Off the Wall

The departure of the Melbourne Storm's CEO, Brian Waldron, just adds to the challenges facing the premiers in a year when the excuses about poor attendances and limited public interest run out.

Waldron's recruitment by the owners of the new Melbourne ARU franchise, the Rebels, was probably regarded by John O'Neill as a major coup for union. Today's Melbourne media coverage of Waldron's recruitment hardly confirms that.

Waldron had become one of the better NRL CEO's. Recruited from the St Kilda AFL club where he was CEO, Waldron bumbled his way through the first few seasons, but in the last couple of years he made a lot of sense on key issues, and was on the committee trying to bring about one administrative structure for rugby league.

But the indisputable fact remains that the Storm exists solely because of the generosity of the clubs owners, News Limited. It reportedly tips in between $6 million and $8 million a year. I can think of a few NRL clubs who would welcome such generosity.

Indeed, the fact that News props up the Storm has become one of the key issues in negotiations over the new rugby league administrative structure. News won't exit ownership of the NRL without iron clad assurances that the Storm will survive.

That will be costly, and it will annoy struggling Sydney clubs in particular. But it's clearly an issue News has drawn a line in the sand on.

The Storm has been a remarkably successful club - on the field. Its average attendances have been increasing - but they still rank towards the bottom of the table in that aspect, along with clubs like the Sharks and the Warriors.

The excuse the Storm have used - the fact that Olympic Park in Melbourne was hardly spectator, or sponsor friendly, will run out in May when the Storm will start playing at the new multi-million dollar stadium funded by the Victorian Government.

The stadium will seat just over 30,000 spectators and will have excellent corporate and other facilities.

If the Storm cannot average 20,000 fans when the new stadium is used then the long term - post News Limited ownership - future of the clubs will always be in question.

Clubs like the Broncos need average crowds around 20,000-25,000 just to break even because of what it costs to stage a game at Lang Park. One assumes the Storm will need average crowds in the region of 17,000-20,000 to break even as well.

When it comes to crowd numbers in a state-of-the-art stadium, the Storm should have an advantage over every other NRL clubs.

Melbourne has one of the highest "per capita" attendance records for just about all sports - horse racing, soccer, cricket, tennis and of course AFL matches.

If the Storm is to be a credible long term player in the NRL it will have to have to lift its average attendance substantially. That is the unavoidable number one challenge facing Waldron's replacement!