It’s a matter of when, not if, the Lions leave Ellis Park for a smaller stadium in a safer area, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Having begun their 2023-24 European Challenge Cup campaign with an impressive win against Perpignan in France, the Lions would have hoped for a good crowd for their first home match of the tournament against the Newcastle Falcons. Instead, the teams played in an almost empty Ellis Park, with the official attendance of 2,500 no doubt including the suite holders.
Yes, the rain would have kept some fans away. Many Joburgers would also have been on their way to the coast for the December holidays, but the fact there was a capacity crowd of 30,000 for the one-day international between the Proteas and India at the Wanderers the next day suggests there were other reasons why rugby fans (many of whom would have attended the cricket) stayed away from Ellis Park.
The biggest and most obvious, of course, is the iconic 62,500-seater stadium’s location, Doornfontein – a dirty, crumbling, crime-ridden suburb of downtown Joburg right next to Hillbrow.
While the in-stadium experience of Ellis Park is reportedly still excellent, getting there, and home, can be a nerve-racking experience.
The last time I attended a match at Ellis Park, as a member of the media, I left the stadium a couple hours after the game when it was still light, and walked the kilometre or so to Johannesburg Stadium, where my car was parked. While there were still a few fans milling around, I held on tightly to my laptop bag and I was glad I did when a woman in a small group just in front of me had her handbag snatched by a man. She shouted for someone to chase him, but should have saved her breath.
On other occasions, I left Ellis Park at night, and did not stop at red traffic lights to avoid becoming another hijacking statistic. The sense of relief when getting on to the relatively safe highway was palpable.
So I don’t blame Lions fans at all for opting to stay at home and watch their team on TV. I’d do the same.
The question is what this means for the Lions’ future.
During the Challenge Cup game, I tweeted, “These Ellis Park ‘crowds’ are beyond embarrassing. Surely time for the Lions to move to a smaller stadium in a safer area.” It got more than 50 replies.
“No one wants to go into that area,” said Saartjie. “You will either get mugged, robbed, raped, hijacked or murdered. They should have left long ago.”
“Doornfontein is too unsafe. And not just the robbers, the cops there are worse. Won’t do that to myself in the name of rugby,” said Christo.
Others agreed that the Lions should play at smaller venues, with Wits, UJ, Pirates and Wanderers among the suggestions. A move to Orlando Stadium, which hosted the 2010 Super Rugby final between the Bulls and Stormers, was also recommended.
However, Prins Valie believes the Lions should get a brand new home.
“If a big developer like Abland could only jump in and build a 20k-capacity mixed-use stadium, with shops, restaurants and entertainment integrated within a node like Waterfall/Modderfontein, that would be a viable model,” he tweeted. “People would come for the experience and not just the game.”
Earlier this year, CEO Rudolf Straeuli said the Lions had considered playing matches at other venues but that they had Ellis Park season-ticket holders to consider.
In an interview with Carte Blanche in August, stadium manager Pieter Burger pointed out that for the Springboks’ match against Argentina at Ellis Park in July, which had a crowd of 47,000, they’d had more than 1,000 safety and security offers from private security companies as well as more than 300 JMPD (Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department) and SAPS officers.
When asked if Ellis Park’s days were numbered, he said, “There’s still too much opportunity and life left in a very iconic facility to just give up.”
It’s an admirable sentiment, but the sea of empty red seats we’ve seen this season and the unabated deterioration of downtown Joburg suggests the Lions will, in the not-so-distant future, have to look for new territory.
Photo: Harry Murphy/Getty Images