KNIGHTS chief executive Phil Gardner hopes Newcastle will not be penalised next season for the bumper crowds they have attracted to their Friday 6pm home games.
The Knights will host Penrith at McDonald Jones Stadium in their second consecutive Friday 6pm game, and their third in the first 10 rounds.
While the problematic time slot has adversely affected crowds at other venues since its introduction last season, Novocastrians have defied the trend by turning out in strong numbers.
This year 23,516 attended the season-opening win against Manly, followed by 22,718 for the loss to South Sydney last week.
Add those to the two Friday-night games in Newcastle last season, which drew 16,929 against the Bulldogs and 21,412 against the Roosters, and the Knights are averaging a healthy 21,143 in a time zone that most clubs regard as a crowd killer.
The average attendance at all other Friday 6pm fixtures this year has been 14,885 – a figure bumped up by the 32,471 Good Friday crowd for the clash between South Sydney and Canterbury at ANZ Stadium.
Gardner has been delighted with Newcastle’s crowds this season but admits 6pm on Fridays is not his preferred option.
“The best time for us is the later game on Fridays [7.55pm], or the 4pm slot on a Sunday,” Gardner said.
“But that would be the same for every club, and you have to earn them by performing well on the field.
“In talking to the NRL about what we’d like next year, we’re asking for as many Sunday-afternoon TV games and the late Friday-night games as we can have. The more successful we are on the field, the more of those games we get, because that’s where TV will want to be.”
Gardner said the Knights were “probably the only club who can make six o’clock Friday work”.
“If you’re a Sydney fan, you just can’t get across the city to Allianz or ANZ by six o’clock,” he said. “It’s very hard for the Sydney clubs.
“But it’s probably a bit easier in Newcastle for our fans, and they’ve been great. Somehow, against the odds, we’re making six o’clock Friday nights work, which is a real testament to Newcastle fans and the support the Knights have.”
Asked if he was worried that the NRL might decide Newcastle is the ideal Friday 6pm market, Gardner replied: “It’s certainly a concern. I’ve been very strong in our desire to have either the later Friday night games or Sunday games.
“Depending on how we perform for the rest of the year, hopefully we get more of them next year.
“But we will probably end up with some six o’clock Friday games, and in some respects you would rather that than the three o’clock Saturday games, which are very difficult for families to get to.
“And obviously we’ve been very lucky this season in that we’ve avoided any Thursday night games.”
After crowds of 23,516, 21,969 and 22,718 to their three home games this season, Gardner is hoping for another crowd of close to 20,000 against the Panthers.
Not since 1998 have the Knights attracted 20,000-plus crowds to four consecutive home games in a season.
“To be honest, this might be our smallest crowd so far, but we’re hoping to break 20,000,” Gardner said.
“Our pre-sales are telling us we’re down a bit on our previous games, so it will depend on the walk-up.”
Gardner said it was possible there would be a slight downturn for the Penrith game, which he described as a “hangover” from last week’s blockbuster double in which the Knights hosted Souths, and then the Newcastle Jets played Melbourne Victory 24 hours later in the A-League grand final.
If the Knights can maintain the current average crowd of 22,734 for the full season, it would break the club record of 22,018, set in 1990.
“The support has been phenomenal,” Gardner said. “Our memberships are close to 16,000, so potentially this year we could have the most members and biggest crowd numbers in the history of the club. But that will all come back to how the team is performing at the back end of the year, and the players are aware of that.”
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