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Looking forward to a beer on the hill

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Andrew Daniels has guided Adelaide Oval through a massive refit, a hotel controversy, a Parliamentary inquiry, food and drink cost complaints and a pandemic. But he’s never watched a Showdown from the old scoreboard, says Michelangelo Rucci.

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As chief executive of the Adelaide Oval Stadium Management Authority, Andrew Daniels can pick any of the 53,500 seats in the house. On retirement, he wants to stand.

“I have to watch a game from the hill,” says Daniels who will clear his desk on May 31 after a decade in the job. “I have not done that yet and everyone tells me how fantastic that is. Maybe the Showdown – without a worry on how the Oval runs.”

Daniels will no longer have to concern himself with the stadium and its 180 full-time and 40 part-time staff. No longer will he oversee the “large, complex business” that is South Australia’s biggest sporting venue with its own hotel.

Former politician Christopher Pyne once advocated taking a chainsaw to the Moreton Bay figs and demolishing the old scoreboard on top of the northern mound in order to build another stand to increase spectator capacity.

Daniels disagrees. “Personal opinion, Adelaide Oval needs the open northern mound,” he says. “It needs the Moreton Bay trees, the Sir Kenneth Milne scoreboard. That is the heritage part of Adelaide Oval.

“If that was all bulldozed and Adelaide Oval became another closed, circular stadium it would no longer stand out from the stadia across the rest of the world. There are very few venues that are instantly identifiable like Adelaide Oval.

“The BBC’s television producers love filming cricket at Adelaide Oval. It offers, for television, two totally different views from the south and the north. Those trees with the blue sky, the planes flying across the city, St Peter’s cathedral in the background … we should never lose that. It would be a mistake to change it.”

If Daniels lines up for a full-strength beer with fans, he is sure to hear complaints about Oval food and drink prices.

“Our pricing now – $8.90 for a beer – is actually pretty similar and even less to what you will pay in most pubs,” he says. “We try to be competitive. I do recognise there will be special rates, happy hours at pubs. We can’t do that here at Adelaide Oval.

“We are open for just three-and-a-half hours once a week. We take on all the costs for one small window of time while a pub can spread those costs across a full week. And we are now being slammed with severe increases in cost of supplies such as the cooking oil for our chips, a pretty important staple at a sporting venue, is up 25 per cent this year.

“We focus on being as affordable as possible. We are a lot cheaper than a lot of other major stadia around Australia.”

And if Daniels finishes an AFL game at the Oval wanting more than just the game-day experience, he could always check himself into the hotel nestled into the eastern stand. That development led to a State Parliamentary hearing on the venue’s finances; an inquiry that seems to have achieved very little, while the Oval Hotel has become a success story.

“I see the MCG will have a hotel embedded in the new southern stand,” notes Daniels. “And it will have windows looking out from the stadium. Our idea has caught on.”

After Daniels steps away as guardian of one of Adelaide’s most-treasured landmarks, he will step into the role of chairman of the revived South Australian Motor Sport board, which will bring the Adelaide 500 car racing event back to the city in December.

He is also chair of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and a director of Novita Services, a charity serving people with disabilities.

“If I can use my experience to help others, I will be delighted,” Daniels says.

He started work as the “new” Oval’s first chief executive on June 1, 2012 when there was still a hole in the ground at the venue’s southern end.

“I never thought how long I would be in the job, I just wanted the job,” says Daniels. “Now, looking back, 10 years has gone in the blink of an eye … but, my goodness, a lot has happened in that decade. Adelaide Oval has been just unbelievable.

“It has been harder than I ever thought it would be. But it also has been amazing meeting people I never would have otherwise met. There also have been challenges I would have never have dreamt of.” That would include a pandemic which restricted spectator access to the Oval until full capacity was restored for AFL matches in April this year.

A venue designed to end the 40-year “cold war” between cricket and football by bringing AFL games from Football Park at West Lakes to the city now is a business venture that includes tours, the roof climb, the hotel, a bar across the River Torrens in the Festival Centre and the biggest function operator in South Australia.

“We have taken Adelaide Oval to a level that would be at the uppermost of people’s expectation,” Daniels says. “There was the natural concern that people have when you change something as important and as valued as Adelaide Oval is, but we have fulfilled all the promises made. In fact, we have over-delivered.

“My greatest pride is knowing what this stadium has done for Adelaide over the decade. The expectations were huge. The State government investment was huge. And we needed to deliver – to the fans, to business in the city and for State pride. This is a facility the whole State can be proud of, particularly when the first reaction of those coming to the Oval from interstate or overseas is, ‘How good is this place!’

“Our focus and plan for the future is based on constantly reinvesting in the Oval. We have upgraded the lighting, we have to do more work on the sound system. We must constantly reinvest in new facilities for the fans, particularly with the latest in technology.

“We are in an arms race. Across the world, we are all looking at how to improve the game-day experience to overcome our greatest competitor – the wide-screen television and the comfy couch at home. You can’t stand still on this and we have to find the money ourselves to invest in the Oval. The State government is clear that it is not putting in any money.”

The pandemic which shut down the Oval’s operations and limited its capacity in 2020 until it became the world’s first stadium to usher fans back to sporting events, also presented Daniels with the opportunity to seek to host the event he most wanted as stadium boss.

Adelaide Oval was the “stand-by” venue for both the 2020 and last year’s AFL grand final, played at the 42,000-seat Gabba in Brisbane and at the 60,000-seat Perth Stadium respectively.

“We tried so hard,” recalls Daniels. “Twice we tried for what would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would have been the equivalent of staging the Formula One Grand Prix all over again. It would have been tough and challenging, but it would have been brilliant.

“Here, at Adelaide Oval, it would have been an extraordinary AFL grand final. It came down to numbers; we could not get past the COVID restrictions to guarantee sufficient capacity to the AFL.”

So was Pyne right to question the Oval’s capacity and suggest running a bulldozer through the century-old scoreboard to make room for a northern stand and another 15,000 seats?

“Christopher has no show – why would we lose the magic we have at Adelaide Oval?'” says Daniels. “Why would we follow other large stadia around the world that have lost that?

“We have this mix of heritage with the northern hill, the Moreton Bay trees, the old scoreboard, the openness of the stadium, the three separate pavilions … it is a mix of 21st century and heritage.

“And the noise of this venue surprised me. I remember being on the boundary standing next to (then AFL chief executive) Andrew Demetriou at the first bounce of the first Showdown here in March 2014. The noise was extraordinary. That was the ‘hairs on the back of the neck’ moment. Amazing.

“Capacity at 53,500 is about right for the city of the size of Adelaide. There always will be the occasional event – like the AFL grand final – where you wish you had another 10,000 or 15,000 seats. But the accountant in me will say the cost of building those extra seats for a once-in-a-decade event does not scratch up. It is very easy to spend too much and end up with a stadium that is too big and 99 per cent of the time it is not full. Adelaide Oval is such an extraordinary experience when it is chock-a-block with fans.”

A bigger, 70,000-seat Oval certainly would not appease the fans of world football and rugby, who find the Oval is not the finest canvas for games played on a rectangular pitch. A decade has passed with no concrete poured on a new city sporting venue, despite repetitive stories of the Oval facing a challenger to its hold on major sporting events – such as the Wallabies union match against South Africa this year and rugby league’s State-of-Origin battle next year.

“There is no demand for (more seats at the Oval) from the perspective of cricket, AFL (club matches), rugby,” Daniels said. “The size of Adelaide Oval is perfect.

“Whether we get a new rectangular stadium for soccer and rugby … I hope so, but they are very, very expensive and there needs to be the catalyst of a major event, such as a World Cup to bring a government along. I do understand the government’s problem with so many competing requirements for the public purse.

“We can stage sports wth rectangular playing fields here. I know they are not quite the same, but when this Oval was full for the A-League grand final in 2016 when Adelaide United beat the Western Sydney Wanderers the atmosphere was incredible. Ditto with rugby league and I am sure it will be the same with union.

“I understand the event gets lost when we have just 20,000 here at the Oval.”

Modern stadia around the world are bulldozed and rebuilt every 30 years to pick up the latest fashionable theme in sports entertainment to keep the fans from staying home with their big screens and cheaper beers in the fridge. This has led to major works in Sydney and will have the southern stand (now Shane Warne Stand) at the MCG pulled down and rebuilt.

Adelaide Oval is designed to buck this trend. The Oval we see today – with the northern mound – is to last to a new century and longer, by protection from State legislation.

“Most stadia don’t do what we do,” says Daniels who describes the Oval as a “very technically advanced” stadium. “We focus more than anyone else on constantly upgrading and reinvesting in the Oval so that we don’t end up one part looking like it was built in 1980 and needs to be knocked down to bring it up to date. I don’t think that will happen here.”

The playing surface will be completely taken up and replaced at a cost of more than $2 million in 2024.The key to the Oval avoiding a repeat of the demise of Football Park that became a “tired” stadium at West Lakes is the sinking fund that originally demanded AOSMA put aside $3 million a year for venue upgrades and repairs. This was not possible during the pandemic shutdown of 2020 and was $1 million (with the other $2 million from the State government) in 2021. AOSMA is now required to make up this amount by banking $3.1 million for the next 30 years.

The pandemic put $8 million of debt on AOSMA’s books.This makes for an intriguing review of the Oval’s financial model later this year when the SANFL has to revisit its arrangements with the Adelaide and Port Adelaide AFL football clubs that also are managing debt from the pandemic.

This scenario already was fascinating because the financial model with football at the Oval was negotiated when current Crows chairman John Olsen was AOSMA chairman.

“Everybody needs cash,” Daniels says. “So there always will be natural tension (in negotiations for revenue sharing at the Oval). But I would not think much would change with a well-known model with the SANFL, Crows and Port Adelaide.

“The tough negotiations were done years ago. There is now a good understanding on how this place does work.”

The Parliamentary enquiry did create a “collateral damage” scar on Daniels while he was caught in the crossfire of then-Opposition Labor wanting to lift the lid on SANFL finances. The SANFL and the SA Cricket Association are joint partners in the AOSMA business.

Daniels’ salary as AOSMA chief executive became a point of debate and wild speculation. When then AOSMA chairman and former State Governor  Kevin Scarce was asked if Daniels was paid $500,000 a year, he replied the politicians’ guess was out by $100,000 – too much. There were those who had speculated Daniels was paid $1 million a year. At that time, the only man earning more in SA sport was Crows chief executive Andrew Fagan.

“I never expected that,” Daniels said in reflecting on the hearings early in 2019. “That (inquiry) came out of the blue and became a very stressful time. But looking back, it actually was a good thing . It did give us an opportunity to clear away a lot of misunderstanding about how this whole deal works with the AFL, Cricket Australia, the SACA, SANFL, the South Australian government.

“Whatever people were looking for, there was nothing to find. The questions on my salary was unattractive, and awkward. I did have a (AOSMA) director ring me to say, ‘We owe you a bit of back pay’. When it was speculated in the media that I was earning twice as much as I was, I thought, ‘I wish’. (My wife) Denise did ask, ‘Where is all this extra money?’

“And I finished up with the trolls saying a beer at Adelaide Oval cost $8.90 because the money was needed to fund those wild guesses on my salary.”

Daniels’ workday seat at Adelaide Oval will be filled by Nick Addison, who arrives from the Victoria Racing Club where he was executive general manager of commercial operations.

“Nick is his own man – and he is in the perfect position to look at ‘where next’ for the Oval’s growth,” says Daniels.

Outgoing SMA chief Andrew Daniels with successor Nick Addison. Photo supplied.

Addison is repeatedly travelling from Melbourne through May to meet key stakeholders such as the Crows and Port Adelaide, before he takes charge on Tuesday, June 14.

“My aim was to get to the end of May and handover to Nick a business in every good stead,” Daniels says. “We are just about through COVID now with a very good and stable business. It will be a smooth handover with, in an ideal world, the public noticing nothing.”

Daniels will hand Addison the task of fighting the AFL on its new “floating fixture” that has the national football league decide in four or six-week blocks when an AFL game is played at the Oval. This is a nightmare for AOSMA in taking bookings for a wedding or private party that is planned a year in advance – and has to be moved to another venue on a month’s notice if it clashes with an AFL match.

“Fans can’t plan for the games they can get to across the year,” Daniels said. “The teams don’t like it. The floating fixture makes life difficult for us, the clubs, the spectators. And the television partners need a full stadium; that is harder to achieve with a floating fixture.

“Other than that, we have the hotel bedded down and working really well and we have the business lost during the pandemic coming back. So, it is time for fresh eyes.”

Daniels soon will be on the northern hill, beer in hand and pride in mind for how the Oval made it through its first decade, even with a pandemic … and that much-debated footbridge across the Torrens.

“Controversial … but brilliant ,” says Daniels of the footbridge that was once compared by then AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick to the one-way Southern Expressway. “The whole thing would not work without that footbridge. “

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