Brisbane’s poor cricket attendances are a perennial sore. Some years it’s blamed on the absence of Queenslanders from the team. Remember the outraged droves who once stayed away because Ben Cutting was omitted? They have returned in equal numbers to see Joe Burns and Marnus Labuschagne included.
Blaming the timing of their Test match, before the start of school holidays, loses force when compared with Adelaide’s, which also takes place in term time. With a population half the size of Brisbane’s, Adelaide reliably produces more than twice the crowds. At an Adelaide Test match, you get the sense the whole city is focused on it. In Brisbane, it feels like a busy metropolis is going about its business, indifferent to the cricket. (I know, this is not necessarily a comparison in Brisbane’s disfavour.)
Live audiences in Brisbane haven’t turned off cricket. Like the people of Hobart and Perth, they have developed a cultural bias towards their T20 franchise and away from international cricket. Sydney has more or less shifted the opposite way, while Melbourne and Adelaide share their support across both. A study of why these imbalances have developed might go some way to restoring attendances. The Gabba might be due a facelift, and it is wedged awkwardly between the pumping one-way arteries of Stanley and Vulture streets, but neither of these seem to over-bother fans of the Brisbane Heat.
Rescheduling Brisbane’s Test match to day-night would help. The last time Pakistan toured here, for a pink-ball Test match, they drew 26,000 people on the first day and 78,000 overall. This time, the one day-nighter in the two-match series has been given to Adelaide, a reward for the city’s cricket fidelity.
Speaking of rewards and punishments, the mind wanders back to the years when cricket was only telecast in home cities before tea if all tickets had been sold. Befitting the paternalism of the then Australian Cricket Board, it was a punitive paradox to convey to a city: we will reward some of you by showing cricket on television only if the rest of you get off your butts and come to the game.
Now the power has shifted into the hands of broadcasters, who don’t particularly care if they are showing pictures of a game played before empty seats. Even in Dubai, telecasters set up foreshortened angles of the better-attended patches of seats to create the illusion of atmosphere. The magic of television. But you would think any telecaster would benefit from a stadium full of real people making real noise.
Are ticket prices to blame? This week at the Gabba, good seats with decent views start at $30 for adults, $10 for children and $65 for families. These are reasonable prices. Bringing them down further might not have the desired effect under the laws of supply and demand, but instead become an advertisement of the game’s desperation. And due to broadcast rights income, the game is not as desperate as perhaps it should be.
Brisbane’s claim on hosting the first Test of the summer has sentimental appeal in a game where tradition and repetition are comfort foods. However, every November when we see so many empty seats, the question is raised. The heaving masses occupying the media boxes are unanimous in their support of Brisbane, from a competitive player’s point of view. Australia has not lost a Test match at the Gabba since 1988; why would you not start every series here? (For that matter, why stop at one Test?) But maybe Australia’s dominance has contributed to the loss of Brisbane’s drawing power. If the result is so routine, even predictable, yes it is nice for Australian players, but does such assurance of Australian success pull a crowd?
Live crowds contribute unique evidence of love for the game. There is no replacement for a real cheering fan. For the current Australian players, who must have been cheered by the great resurgence of cricket’s popularity through the recent Ashes series, having a favourable wicket and a billiard-table outfield in Brisbane is only part of the experience. This team, that had lost so much love, took steps in 2019 to win it back. It would be more meaningful for them to see that forgiveness shown by faces watching from the grandstands.
In our tech-heavy times, bums on seats seems a very analogue way of measuring success. Cricket Australia would be much more interested in its digital footprint than in the thongprints treading in and out of the Gabba. Live crowds are less and less where the money is.
But next week, Adelaide will remind us that people coming to watch and cheer and fall asleep in their seats, people crushing through the gates and lining up at the toilets and getting sidetracked by the hospitality marquees, people showing their love of cricket by turning up, still matter. Without crowds, sport moves closer to a virtual experience, a video game, an atomised pseudo-spectacle where the “community” is watching on an alternative keyboard screen while at work, not cheering out loud because the boss might hear.
“Atmosphere” becomes no less a fiction than the fiction of cricketers giving cheer to people who have lost their homes (and their TVs, computers and radios) to fire. Live crowds are irreplaceable; cricket must keep finding ways to keep them, and to bring them back.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.