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Stadium size: why bigger developments are not necessarily better

And why modest developments might be a better option for Australian sports arenas. 

06 March 2023 | 1 min read
Nick Johnson

Asia Pacific

Australia

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To state the obvious, Australians love sport. We’re often led by sports fans too. We’ve had a prime minister declare being the nation’s cricket captain is the pinnacle of human achievement. While another famously said "I tell you what, any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum!” after Australia’s historic 1983 America’s Cup win.

Our last PM was a rugby league regular at Cronulla Sharks games, and our current PM often dons the cardinal and myrtle (red and green) of the Rabbitohs.

So, if we love sport so much, we must be filling our stadiums every week? Surely, we must need to expand our venues to meet increasing demand?

Empty yellow seats in a stadium
Empty stadium seats

Empty stadium seats

We’re familiar with queues at big events. But anyone who has gone to a mid-round game in the dead of winter will also be familiar with the empty seat problem. As a fan, it’s not a great experience. Part of the appeal of going to a live game is the atmosphere, which is harder to create when the stadium stand is mostly empty.

For a range of reasons - television coverage, game start times, transport, etc. - sport fans often choose to stay home and only venture out for big games like finals, state clashes, or international headliners.

This leaves stadium operators with a difficult decision. How do they cater for big events as well as make sure the smaller games have an engaging fan experience?

Stadium development: a portfolio approach

Increasingly, the answer is found in running a portfolio of stadiums and arenas. This means that bigger is not always better.

Realistically, capital cities in Australia only need two major stadiums – one with an oval, the other with a rectangle field with capacities of over, say, 50,000. This is the current trend in the east coast capitals and is on the whole operating successfully.

The challenge for the stadium portfolio approach is getting the scale of the smaller infrastructure right. Too often the temptation is to increase the capacity of smaller arenas to equip them for larger events. So, they’re built to a higher capacity and specification than is required. This adds maintenance and operating costs, without necessarily improving event-day revenue.

With Australia’s relatively small population and range of sporting codes, it’s important to make sure we look at appropriate global benchmarks for what makes sense here.

Soccer ball in goal net
Soccer ball hits goal net

Global lessons for stadium infrastructure success

Although some might hope (or dream) that Australia could one day match America’s National Football League or the English Premier League where there are plenty of stadiums seating 30,000+ fans and several accommodating more than 50,000.

In reality it’s more realistic and helpful to look at the emerging national soccer league in the United States or Premiership Rugby in the UK. In both cases the approach has been to pursue more modest stadium redevelopments - usually with seat capacities of between 10,000-25,000. These developments are centred around providing fan experiences that are tailored to the specific location.

These stadiums provide a useful guide for how to engage local fans, and create and build the fan experience and following to draw people to live games. Importantly, many of these stadiums cater for multiple codes. For example, Brentford Community Stadium in west London, which has a capacity of around 17,000, is home to both rugby and football (soccer) teams. Kingston Park in the UK’s north-east is also a multi-purpose stadium used for rugby union, rugby league and football, with a capacity of 10,200.

Rugby goals on an empty sports ground
Rugby goals on an empty sports ground

A new approach to stadium planning and development

A more nuanced approach to stadium development makes sense for Australia. While we’re sports mad, we need to make sure we’re not unnecessarily over-investing in large arenas. We need to ensure we’re injecting resources into a range of smaller multi-purpose venues to cater for our population and wide-ranging sporting tastes.

A new type of stadium model for Australia can be smaller and more flexible, with investments focused on greater digital capability, improved fan experiences, greater choice of food and beverage and better corporate hospitality offerings. This portfolio approach offers stadium operators better operating margins, lower maintenance costs and, importantly, gives the fans and athletes (and performers) a better event-day experience.

As Queensland prepares for the 2032 Olympics, Victoria for the 2026 Commonwealth Games, and other governments evaluate their facilities – now is the time for decision makers to consider what is a better investment: pursuing smaller, high quality stadium developments that offer flexibility, or continue to chase the bigger capacities that historically have been the focus?