Illawarra in danger of being a sporting wasteland

Wollongong will host just four NRL games for the next four years.
Wollongong will host just four NRL games for the next four years.


What will it take?

An A-League team? The Steelers to return? LeBron James signing a 10-year deal with the Wollongong Hawks?

Each might be more fanciful than the last, but the question lingers about the Illawarra and what is needed to shake the region's sporting public out of its cynical, jaded funk.

On Friday night, amid the feverish atmosphere of an essentially "play-offs or bust" showdown with the Sydney Kings, the Hawks finally managed to pack out the WIN Entertainment Centre.

The Hawks were blessed by the circumstances about their late-season surge towards the finals and the need to prevail against their bitter big-city rivals.

But despite offering various forms of entertainment and discounted tickets, the Hawks have largely struggled to capture the imagination of the average Wollongong punter.

Perth is a bigger city and has recently had more success than Wollongong, but the Wildcats regularly attract more than 10,000 to games, while the Hawks battle to drag in 1500.

Wollongong Hawks basketball supporters show their true colours. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

Wollongong Hawks basketball supporters show their true colours. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

Meanwhile, Wollongong will host just four NRL games for the next four years, as St George Illawarra justifiably pursue the financial incentives which come with playing at Sydney's major sporting venues.

The NRL is playing a dangerous game by becoming too Sydney-centric. It risks alienating many of the supporters - particularly in regional areas - it is trying to attract.

In contrast, the South Coast Wolves - the torchbearer for one day becoming an A-League venture in its own right - took on financial risk to secure the facilities and sunlit Sunday afternoons at WIN Stadium, away from the freezing Saturday nights at Crehan Park.

While the Dragons will continue to attract the rugby league faithful who are starved of NRL action in Wollongong, the Wolves will count the heads every second weekend just to ensure they break even.

With its working-class roots, Wollongong's affection for league is undeniable.

However, its vast multiculturalism and ethnic ties to Europe and Asia mean the greater Illawarra is a sleeping giant in the Australian football community.

Long ago, the Wolves accepted their place in the landscape and acknowledged they would have to nurture their own youth just to survive, let alone prosper.

The cynicism around elite sport in the Illawarra has only deepened in the past 12 months.

There is still much soul searching and a bitter taste left at Football South Coast headquarters over Labor's rushed attempts to buy votes at the last election - committing to the Home of Football project at West Dapto - then the Coalition government quickly taking it off the table after taking office.

The Hawks are considering their sponsorship options following the precarious position left by Arun Jagatramka and Gujarat NRE's exit from the region's coal industry, just five years after being the white knight for the only remaining foundation NBL club.

NRL fans are still fuming about the Dragons becoming a little more St Sydney and a little less Illawarra on game day.

But at the same time, the people who are turned off by these developments are the same supporters who whinge about the empty seats at ANZ Stadium, while also complaining about their inability to find a comfortable position on the couch watching the game on television.

So what will it take?

For a while now, we've had the "We love the Gong" tourism slogan plastered everywhere, but how much do we love our best sporting teams?

Like the quiet small-bar revolution that has swept Wollongong, changing the drinking culture and solving some of the alcohol-fuelled violence and anti-social behaviour problems, the sporting landscape needs to be reinvigorated.

The region deserves to have people of vision in the community and on council who are prepared to shape the sporting landscape for the better.

The time has also come for fans to believe in what's already out there in the market again, before they vanish from the elite sporting market completely.


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