Sporting Chance

Melbourne & Olympic Parks Trust

The people of Melbourne should count their blessings. Right on their doorstep – literally – they have some of the finest sports facilities of any city in the world, not only state of the art but also home to the very best events and functions. And unlike cities in Europe, say, or North America, where one might have to travel half an hour by train or 50 kilometres by car to some wilderness venue, it’s all accessible by a footbridge direct from the CBD!

We are talking, of course, about the Melbourne & Olympic Parks sports and entertainment precinct, which administers Rod Laver and Hisense Arenas and AAMI Park. It’s a good example of government (the state of Victoria, in this case) doing the right thing for its citizens, and one of the reasons behind the city’s ranking as the world’s most liveable city in ratings published by the Economist Group’s Intelligence Unit in August for the second year running. The response from Melbournians has been to make the complex one of the most-used such precincts in the world – each year it hosts up to 500 events and functions attended by more than two million people. The Australian Open tennis Grand Slam is the standout, attracting just shy of 700,000 patrons alone this year.

As Melbourne & Olympic Parks is a glowing success story, the whole facility avoids becoming a political football because successive governments don’t dare mess with it. The Trust/board reports to the government, however Communications & Commercial Manager Jo Juler says the organisation doesn’t feel like a government department. “This is the jewel in their crown. The government puts money into the construction of new buildings and we are expected to maintain them – so we are a self-funding entity,” she explains. The Trust generates around a hundred million dollars in revenue each year.

As with the Formula 1 grand prix at nearby Albert Park, it’s important to take account of the overall impact to the economy of the state of the annual Australian Open (including interstate and international visits and attendant spending) rather than to simply count the gate receipts; Ms Juler notes a difference between the two events, though, in that the grand prix is essentially a temporary affair set up for six weeks, while the tennis venue is permanent – and not only used once a year but week in, week out for tennis development as well as regular concerts of a very high international stature throughout the year.

In fact, the state government got involved more than a hundred years ago. As Marketing & Communications Co-ordinator Jeff Dowsing explains, the area now known as Olympic Park was proclaimed Crown land in 1909. The ‘Amateur Sports Grounds’ basically consisted of two ovals – one that was rough and ready and the other with the cycle track around its perimeter. Between the two world wars the cycle track became a steeply banked concrete ‘motordrome’ before an appalling safety record and diminishing returns compelled the operators to reconstruct a safer dirt track speedway. In 1951, construction began for the 1956 Olympic Games facilities (the precinct hosted the water sports, soccer, hockey and cycling events), and following that event the facilities were put to use as a “sanctuary” (the Trust’s word) for round-ball games. During the 1960s, Olympic Park attracted up to 900,000 people annually for athletics and soccer. The oval ball was also no stranger: the Victorian Rugby Union used the eastern sports ground (encircled by a greyhound track), as did three Victorian Soccer Federation teams.

The Olympic swimming pool was replaced by a parquetry floor in 1983, the 7,200 seat venue becoming the city’s primary entertainment facility. Following a $10.5 million renovation, the Melbourne Sports & Entertainment Centre (known as ‘The Glasshouse’), hosted international concerts from bands such as AC/DC and Queen.

Then, after considering several locations, the Victorian government set aside part of Flinders and Yarra Parks in 1985 as the site for a National Tennis Centre to replace the Kooyong venue. The National Tennis Centre Trust’s brief was to provide Victoria with a world-class complex that could operate as a Grand Slam Tennis venue and a multi-use entertainment centre. The first fruit of this project was a 15,000 seat stadium opened in 1988 at a cost of some $94 million, featuring a centre court retractable roof that was reliable, strong and designed not to rust. The design, a world first, is formed by two rolling sections that take 20 minutes to open or close.

The increasing use of Melbourne Park for concerts and the growth of the Australian Open led to a second stage of development; the $23 million addition included two new show courts and the multi-purpose Melbourne Park Function Centre. Stage 3 was the Vodafone Arena (currently Hisense after a Chinese white-goods maker), a multi-purpose venue including a 10,000 seat show court and velodrome completed in 2000. This facility hosts sports including basketball, netball, boxing, tennis and cycling, and is also used for concerts and other entertainments.

In 2010, Melbourne’s new rectangular stadium opened for soccer and rugby (both codes, with the city now hosting a Super Rugby [union] franchise in the shape of the Rebels, while one of the British & Irish Lions tour test matches against Australia will take place there). This incorporates a cutting edge bio-frame design with a geodesic roof that substantially covers the 31,000 seat stadium with unobstructed sight lines. Today, “Melbourne is one of the cities with the greatest amount of sporting infrastructure in the world,” says Ms Juler.

Currently, some $363 million is being spent on the Melbourne Park redevelopment project, which includes putting a roof on a third show court (these roofs are generally left closed and opened only during the Open tennis matches). Two years ago, announcing this latest development, to be finished in 2015, Melbourne and Olympic Parks Trust Chairman Russell Caplan said it would help Melbourne Park continue to attract major events. “This redevelopment reinforces our position as the world’s premier sporting and entertainment precinct,” he said. Mr Dowsing emphasises the versatility of the venue, which he says “is vital to keep it commercially viable year round.” This is partly a function of the relatively small population – it would not be feasible to have venues dedicated to a single purpose as in the US, for example. “Also it would not be justifiable to have a venue used rarely when it sits on such prime land.”

Ms Juler says it is easier to market this ‘precinct’ concept than to offer separate venues (the Trust name is used as an umbrella company and is not, unlike ‘Melbourne Park’, really public-facing), because of its world class reputation. Rod Laver Arena is, she says, one of the world’s top three concert arenas by ticket sales. The Arena, incidentally, is protected against a name-change by its charter, unlike other venues whose naming rights are sold, sometimes causing some confusion (the Docklands stadium across town in Melbourne is currently named after a foreign airline, for example).

An important part of the current development is the national tennis centre. Ms Juler says this was placed in Melbourne at least partly because of the facilities that existed already – “if you built it all from scratch today it would cost a billion dollars,” she explains. Across the road from the work taking place, the Olympic Park stadium has been demolished to make way for open space which will incorporate an AFL-sized oval. “It is very important that we have a significant amount of public open space.”

The Trust employs around a hundred people fulltime with up to nearly 2,000 part-time and volunteer staff who can be called on for the larger events for front-of-house and crowd control – matters such as security, catering, audiovisual and the like are contracted out. In-house functions include event operations and management, facility maintenance and building services, marketing and finance, and a sales team that last year accounted for Melbourne Park having clients on 233 days, while AAMI Park had 55 contracted days, plus 191 at the multi-purpose functions centre that can cater for smaller as well as large events.

“In terms of usage, this is one of the strongest business precincts in the world,” says Ms Juler; Rod Laver Arena sees around 75 to 80 events per year. Because the venues have been designed to be able to quickly transition from one event to the next, it is theoretically possible to host more events per year, but Ms Juler points out that there are limits imposed by Australia’s geographical position and relatively small population. In concert terms, it is in a difficult space – too big for many local acts and too small for some of the global blockbuster tours where stadiums are more economically viable. The GFC caused ticket prices for the major events to soften and venues needed to adjust their hiring rates accordingly, affecting profitability. “But people will still pay for good international acts.” Ms Juler explains.

The ‘Olympic’ connotation is being continued in the form of the original five rings, which will have a new home on the new Edwin Flack Footbridge now being constructed over Olympic Boulevard. “The Olympic heritage is really important to us,” says Ms Juler. Some weeks ago, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle encouraged media speculation he was announcing that Melbourne would bid for the next available Olympics. However, it is now accepted that what he meant was something simpler: if the city ever did bid, it would already have much of the world-class facilities it would need. Lucky Melbourne.

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December 19, 2018, 9:23 AM AEDT