NRL's crowd crisis: Bleating over crowd figures a bit premature

Wayne Bennett reckons that if you start listening to what the fans have to say, you'll eventually end up sitting with them.

If the banks of empty seats at Sydney footy grounds for the opening round of the NRL are anything to go by, the supercoach will have no trouble finding a seat. Actually, Mr Bennett, have yourself a whole bay.

Worst crowd figures for round one in a decade. A decline of 20 per cent on last year. You could've fired a shotgun at the three matches played at ANZ Stadium ...

Ding dong, rugby league is dead.

Really, sports fans? Really? We're writing off this season as an abject failure based on the first round? It's the same bizarro logic from Dragons fans who wanted coach Steve Price punted after his side's loss to South Sydney in the Charity Shield.

Typically, ANZ Stadium has been demonised, even though it was responsible for the three largest attendance figures over the weekend from the Souths-Roosters, Bulldogs-Broncos and Dragons-Tigers fixtures.

Television coverage shows entire sections of blue and turquoise seats and we all immediately leap to the conclusion that the sky is falling in, such is the simplistic, whinging nature of the game, bless it.

The word out of the NRL bunker on Monday was that some figureheads had gone into meltdown over adverse headlines concerning poor attendance. Others, who have been around longer and seen these doomsday predictions before, are not.

They are more concerned about what happens in the next two months.

In that time, we'll have witnessed round-two matches between the Broncos and Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium, and the Warriors will have taken on the Dragons at Eden Park.

We'll have seen the Roosters-Manly grand final replay, the score of popular Easter long weekend matches, as well as three Anzac Day games taking in Roosters-Dragons, Storm-Warriors and Broncos-Souths.

Rugby league fans point to television having too much say in scheduling and they are right, but do they want their clubs to enjoy the billion-dollar payday or not? The same applies for matches at ANZ Stadium, which allow clubs struggling financially like the Dragons and Tigers to make some much-needed dollars from corporate facilities instead of withering on the vine.

Arguing about crowd figures is about as exciting as watching bananas brown, so let's cut to the chase about why people aren't turning up in force.

It comes down to two things: transport and the lack of full-strength beer.

This column feels uneasy talking about the "game-day experience" when it hasn't bought a ticket to a footy game in many years, although it has certainly ventured out of the sanctity of the press and corporate boxes enough times to know what it's like.

Let's start with transport.

Melburnians look down their nose at Sydney and tell us how they can get 80,000 at the MCG on a Friday night, and then 85,000 next, for regular home-and-away matches.

Hoo-bloody-ray for you, Melbourne.

Instead of a pleasant stroll from the CBD to the 'G, or even Etihad Stadium, Sydneysiders are faced with the seventh circle of hell known as Parramatta Road. There's the eighth circle of hell known as Victoria Road. There's the ninth known as Military Road. And then there's the 10th circle known as "the gridlock around Moore Park because a crowd of 10,000 people is attending something".

Yes, there's free transport out to ANZ Stadium for NRL ticket holders. There's a fancy schmancy walk bridge being built at Moore Park.

But a significant cultural shift needs to occur before fans pluck up the courage to put faith in the NSW public transport system for their leisure time, instead of watching the superb coverage on Channel Nine or Fox Sports.

Sorry, the "game-day experience" at many venues is not good enough.

Last year, I went to watch a match at Allianz Stadium on a Saturday night, about eight rows from the front. It was a party of five, and that was complicated because you are only allowed to buy four beers at a time, while waiting in long queues because only a few bars had been open that night.

And it was mid-strength, although perhaps watered-down beer is necessary.

The year before that, I took my young nephews to a match in Newcastle, in relatively good seats, right near the tunnel.

Let's just say the colourful language being used by some Knights fans three rows back nearly caused their grandfather to go to DEFCON-1. Obese security guards in fluro vests were unwilling to help.

Then again, sometimes it just comes down to what you are accustomed to.

I've been to Major League Baseball games at the old and new Yankee Stadiums, where everything is at your fingertips -especially hot dogs that can be inhaled with Homer Simpson-like speed.

I've been to EPL matches were you can't drink alcohol at all, and nobody minds as long as they can watch their team play, such is the preciousness of the ticket in their hand.

Last month, I saw Russia's upper and middle classes pay through the nose to sit in sub-zero temperatures in temporary seats on the side of a mountain to watch snowboarding at the Winter Olympics, and then line up in queues 40m long to buy some pancakes.

Personally, I'm happy catching a train to Kogarah on a Sunday afternoon, having a couple of beers at the Carlton Hotel, a couple on the hill at the footy, and then taking the train back home.

As long as I'm with the people I like the most, that's all that matters.

The result also helps.

Because you're not really talking about the "game-day experience" if your team has won. And if you're watching on TV, that's when you wish, just this once, you braved the traffic so you could've been there.

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