The initial stages of how Etihad Stadium evolved make for a fascinating story. Today, looking at the venue, it’s hard to visualise that the world class, multi-purpose sports and entertainment venue emerged from the silt and backwater of Melbourne’s Docklands.
The development of what has now become a first class international acclaimed venue was first discussed more than 10 years before its development. There was a view that soccer and rugby league required a new stadium but costs made the concept prohibitive. As a result, planning turned to the idea of developing a privately funded stadium which could accommodate a number of sports including AFL, soccer, rugby league and union, cricket as well as entertainment acts.
Mr Graeme Samuel AO is considered the driving force behind the stadium’s development, and is also regarded as pivotal in opening up the Docklands precinct. When Mr Samuel publicly conveyed his interest in the project, he was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Ground Trust and a Commissioner of the Australian Football League, and he had also become a member of the Melbourne and Olympic Parks Trust. Once Chairman of the Trust, talk of building a new stadium moved forward.
The plans were grand. Investors wanted to build an innovative, multi-purpose stadium which could host a variety of sports and entertainment spectaculars where the patrons could be as close to the action as possible and were not restricted by weather. The concept of building a stadium with a closing roof and retractable seats was raised. When locations were discussed, Melbourne Park was given first consideration, but the Docklands’ precinct was also in the mix. The Victorian Government wanted to open up the Docklands area, bridging the CBD and Spencer Street Station, now known as Southern Cross Station.
One story often recounted is that the decision which determined the stadium’s eventual location was made as a result of a Neil Diamond concert and an AFL match, staged on the same evening in the Olympic Park/MCG precinct. The story continues that traffic was so heavy that the then Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, and his colleague and Treasurer, Alan Stockdale spent more than half an hour trying to exit the car park.
The decision to proceed with the Docklands venue might not have been made that night, but it did convince these two powerbrokers that if a stadium were to be built at Olympic Park, multiple events could not be programmed simultaneously. At the time, traffic proposals worked against Melbourne Park, whereas by comparison, Docklands possessed excellent public transport and road access. The fact that it was then situated on the fringe of the CBD, also worked in its favour.
The success of turning what was an almost desolate edge of the landscape of Melbourne into a sophisticated sports stadium is a tribute to the Docklands Authority, now known as VicUrban.
VicUrban understood there was enormous potential in one particular vacant allotment of land at the Docklands. The development of such a stadium, it felt, would enhance Melbourne’s chances of staging major international sporting events and provide the site of the AFL's 'home-ground'.
Since its inception, the stadium and its operators have chosen not to compete with the MCG but they understand the need to complement Australia's most historic stadium.
A vision was that the development of the stadium at Docklands would provide the impetus to transform a potentially exciting, but then dormant, quadrant of Melbourne.
A build, own and operate scheme was the theme of the original plan, but after some negotiation the AFL entered into agreement to buy the future ownership of the stadium for $30 million at the expiry of a 25 year lease period.
At the outset, there were significant challenges confronting the construction team. They faced the task of building a stadium with a closing roof, bearing in mind the unique characteristics and demands of AFL. Consideration also needed to be given to the likelihood of staging other major sporting and entertainment events.
On March 9, 2000, after two years of construction and toil, the venue was handed to the operators. The $450 million Colonial Stadium, now known as Etihad Stadium since 1 March 2009, was unveiled to the public when AFL fans attended the first event at the stadium. Essendon and Port Adelaide enjoyed the distinction of playing the first match, with the Bombers taking the honours 24.12-156 to the visitors 8.14-62.
The stadium offered a new level of comfort and facilities. Purposely designed to bring supporters as close to the action as possible, it is often surmised that the intimacy and noise of the crowd helps to generate the atmosphere of an ancient Roman Colosseum.
Ian Collins AM, the Chief Executive of Etihad Stadium, says his favourite moment was the Rugby Union International between the Wallabies and the British Lions.
“It was pure magic, just unbelievable. The spectators were cheering, chanting and singing in the stands and confetti flowed from the rooftop.”
In its initial season, Etihad Stadium created a series of firsts, with AFL, a Rugby Union International and the first cricket game, all occurring under a closed roof. The stadium also hosted performances from Barbra Streisand, Bon Jovi and Ricky Martin. The ground was home to tenants Essendon, the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda in 2000. During the year, the stadium hosted 49 AFL matches, the Ultimate Rock Symphony, the Australia v South Africa Rugby international and three one-day cricket internationals, featuring Australia and South Africa.
Mr Collins says football at Etihad Stadium under the roof is fantastic and as far as AFL is concerned, the stadium provides a unique experience.
“It’s not much fun for players or fans having to brave the weather during the thick of winter, but there are no such problems at (Etihad Stadium).
“ Even on the wettest of days, you can drive your car under the stadium, enter a lift and watch the match undercover and exit without any inconvenience from the rain!”
Ian Collins became Chief Executive on April 1 2000, just weeks after the stadium opened to the public. His management team faced many early challenges, but nine years later Etihad Stadium is setting new standards for sports and entertainment.
“We have made enormous progress,” Mr Collins explained.
“All outsourced operations were brought in-house and managed directly under stadium management and today they operate in a much more user friendly way for the hirers and patrons,” Mr Collins said.
Fifty-two AFL games were played in the stadium’s second year including an Elimination final. In another first, the AFL’s gala event, the Brownlow Medal count was staged on the arena. One of the biggest and “loudest” rugby union internationals was contested when the Wallabies locked horns with the British Lions. NRL team, Melbourne Storm played 13 home games, the World Wrestling Entertainment took centre stage, 70,000 people attended a Roman Catholic Mass and soccer, also, made its debut at the venue.
On October 1, 2002, the venue was officially named Telstra Dome.
In 2003, more international entertainment came to the stadium. Australia was the venue for Rugby’s World Cup, with Telstra Dome hosting seven matches including two finals. Kostya Tszyu retained his world title with a victory over contender Jesse James Leija. Robbie Williams broke the stadium record for the largest entertainment event when 58,163 music fans rocked the night away. The KISS Symphony and Bruce Springsteen also took centre stage.
Another 49 AFL matches were fixtured. The most emotional was the round 11 clash, when Bali bomb burns’ victim Jason McCartney returned, after suffering close to fatal injuries, to play the final AFL match of his career. The Kangaroos featured again in a round 14 clash against Collingwood, which saw a then Telstra Dome attendance record of 53,312.
In 2004, more stadium records were created. More than 50,000 footy fans saw St Kilda defeat Geelong in the final of the pre-season Wizard Cup competition. All up, another 1.8 million footy fans passed through the turnstiles that season.
In 2005, fans again came out in droves for another big year of sport and entertainment. 58 AFL matches (Wizard Cup and AFL Premiership season) were staged across the season, a Rugby Test between Australia and Italy, the Johnnie Walker Super Series cricket, and the International Rules Series between Australia and Ireland took place. Grammy award winning punk-rock act Green Day “rocked” the venue in December playing in front of 37,000 fans.
2005 was also a year for milestones. Telstra Dome celebrated its 10 millionth AFL fan through the turnstiles since opening in 2000. The stadium also enjoyed a record crowd for its sixth AFL season. A record two million footy fans passed through the gates in season 2005. By year’s end, more than 11 million people had attended one of the many sports and entertainment events at the stadium.
2006 shaped up as the venue's best. 2.7 million spectators passed through our gates. Fifty AFL matches, as well as another 27 major events, ensured it was by far the most utilised stadium in Australia, if not internationally.
In 2007, the stadium welcomed a huge 1.7million fans to its 47 AFL Premiership matches, including a thrilling final between Hawthorn and Adelaide.
At the beginning of the year, Melbourne Victory claimed its first A-League Championship, downing Adelaide United 6-nil.
We also took pleasure in welcoming new owners, James Fielding Funds Management, and the venue looks forward to continuing to develop as a world-class venue under their ownership.
2008 was the year Dutch violinist Andre Rieu, wowed the crowds with his three performances in November.
Football highlights included Hawthorn's Lance 'Buddy' Franklin booting his 100th goal for the season against Carlton in Round 22. It was the first time an AFL player had reached his 100 goal milestone in a season at the venue.
On October 23, 2008, CEO Ian Collins announced Etihad Airways as the venue's new naming rights partner.
The five-year agreement began on March 1, 2009, when the venue was officially renamed Etihad Stadium.
Etihad Stadium's largest AFL attendance was recorded in 2009 when Geelong and St Kilda - both undefeated - met in Round 14 before 54,444 patrons. It was the first time in the history of the game that two teams were undefeated so late in the season.
2010 will be remembered as one of Etihad Stadium's biggest years. The venue hosted a record 86 arena events, including concerts from ACDC, George Michael, U2, Bon Jovi and Armin Van Buuren.
A major challenge for the stadium was the March 6 hail storm, which caused millions of dollars damage to some parts of the venue. The damage was isolated allowing events to continue uninterrupted.
March 2010 also marked the 10 year milestone for the venue. 2011 saw the arrival of the stadium's 25 millionth patron in Round 7 of the AFL Season.