1 August 2023

$30m plan to upgrade lllawarra Sports Stadium to meet growing demand

| Jen White
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Illawarra Sports Stadium Board Directors Ian Richardson, chair Graeme Haney and Andy King on the steps inside the stadium.

Illawarra Sports Stadium Board Directors Ian Richardson, chairman Graeme Haney and Andy King. Photo: Jen White.

More than 30 years ago, two passionate sports supporters had a vision for a multipurpose, indoor stadium to serve the Illawarra.

Val Curran and Ian Richardson recognised the need for a stadium to house their sports of netball and basketball, as well as other indoor sports, then and into the future. Together with a project team they spearheaded the campaign and the Illawarra Sports Stadium opened at Fred Finch Park, Berkeley in 1992.

Fast forward to today and the stadium is now full to capacity. The major sport tenants, Illawarra District Netball Association, UBL Basketball and Illawarra Basketball Association, are unable to accept new team entries.

The not-for-profit centre is booked out almost every day of the week, with regular basketball competitions running until 10:30 pm. On weekends the centre hosts a variety of events ranging from dance and sport to bird and reptile shows and Lifeline’s twice-yearly book sale.

The stadium’s board estimates more than 1200 people each week can’t access programs and Ian, now the centre’s managing director, increasingly finds he has to knock back organisations wanting to book the centre for events.

The board has finalised plans for a $30 million expansion of the stadium, and is calling on the community to help convince governments to come to the party with funding.

Board chairman Graeme Haney said expansion plans had been on the table for more than five years.

“Initially we were set up as a basketball and netball centre, however, we’re much, much more than that now. We’ve included table tennis as one of our anchor tenants and we’ve also included 40 other different activities, from floor sport through to dance and everything in between,” he said.

“Thirty years is a good run and we’ve done very, very well. We’re just not big enough to be able to keep doing it.”

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The proposal includes three additional internationally compliant indoor courts with seating for about 2000 spectators, a multi-purpose room, gymnasium and a netball administrative centre, which would replace the ageing Val Curran netball administration centre adjacent to the Berkeley sports stadium.

Wollongong City Council has approved the development application but the big stumbling block is funding, which needs to come from the NSW and Federal Governments.

“Council has advised us from the start that they don’t have the funds to do it. Our last application for a Centre of Excellence went to the State Government and it came back saying, yes, but you haven’t got the second half of the funding committed to by the Federal Government,” Graeme said.

“The good news is the Federal Government has funds available of up to $15 million in the Growing Regions fund.

“We’ve submitted an expression of interest and we’re hopeful that we can get an invitation to submit a full application, which we’ve already prepared. So the big impetus now is to get an invitation to apply for that, win that and then get the State Government to back it up – one wouldn’t do it without the other, we need them both.

“The last stadium built in the Illawarra was this one 30 years ago. After 30 years of growth and 25,000 more people still to move into the southern suburbs of Wollongong, we’re the designated area to service that from a sporting point of view, and we’ve been at capacity for three years.”

An artist's impression of the front entrance of the expanded Illawarra Sports Stadium.

An artist’s impression of the front entrance of the expanded Illawarra Sports Stadium. Photo: Supplied.

Fellow director Andy King was a co-founder of Uni Basketball League (UBL) which outgrew the uni 14 years ago and moved its weekly competition to the stadium.

“It’s grown to four nights a week, about 110 teams, and we’re knocking back teams – I’ve got a waiting list of about 20,” Andy said.

The competition, which caters for about 500 players aged between 15 and 40, has been forced to push games back later at night to get through them. The last game is due to start at 9:35 pm but often doesn’t get under way until 9:50.

Graeme stresses that as a not-for-profit organisation, the centre charges less than other venues, such as the Wollongong Entertainment Centre.

“Our role here is all about community. Our board is volunteer, most of our workers are volunteers, we work on a shoestring to keep it as cheap as we possibly can from a hiring point of view,” Graeme said.

“The centre is much more than just three new courts – those courts can be converted into a show court, which means that we can have just over 2000 people watching an event, which in Wollongong is unique.

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“There isn’t anywhere else, unless you go to the Entertainment Centre, however, at $40,000 a night, it excludes a lot of the community.

“We currently have girls who want to progress in netball and basketball who virtually have to leave the area to play somewhere else to get to the top because they have no pathway; we don’t have a facility for them to play in.

“The 2000-seat stadium would allow for us to have a women’s National Basketball League team, would allow for us to have a State Netball team, it would allow for all of those things we haven’t had before and it would provide a pathway to the top for our female participants.”

Graeme and his board are calling on the community to not only learn more about the redevelopment plans, but to actively support them.

“The more people who write in and show their support, especially to our local federal and state members and say how much this facility is needed, will be of immeasurable assistance in getting it across,” he said.

“Governments and council need to know that not only is everybody supporting it, but they’re fervent about that support. We’re encouraging people to say, yes, we want this stadium, we need this stadium and it’s well overdue, can we get it now?”

Take a virtual walk through the proposed new centre or click here for more information.

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