Home truths about crowd crisis

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Debate over the future of the Penrith Panthers playing out of Sportingbet Stadium will intensify today thanks to a Daily Telegraph story suggesting that the club could move more matches away as early as next year because of poor crowds and better financial opportunities elsewhere.

The story is nothing new and for some time there has been rumblings about potentially moving matches to ANZ Stadium next season, particularly against high-drawing clubs like Parramatta and the Dragons. More regional and interstate options will also be looked at.

There’s plenty of blame to go around here – the club itself must shoulder some and the fans certainly deserve plenty as well, but the real problem comes down to the NRL’s farcical scheduling that must be addressed ahead of next season.

Back in 2012, when the Newcastle Knights complained about similar scheduling problems, the NRL was adamant that no club would host more than three Monday night games in a season. The timeslot may be incredible for television ratings but it is a killer for crowds.

Just two years later, Penrith has hosted FOUR Monday night matches out of 11 games at Sportingbet Stadium this year. All four have been against out-of-town teams – Gold Coast, Brisbane, North Queensland and Melbourne – and three of those matches have been since round 18, potentially robbing Penrith of big crowds that would reflect their ladder position.

And to make matters worse, the side will play what is essentially a fifth Monday night game against an out of town team when they play the Warriors at 6.30pm on Sunday, September 7 in the final round. In the final week of the season, the Monday night match is moved to Sunday night to ensure a fair lead-up to week one of the finals.

So in essence, Penrith will finish the season having played an incredible five matches in the NRL’s worst timeslot for crowds – all against teams that bring very little support with them. That is simply unacceptable.

The NRL must look at these things sensibly – Penrith is truly the heart of suburbia, with strong family representation and a population that, in the main, travels away from the area to work. Monday nights at the footy are simply an impossible ask for many families.

The scheduling nightmare has some more twists though.

Not once has Penrith played at home on a Sunday afternoon.

And what about this – of their 11 matches at Sportingbet Stadium this year, just four have been against Sydney teams. The Panthers haven’t and won’t play competition front runners Manly at Sportingbet Stadium this year, nor will they play the Wests Tigers – traditionally one of the highest drawing opposition teams to the venue. Last year’s premiers, the Roosters, were also a no-show at Penrith this season.

And yes, there’s been the rain. It was torrential against the Raiders and Rabbitohs and also impacted games against the Bulldogs, Cowboys and Storm.

Penrith also didn’t host a 7.30pm Saturday game all season – one of the best timeslots for football in suburban Sydney.

So while there’s many issues surrounding why people haven’t turned up this year, the incredible farce that is the NRL’s schedule must be put at the forefront of the reasons. It is not good enough and needs to be fixed.

The code too easily succumbs to the power of the television deal it has with Channel Nine and to a lesser extent Fox Sports. Seemingly not brave enough to stand up for itself, the NRL allows Nine and Fox to control the game – even delaying the advertised kick-off times of Thursday and Friday night matches to suit Channel Nine. The NRL may in fact stand alone in world sport when it comes to not kicking off at the advertised time. And I can guarantee you that everyone associated with a particular match knows the actual kick-off time, except for the fans – and that is a kick in the face to the code’s biggest asset in its supporters.

I mentioned earlier that blame needs to be placed with the club and the fans as well, and it is true that they deserve to shoulder some of the burden.

I have no doubt that there’s a section of the Penrith fan base that are simply too lazy to attend matches. They don’t understand or care about the serious ramifications that not attending games may have on their club in the long-term, and yet they’ll be the first to complain when Penrith move matches away next season.

To those fans, I implore you to get off your butt and experience the game live at Sportingbet Stadium rather than from your lounge room. Your day at the footy is truly what you make it – the club certainly offers enough at the venue to keep everyone happy.

As for the club itself, Warren Wilson, Phil Gould and Ivan Cleary discovered a basket case when they first walked through the doors a few years ago. But switched on the fans knew long before they arrived that there were serious problems at the club, even if they did not have an intimate knowledge of what they were. The club must therefore understand that returning to the top eight for the second time in a decade is not enough – yet – to get all of the supporters lost over the last 10 years back through the gates.

And even though the decisions were 100 per cent correct, losing household names like Luke Lewis, Michael Jennings and Tim Grant has had an impact on the confidence of supporters, which will be won back with the kind of success we are experiencing this year.

The club couldn’t and still doesn’t understand the problem with removing the word ‘Penrith’ from the new logo, and while that may not have a direct impact on crowds, it again had the fan base questioning the direction of the club. I always thought it was a rash, unnecessary decision that could have been made further down the track (for understandable commercial and branding reasons), rather than further rumbling an unsettled fan base. The club now finds itself pleading with Penrith people to come through the gates and yet earlier this year took away the single word that defines part of the reason people support this footy club. I’m not saying it’s the wrong decision, but I can understand why it rattled fans.

I again want to make the point that Warren Wilson and Phil Gould have together turned around – or in fact, saved – the Panthers. The incredible turnaround both on and off the field is there for all to see, but both would admit that it’s come as a result of tough decisions. Those tough decisions have perhaps not yet been wholly embraced by the community, but it will come.

Just like a parent dishing out tough love to their kids, sometimes only those in charge know what’s best. The kids hate it, but understand later.

My plea to the Panthers would be to have faith – the community will return, the fans will support you. With the NRL’s help in terms of scheduling, Penrith Stadium could be packed to the rafters next season. Don’t take matches away when the wider community and fan base has still not been given a proper chance to show how much it can love and support the Panthers.

Give us one more season.


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