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Is the NRL losing ground to GWS in Western Sydney?

When GWS (Greater Western Sydney) Giants came along in 2012, the general consensus in Western Sydney seemed to be that bringing AFL out this way would be futile. This is rugby league heartland, with two of the largest and most fertile junior nurseries in the country in the Penrith and Parramatta districts. AFL was not considered a product that would sell well to an entrenched rugby league community.

Three years on, however, most of us stand corrected. For a newly established club, their growth has been exceptional, to the point that the NRL needs to stand up and take note. In 2015, GWS Giants have put a combined 320,420 fans in seats across 17 games, for an average of 18,848. While this average doesn’t seem particularly threatening, it’s worth noting that they have had only three years to develop this fan base, and that they have set up shop in an area that wasn’t exactly crying out for yet another sporting team.

Comparing GWS’ 2015 statistics to those of NRL clubs the Penrith Panthers, Parramatta Eels and Wests Tigers makes for underwhelming reading, from an NRL-centric perspective. These clubs would do well to take note of the rising threat that AFL presents to their heartland, and to up the ante when it comes to the strategies employed to keeping a grip on their heartland. Not one of these clubs comes close to touching the crowd average that GWS have managed to post.

Penrith Panthers, for one, have not beaten this average once in their own 2015 season. Their biggest crowd at Pepper Stadium in Penrith was 18,814, against Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in round 1. Likewise, Parramatta Eels posted their biggest crowd at Pirtek Stadium in round 1, with an attendance of 18,718. Wests Tigers, who admittedly have played a share of their games at ANZ Stadium, posted their biggest home crowd at the iconic Leichhardt Oval with 16,698. Figures are far worse at Campbelltown Stadium, where only one game managed to pull over 10,000 attendees, at 11,837. That is 59% of Campbelltown Stadium’s capacity.

As far as the numbers go, it looks very much as though the NRL need to attack Western Sydney, and quickly. While none of the aforementioned teams are likely to be premiership candidates at this late stage of the season, nor is GWS, who sit 11th on the AFL ladder at the time of writing this. Alarmingly, there has been a great deal of chatter about taking games away from the suburban stadiums – which Pepper Stadium, Pirtek Stadium, Campbelltown Stadium and Leichhardt Oval all qualify as – and these turnouts do little to justify their ongoing inclusion in NRL. The alternative, moving games to mega-stadiums like ANZ, is unlikely to improve figures.

Whether it is ticket prices, food offerings, accessibility or any other issue, the unthinkable does seem to be happening. Three clubs with their fair share of history, in one of the most populous regions of New South Wales, can barely pull a good crowd between them.

Combine their figures, and yes, they will have a greater average attendance than GWS – but GWS hasn’t yet got history on its side, nor embedded itself in regional culture. Penrith, Parramatta and Wests administration take note – you cannot expect to keep your territory forever if you allow your grip to slip, and your community interaction to stagnate.

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