St George Illawarra have slashed their number of home games in Wollongong, but chief executive Peter Doust bluntly denied it’s part of a Dragons exit strategy from the region.
While refusing to elaborate on how much the Dragons will bank in a shift to play more home games at major Sydney stadiums, Doust declared the Red V won’t turn their back on the Illawarra.
Their spiritual homes of Kogarah’s WIN Jubilee Oval and Wollongong’s WIN Stadium will only enjoy four home games each season for the next four years – down from the traditional six.
The Dragons have committed to playing their other four remaining home games at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Allianz Stadium or ANZ Stadium.
Angry St George Illawarra members and supporters flooded the Mercury’s website and switchboard in the aftermath of yesterday’s announcement, questioning the Dragons’ commitment to the Illawarra.
But Doust, a little more than 12 months since penning a five-year agreement for Dragons fixtures to be played at WIN Stadium, with the option for another five years, re-affirmed the club’s commitment to the region.
‘‘I can’t see in the context of today why we’ll never not be playing games at those [spiritual] venues,’’ he told the Mercury.
‘‘In saying that, who knows what the future holds? This is not the beginning of a longer-term strategy to withdraw [from the Illawarra]. It’s quite the reverse.
‘‘We’d ask people to understand this is a decision for the long-term viability of the Dragons and it’s for the long-term continued investment in our communities across our region.
‘‘Give us the opportunity to prove that and not look at it superficially being a couple of games from our traditional venues.’’
Under the terms of the new agreement, the Dragons are expected to host traditional foes South Sydney in a Heritage Round match each year at the SCG.
They will continue to alternate hosting rights for the Anzac Day clash with the Roosters at Allianz Stadium.
When the Dragons are the visitors for the April 25 blockbuster, their home clash against the reigning premiers will be played on an alternate date at the Moore Park precinct.
St George Illawarra will also play the Bulldogs home-and-away at ANZ Stadium each year, while welcoming either the Tigers or Eels to Homebush for the final of their four major stadium home games.
While refusing to be drawn on the bottom line savings for the club, Doust said the shift will provide significant financial benefits for the club reeling on the back of slashed leagues club grants.
‘‘Let’s just say it’s commercially advantageous to the Dragons,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t want to share commercial-in-confidence information, but it’s in our financial interests and our growth interests and therefore our capacity to invest back into the communities.
‘‘With growth [in membership], which is the thing that underpins this, that we get to spread those costs across a greater volume of revenue and we will be much more substantial in terms of that revenue stream.
‘‘We just believe this is in the best interests of the Dragons long term.’’
NRL boss Dave Smith backed the Dragons’ stance, which is another shift in the move to clubs whisking away from their suburban home grounds.
He believes it is a smart move.
‘‘Any change will take some adjustment but they have a clear aim to build a big match atmosphere around the key matches and that is what we all need to work towards,’’ he said.
The Dragons are expected to tailor four-game membership for Wollongong members this season when their packages go on sale in the next fortnight.