New St Kilda chief executive Matt Finnis has declared his support for the club’s New Zealand expansion strategy, and has mooted playing its Anzac Day match before the Collingwood-Essendon blockbuster to assist its growth.
The Saints’ loss to Brisbane last Friday marked the second year of an initial three-year phase of its deal with Wellington City Council to host a match here.
While both the Saints and the council conceded they had hoped for a larger crowd than the 13,409 at Westpac Stadium, both expressed support and optimism for the arrangement, which is subject to a full review by both sides after next year’s match.
Wellington City councillor Jo Coughlan, who chairs the economic growth committee, said a mitigating factor in the drop from last year’s crowd of 22,546 was that the Anzac Day weekend had been abutted by Easter.
“It would have been good to see a few more people there but given the weekend was a very, very long weekend . . . people took advantage of the ability to, basically, get nine days of annual leave for the cost of three, it was hardly surprising,” she said.
Despite the drop, which included an estimated halving of the number of St Kilda supporters flying from Australia to fewer than 2000, Coughlan said the city was rapt to have secured an 85 per cent occupancy rate among hotels on its “quietest weekend of the year”, as well as a complementary boost for its hospitality industry. She reckoned its partnership with St Kilda was “going well”.
“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm on both sides and I think we all want to see it succeed – and it is succeeding,” she said.
The Saints crowd against the Lions comfortably trumped the 10,405 that attended the match hosted by the local Super Rugby team, the Hurricanes, the following night, while the city’s A-League team did not secure a 10,000-plus crowd this season.
Finnis, who joined the Saints from the AFL Players Association last month, argued that the appraisal of the expansion into New Zealand, which was pushed by his predecessor Michael Nettlefold, should be afforded at least as much patience as that given to the AFL’s push into southeast Queensland and western Sydney.
He also strongly defended the club after derision of its strategy for players to hand out promotional pamphlets for the match. “I think people would be entitled to be critical of the club if it wasn’t doing everything it could to promote the game in New Zealand.
“As a new horizon, I’d like to think the players, coaches and the club would get right behind that agenda and really be at the coalface,” he said.
One suggestion raised by the council to boost popularity was to bring forward the start of the match. Night Super Rugby games typically finish just after 9pm, more than an hour before the Saints-Lions match finished. “That does make it quite hard if you’re taking a family,” Coughlan said.
Finnis, in response, reckoned New Zealand’s position two hours ahead of Australia could allow its Anzac Day match to be played as a day match well before the start of the headline match at the MCG.
“You can see how it’s become [a suggestion] because if you get a rugby game that starts at 7.30, it doesn’t go as long as an AFL game that starts at 7.45, it becomes quite a late night, which the local crowds aren’t accustomed to.”
Finnis said the Saints would “certainly like to explore” with the AFL the possibility of an earlier start in Wellington “in a manner which can coincide with the local Anzac celebrations but also perhaps [angle] the game more towards attendance by younger families.
“That’s something we’ll look to in the future. That’ll become more important on days where Anzac Day is on a Monday or Tuesday [followed by a work day],” he said.
“With the time difference we think there’s ways you could do it so there’s no competing or overlapping.”
Both the council and the Saints expressed optimism that next year’s match, irrespective of the start time, would generate more interest than this year’s, through a combination of the absence of competition from Easter and it being the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing.
“We’d be very confident that [attendance] will come back up next year with the centenary . . . and the opportunity to get over there as part of a really special commemoration between New Zealand and Australia,” Finnis said