrace it," Wilkinson adds. "We're trying to identify now why people aren't coming to games.

"There's 290,000 people in Wollongong and you look at the Illawarra and there's 371,000. To get 2500 for your national sporting team is a little bit questionable.

"I guess what we're trying to understand with our board is where do we stand and what are we trying to focus on with our product to ensure we deliver the best for our members, our partners and a community as a whole?"

The Dragons, unique in their own sense with a foot in both the St George and South Coast camps, aren't immune to cash flow worries themselves.

Leagues club grants, which have lined the football club's pockets to the tune of $70 million since the formation of the joint venture, have been reduced to a trickle.

"That's not a level of investment those licensed clubs can sustain in their own business model," Dragons chief operating officer Michael McDonald says. "They've invested strongly, but that's no longer sustainable which is why we find ourselves at the point on the curve we're on."

That means some like it, most loathe it, but somehow fans are going to have to find a way to lump a home game shift away from Kogarah and Wollongong for the Dragons to stay viable.

Football South Coast boss Eddy De Gabriele maybe puts it best - "rugby league hasn't turned its back, but I'll say it's turned its side on the Illawarra" - about the Dragons pinching games from the steel city.

Some have been quick to see it as a sign the region will spy even less of the big Red V in the future.

McDonald is quickly on the front foot about what the Dragons mean to the area. He trumpets 80,000 individual contacts in community programs they run in the Illawarra, what could be an easy target for cost cutting.

"A number of our competitor clubs aren't spending the money in this area, but it's part of our DNA as a club," he says. "I also recognise the challenges in the re-generation of the Illawarra business community. While we're looking at ways to re-engineer our business model, it [Illawarra sponsorship dollar] is still an important part of our existing business model and it will be into the future."

McDonald speaks of rival NRL clubs "getting stronger", with the Dragons massaging their organisation to keep up.

It means more emphasis on memberships, projected to reach 40,000 in five years' time - double last year's sign-up rate. And trying to monetise their ever-expanding digital platforms.

McDonald says: "What does the future look like? We don't see ourselves vastly different. St George Illawarra will [still] be representing this region."

Ever since a bunch of coalminers made a two-day trek south from Helensburgh to feature in the club's first game in 1911, rugby league has always been the region's blue collar game.

The Tigers will be one of just six remaining clubs in the top tier Coal League in 2014, with Shellharbour defecting to Group 7 and Berkeley unable to field a side due to playing numbers.

One of the last musings of outgoing Coal League administrator Julie Nicoll was she has never seen the game struggle so much in the past 20 years, calling the dwindling playing ranks a "haemorrhage not a bleed".

Then there's the money issue. Wests, Dapto and Collies are flush with club-supported cash, some will argue. The rest have nowhere near the financial muscle.

Helensburgh's football operations manager Col Doran, president for the last five years, has watched on as the club's major sponsor Peabody Energy, engaged in an industrial dispute with workers recently.

Without the backing of a major club like Wests, Dapto or Collies, Peabody's sponsorship of Helensburgh, which has one year to run, is game changing.

Yet Doran still paints a very different financial reality for his club, which has experienced a surge in sponsorship.

"The Illawarra is driven off coal," he says. "It's not just the people employed there ... it's the manufacturers as well. It's really weird when you think about the economy being down, we're able to reach a higher level with our sponsorship."

He then rattles off the names of multitudes of local businesses on board, prepared to support what Doran terms the Coal League's bargain-basement side always punching above their weight.

And so while our national sporting teams struggle by, the gap in financial clout between the Coal League adversaries widens.

"The money has been absurd," he says. "We don't price match ... we're like Aldi up here. We're at the bottom, but we've been very successful off that."

Dig a little deeper and the problems at a local level have spread to the Illawarra Lions, who have fled the top tier Sydney AFL competition to rebuild their playing stock.

And what of the round ball game? The Wolves, they of national championship fame all those years ago, dodged relegation from the NSW Premier League by the skin of their teeth last season.

They'll call the pristine WIN Stadium home in 2014, a move which may have also aided their bid to preserve their status in the state's league. How desired the West Dapto development would have been, with De Gabriele, who plans to keep lobbying for the facility's funding, pointing out clubs can no longer rely on sponsorship money to be viable.

"We have to get out of our mindset that sport needs sponsorship to be sustainable," he says. "That must be unshackled. Part of the business plan must be what income and revenue you can create that's part of the business plan that makes the club or association sustainable.

"It might be academies or summer soccer for us or even creating events. Football, for us, we need to be more corporate responsible and more community responsible."

De Gabriele will have the West Dapto headache to work through in the next 12 months. He can rest assured if he ever wants a kebab there will be a reminder of how good we had it way back when.

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