Mar 5, 2017

Opinion Piece- Going to the footy is good for the economy

As an eight-year-old watching the 1971 Rugby League Grand Final at the Sydney Cricket Ground, I could never have imagined the important role that football would come to play in the Australian economy in the 21st century.

While the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs took home the premiership that year, the entire Australian economy is the beneficiary of the stunning rise in sport-related tourism in this country.

Each weekend thousands of Australians travel to watch their favourite sporting teams compete interstate. As they gather like tribes on enemy territory to enjoy their teams’ away games, they flood local economies with money for accommodation, food and associated tourism activities.

This economic activity creates jobs. That’s why we need more of it.

The rise in sporting tourism is the result of a happy confluence of events over the past three or four decades. The first is the rise of national sporting competitions across many major codes, including rugby league, Australian rules, rugby union, soccer, cricket, basketball and netball. The second is the steady decline in the cost of air travel thanks to competition created by the rise of budget airlines, which have brought air travel within reach of average Australian families.

In 1988 I saved for months to raise $1900 to fly return to London. Nearly 30 years later, you won’t pay much more than that, and you can fly between Australian capital cities for less than $100.

For governments and for communities that are home to major sporting teams, this presents an economic opportunity. We need to understand that sporting facilities have become important components of economic infrastructure and support communities that aspire to develop world-class stadiums.

The trend is well underway in our big capital cities. Melbourne’s claim to be the sporting capital of Australia is hard to resist when you consider the quality of its sporting stadiums. They are central, comfortable and easily accessible by public transport or on foot from CBD hotels.

Likewise, Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium is perhaps the best rugby league facility in the world. Hotels, pubs and restaurants in its vicinity thrive because of its existence.

Next year Perth will open what it is already promoting as the nation’s best multi-purpose stadium and thousands of new hotel rooms are under construction right now to cater for the anticipated resulting tourism demand.

Adelaide businesses have been beneficiaries of the redevelopment of the Adelaide Oval, a magnificent facility that has included the roof climb as a tourism experience.

Likewise, the Sydney Cricket Ground has been renovated to improve the amenity while respecting the historical character of the ground.

Now it is time to for governments to think harder about the potential for sporting tourism in regional Australia.

In Townsville, for example, federal, state and local government are working together with the private sector to develop a new home for the North Queensland Cowboys. If we get that development right, the new stadium will not just create short-term jobs in the construction industry, but will also attract thousands of rugby league fans from around the nation to the completed stadium. While they will go to Townsville to see their teams battle the Cowboys, many will stay for a long weekend or even a week to sample the region’s tourism offerings, such as the Great Barrier Reef.

Last year I visited Geelong’s Kardinia Park, the home of the Geelong Cats, where officials are seeking government support for the continuing expansion of the ground, which earlier this month hosted international cricket for the first time.

And in Canberra, there is a growing push for construction of a bigger and more central stadium that could attract weekend visitors from Sydney and beyond for the city’s Raiders and Brumbies, as well as for visiting AFL teams.

There’s also great potential for soccer’s A League to drive regional growth. Centres including Gosford and Newcastle, and indeed Western Sydney, have their own teams backed by very loyal fans who are happy to follow them far and wide.

Of course, there is only so much public money available for contribution to developing sporting stadiums. But with the changing patterns of behaviour, we need to understand that the economics of sport and tourism are changing. They will keep changing too. The past year has seen an amazing explosion in women’s sport, including netball, cricket, AFL, soccer, rugby league and rugby union. There are so many opportunities to be grasped.

Now’s the time for governments, sporting codes and tourism organisations to work together to harness and maximise the potential benefits in the national interest.

This piece was first published in The Huffington Post  today: