Homebush is not home for western Sydney

by Michael Huguenin on May 21, 2012

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The new A-League team in the west of Sydney has taken a significant first step.

The announcement of Tony Popovic on Thursday as manager is an impressive decision that will hopefully give the new entity a decent kick-start on the pitch.

Popovic's name was regularly brought up as a preferred coaching target at the Football Federation of Australia's (FFA) fan forums that were held in different parts of western Sydney through April and May.

The fan forums were a brilliant initiative by the FFA and will hopefully become a standard move for the development of any future A-League teams.

While it is hard to imagine that the FFA's search for a head coach was based solely on the suggestions of football fans in Sydney's western suburbs, the selection of Popovic did lend an element of credibility to the whole fan forum concept.

Popovic begins the development of the new club on the pitch but it is off the pitch that will play a much larger role in whether a club in western Sydney can be successful.

One of the biggest early decisions that the new club will have to make will be where they will play.

A club's home stadium is a critical factor in its identity, psyche and success.

Too many A-League clubs play in stadiums that are too big for their requirements.

The newest club in the A-League must pick the right home.

The FFA could not make a bigger mistake than picking the former Olympic stadium in Homebush.

Playing at ANZ Stadium could kill an A-League club from Sydney's west.

Despite the season average for crowds having never gone above 15,000 in the A-League (the highest was 14,608 in 2007/08), six clubs play in stadiums that have a capacity of over 30,000.

In Major League Soccer in the USA, the season average peaked in 2011 with 17,872 the average figure across the competition.

That was the first time the league had notched a higher season average for crowds than the inaugural season in 1996.

When Don Garber took over the running of MLS in 1999, one of his first initiatives was to promote the building of football-specific stadiums for all teams.

More than a decade on and only Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA play at venues that can hold more than 25,000 people.

Houston Dynamo was the latest club to open a new home, beating DC United 1-0 on May 12.

While one of the major reasons that Garber pushed for MLS clubs to have their own stadium was that they would have greater economic security, another advantage is that it improves atmosphere.

Many A-League supporters and pundits focus on 10,000 as the magic number per match for each club to meet.

But in Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane (52,000 capacity) or Allianz Stadium in Sydney (45,500 capacity), even 10,000 people means the place looks empty.

Imagine how bad crowds of 10,000 would look at ANZ Stadium (83,500 capacity).

ANZ Stadium, Stadium Australia, Homebush, whatever you would like to call it, is universally loathed in Sydney.

Despite not being from Sydney myself, I've quickly picked up that those in the west believe ANZ Stadium is too far into the inner part of the city, while inner suburbanites think it's too far out.

It was a clear declaration repeated at the fan forums – don’t play at ANZ Stadium.

And the FFA should listen again.

None of ANZ Stadium’s main tenants (NRL clubs South Sydney and Canterbury, as well as Twenty20 side Sydney Thunder) have managed to fill half the stadium’s seats this year.

The biggest NRL crowd there this season came when South Sydney and Canterbury played each other and that only just cracked 25,000.

No matter how successful the new west Sydney club becomes it is not going to fill half of ANZ Stadium, let alone fill it, in its first season.

Small crowds will provide little to no atmosphere and could cost the club a large chunk of money.

Stadium operating costs often mean that tenants must fill at least half the seats to start making money.

This could be impossible for a new A-League club to achieve at ANZ Stadium.

The FFA must choose a smaller stadium and Parramatta Stadium seems to be the best fit, although a good thing about Sydney's west is that there are plenty of rectangular grounds that could suit.

With a capacity of 20,000 and a fairly central location in Sydney's west, Parramatta Stadium will provide a solid base for the new A-League club to grow.

If the western Sydney side sells out a few games, so what? At least it will generate some positive publicity and great atmosphere.

As much as some football fans harp on about the quality of players on the pitch, it is atmosphere that makes or breaks the A-League in terms of bringing people to the games.

If the western Sydney club can make their games fun, boisterous and a real football experience, more and more people will want to be involved.

While hints that Fairfield Showground may be a site for a future home are promising, the reality is that a new stadium is a long way off.

The FFA's new baby will need a home next season and one thing is certain - if they pick ANZ Stadium, they will undo a lot of the good will that the fan forums and Popovic's appointment has garnered.

If the FFA pick the wrong stadium they may as well start building a coffin for yet another A-League club.