Melbourne Cricket Ground - MCG Trust 150th Anniversary
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MCG Trust 150th Anniversary

Below is the full speech given by MCG Trust chairman John Wylie on December 13, 2011 at a dinner in the Long Room to mark the 150th anniversary of the MCG Trust's formation.

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Distinguished Guests Ladies and Gentlemen,

No city on earth twins its sense of self, its stories and its identity with a sporting ground as Melbourne does with its beloved MCG.

It was probably always destined to be this way in a nation and a city that loves its sport as much as we do.

The MCG is the story of cricket in Australia, born as the Melbourne Cricket Ground - home to the first international cricket match in this country, the first Test match anywhere and the first international one day match.

It is the story of our great indigenous game of Australian football, our proud and unique voice in the increasingly homogenised world of modern global sport.  A game invented by Tom Wills and friends here in what’s today known as Yarra Park, first played on the site of the MCG in 1859.  A game which has become a cultural phenomenon, that today ranks as Australia’s most popular spectator sport.

The MCG’s story is also an Olympic story.  Overcoming initial controversy about whether the 1956 Olympics should be based at the MCG or Princes Park, the Friendly Games were a triumph, ultimately reinvigorating not only the MCG, but Melbourne itself and the Olympic spirit with it.

It is the story of our country’s sporting heroes, those who’ve achieved their dreams and ours with them, here on this hallowed turf.  Famous names like Bradman, Cuthbert, Barassi, Miller, Reynolds, Strickland, Bunton, Matthews, Ponsford and Lillee, who’ve achieved sporting immortality at the MCG and are honoured by statues around the ground –soon to be joined by Warne and Smith. 

It’s the stories of multitudes of other elite sporting men and women, who while not immortalised in bronze, have achieved their dream or personal best, had their moments of triumph or disaster, or fought out great personal rivalries under the watchful gaze - and occasional barracking - of tens of thousands at the MCG. 

It’s the story of a Pacific war time base, home for the US Marines, the US Air Force and the RAAF during World War II.

For all of us, there are precious stories and memories that flow from this place.  How many of us calibrate milestones in our lives or friendships forged through shared sporting moments or famous victories of our team, here at the MCG?

That love and regard for the MCG, and sense of its aura, is innate to all who live in this city.

For 150 years precisely today, it has been the responsibility of the MCG Trust to guard and enhance this precious inheritance on behalf of Melburnians and Victorians; indeed as Trustee for all Australians as well. 

The story of the MCG starts eight years earlier, in 1853 gold rush Melbourne, when the Melbourne Cricket Club relocated from its previous home in the Southbank precinct to this ten acre site within the Government Paddock. The MCC was by that time already 15 years old, created only three years after John Batman arrived in Melbourne – a good reminder of our community’s love of, indeed obsession with, sport from its very beginnings.

Relocation might have been forced on the MCC at the time due to regular inundations of the Yarra and a proposed rail line alongside its old ground, but the choice of new home was inspired.  The MCG’s key attractions then – ample public parkland near the heart of the city – remain as relevant today as in 1853: a legacy which forms the foundation for Melbourne’s amazing central sports precinct today – a precinct that is the envy of the world.

Eight years later, in 1861, the MCG Trust came into being, at the MCC’s initiative, recognising that a role existed for a body with independent oversight of the ground given that:

• The MCG was located on Crown Land.
• The MCC had responsibilities to its Club members that could differ on occasions from its responsibilities as manager of the ground.

So the Trust is, and always has been, closely aligned in its activities with the MCC, but with ultimately separate roles and responsibilities.  The name MCG Trust is well chosen – our job is to oversee the management and improvement of the ground on trust for current and future generations.

Like everything here at the ground, our governance model is unique in Australian, indeed world, sport. Other famous Australian sports grounds such as the Sydney Cricket Ground have a sole body overseeing and running the ground; others like the WACA ground have ownership and management of the ground integrated with the state cricket association.

Like all long marriages, the Trust and the MCC’s partnership has had its moments down the years. But looking behind us tonight at this magnificent stadium and contemplating its proud history, it’s clear the model has served Melbourne and Australian sport very well.

Many things in Australian life have changed profoundly since the year the MCG Trust was founded – the year that also saw the grim denouement of the Burke and Wills expedition. 

Many things at the MCG have also changed profoundly - most notably the ground infrastructure. The Northern Stand completed in 2006 for Melbourne’s Commonwealth Games is the 14th permanent pavilion or grandstand to have been erected around the perimeter. And looking behind me tonight, you won’t see any physical infrastructure that pre-dates the light towers from 1985.  

While much has changed here, some things never have.

Chief among these has been the absolute goal of successive MCG Trusts, including the current one, to ensure that the ground remains our greatest community asset. 

What also remains constant is the sense of continuity, a sense of unbroken lineage with history and tradition that pervades this place, notwithstanding its changing physicality.

This history, tradition and sense of place saw the MCG obtain National Heritage Listing in 2005. 

A big factor in this sense of continuity has been the unbroken innings at the ground of the MCC, rivalling Bill Lawry at his finest with a patiently accumulated 158 not out.  With 101,000 members and another 217,000 on the waiting list, it has no peer as the most popular and democratic sporting club in the world.  This is an organisation with a deep love of sport and respect for sporting accomplishment and tradition.

The importance of the AFL and its predecessor the VFL cannot be overstated, staging most of its biggest games, and its biggest annual occasion, the Grand Final, here on the biggest stage in Australian sport no fewer than 106 times. A remarkable tradition, and one that continues to grow, no better example than the Anzac Day match, invented in its current form in 1995, but now one of the most keenly anticipated and important events on the national sporting calendar.

Likewise cricket, with its Test match tradition at the MCG that marks the origins of Test cricket, and the much-loved Boxing Day Test that is such a staple of our summers.  

And the National Sports Museum, telling stories of Australian sporting accomplishment in all fields of endeavour.  

Essential to preserving and enhancing tradition is that the ground be a successful commercial enterprise, and on any measure, the modern MCG is a just that – a superbly run business. 

Less than six years after completing the $465 million Northern Stand redevelopment project, the MCC’s net debt today is $100 million or one third less than what was forecast at this time when the redevelopment was embarked upon.

Ground revenues will this year for the first time exceed $100 million, double their level of a decade ago.  A fine achievement, enabling amongst other things the current $55 million upgrade to the Great Southern Stand.

Tonight, on this significant occasion, I salute the Melbourne Cricket Club and:

• The current management team led by Stephen Gough
• Stephen’s predecessors
• MCC Committees past and present, and
• in particular, the MCC Presidents during my tenure on the Trust, Messrs Church, Jones, Meiklejohn and Sheahan

for the outstanding job they have done and continue to do.

Of course there’s no show without the stars and the Trust recognises that the MCG’s success is absolutely dependent on the support and success of our sporting code partners. 

The achievements of the AFL since the formation of the Commission in 1984 have been simply phenomenal. To illustrate, total AFL attendances at the MCG in 1992, the year the Great Southern Stand was opened, were 1.7 million. This year they topped three million. 

Crowds are not only larger, they’re also much more family oriented, with females now representing nearly half of all match attendances – a remarkable achievement for a traditional male sport.  

The relationship between the MCG and the AFL is truly symbiotic.  Some 85% of our annual MCG attendances come from the AFL, and the MCG in turn represents around 40% of annual AFL match crowds around Australia.  What’s good for the ground is generally good for the game, and vice versa. 

Tonight I acknowledge and thank the leadership of the AFL, represented here by Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick, for your and your predecessors’ astute management of and vision for the game and your strong support for the MCG. 

The AFL of course is the representative vehicle for its clubs, and it’s the passion for these clubs that drives the fans through the gates.  We treasure our strong associations with all of the Victorian based clubs. 

We’re particularly fortunate to have the relationship we do with our four home clubs, Collingwood, Melbourne, Hawthorn and Richmond, and we acknowledge them and their Presidents tonight for their contribution to the MCG story. 

One figure alone says it all about the importance of club loyalty in tribal Melbourne: of the three million AFL spectators at the MCG this season, 1.25 million attended matches involving Collingwood. 

Turning to our most traditional sport, cricket continues to underpin MCC membership revenues, the largest single source of ground income. 

Cricket is in the middle of a fascinating journey, seeking to retain its traditions and heritage while reinventing itself to adapt to changing community lifestyles. 

No-one really knows the end point on this road - we sincerely hope that Test cricket remains the pinnacle of, and the benchmark for, achievement in the game. All forms of the game will always be welcome here at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. 

To Wally Edwards, Chairman of Cricket Australia and Geoff Tamblyn, Chairman of Cricket Victoria, I re-affirm tonight on behalf of the Trust the importance of our partnership and thank you and your predecessors for your and their support. 

The marquee annual events of our two most traditional sports are inextricably linked in the public imagination with the MCG. History records that alternative venues for these events have been contemplated from time to time down the years, spurred by possibly superior short term commercial outcomes.

Thankfully, on each occasion, common sense has prevailed, ensuring that the big matches have stayed at their rightful place here at the MCG. For this we owe a debt of gratitude to the wisdom and judgement of

• our sporting code partners
• ground management, and
• the Victorian Government, which has from time to time given matters a timely push in the right direction. 

Successive Victorian Governments, from both sides of the political divide, have played an instrumental role in the growth and development of the MCG since its inception.  The first Chairman of the MCG Trust was William Haines, Premier of Victoria.  Premier Sir Henry Bolte and Former Premier Lindsay Thompson served as Chairmen of the Trust, for 12 and 11 years respectively, and made long lasting contributions.

The MCG would not have been an Olympic stadium had it not been for the Cain Government of the 1950s. 

The MCG would not have its iconic light towers and the Great Southern Stand if it were not for the Cain Government of the 1980s.  Vital to the Great Southern Stand project was a new 40 year agreement between the AFL, MCC and MCG Trust, an agreement to which the Cain Government not only gave its strong support but also a guarantee of the debt finances. This agreement underpinned not only that redevelopment, but also the commercial strength of the ground ever since.

The first big undertaking of the 21st century, the Northern Stand project, existed in the imagination of Premier Kennett in the late 1990s well before it existed on paper. 

The Bracks Government followed through with drive, funding and support to ensure the Northern Stand project became a reality, and the redevelopment did Melbourne proud during the Commonwealth Games. 

And so it continues, with the Baillieu Government, and the Brumby Government before it, strong supporters of our current projects to upgrade the Great Southern Stand and install a water recycling plant in Yarra Park. The Baillieu Government is an enthusiastic supporter of our long term plans beyond these projects, and we thank you Premier, and Minister Delahunty, for your support.
 
Last but not least, I want to acknowledge and thank MCG Trustees past and present, many of whom are here tonight, who have made a quiet but immeasurable contribution to the ground’s development and progress.  I am proud to serve on the Trust with many fine and public-spirited people. 

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, the MCG is our undisputed national home of sport, it’s a highly successful commercial enterprise, it’s even a source of that rarest of commodities, political bipartisanship. 

But in my view, the real key to the greatness of this ground rests in the way it has, over the years, captured – and come to represent – the values we most cherish in Australian life.

These values aren’t found in any contract, nor in the MCC’s long membership waiting lists, not even in the memories of great sporting events of times past. 

But they are tangible, and central to who we are and what we believe in as a nation.

The MCG is a symbol to all Australians as a pinnacle of achievement and excellence.  And of the effort and sacrifice required to reach that pinnacle, with the inevitable accompanying stories of

• good and bad luck
• humility in victory
• grace in defeat, and
• the redemptive power of sport.

This is the People's Ground, embodying that quintessential Australian belief in egalitarianism.  Where our community comes together as one, united by a love of sport and team that transcends those invisible lines that divide other societies.

It is the place where Victorians and Australians turn to honour those who serve them or are in need.  Come 2.30pm every 25th April, the eyes of the country, and of Australian soldiers throughout the world, are fixed firmly on the MCG with its simple but profound pre-match Anzac ceremony.  And when bushfires and other disasters strike, this is the natural host for community fund raising events.

The MCG showcases the renowned volunteer spirit of Australia – no better example than the MCC guides, who donate their time and service for no reason other than the public good and their love for the place.

It showcases the essential decency and good nature of Australian sport – a view I concede that AFL umpires might take issue with, given the occasional words of advice and encouragement they receive from our crowds. 

But people come to this ground confident that they and their families can enjoy a good sporting encounter without fear for personal safety, and without need to be segregated from opposition supporters, no matter how ferociously tribal are our club loyalties. 

Where else in the world would the first instinct of a victorious football team be to break out in a song?

And the MCG speaks stories and traditions of great courage:
 
• In cricket, of a bandaged and swollen Rick McCosker, stepping onto the ground to bat in the 2nd innings of the 1977 Centenary Test when the match hung in the balance

• In AFL – a contact sport where acts of fortitude occur routinely each week - of a man whose courage shone through consistently on the field, a hallmark he has carried through into his private life in a manner that is inspirational to countless Australians  - speaking of course of the beloved President of Melbourne Football Club, Jim Stynes.

• In athletics, of Kerryn McCann’s stirring and triumphant battle with Kenya’s Hellen Cherono in the 2006 Commonwealth Games marathon - a victory she attributed in typically modest fashion to the MCG crowd with her famous remark:

 “It wasn’t me running the last 300 metres”. 

Greg McCann, we’re incredibly pleased you’re here tonight with your and Kerryn’s son Benton.  She wrote her name indelibly into our hearts and MCG legend that day in March 2006 with that magnificent performance.

So the MCG embodies much of what we believe in as a society:

• Egalitarianism
• A love of, and excellence in, sport
• Anzac traditions of courage, and
• A sense of community and service. 

It is here at the MCG that Australia holds a mirror to itself and says that it likes what it sees.

Tonight, on the 150th birthday of the MCG Trust, the ground can look forward to the future with great confidence and optimism.
 
Its infrastructure is modern and continues to be upgraded.

Its playing surface is in its best condition in 158 years.

Crowd numbers continue to surpass records.

The ground enjoys outstanding relationships with successful and growing sporting codes. 

It thrives as a business.

It anchors Melbourne’s amazing sporting precinct that continues to grow in size and importance to the city every year. 

And its collection of Australia’s sporting heritage continues also to grow in size and importance, no better example than Cadel Evans’ outstanding gesture tonight.

But most of all, the MCG’s place in our hearts is secure. 

Think of the kids going to bed tonight around Australia dreaming of great sporting feats to come - not anywhere, but here at the MCG.

Look at the face of any 10 year old Auskicker told he or she will play a half time match on the hallowed turf.

Ask any AFL draft pick hopeful where they would most like to play a game of footy – here on the MCG. 

Ask any player lucky enough to have played in an AFL Grand Final the most striking moment of their career – if it’s not the final siren that signalled a win, then it’s the wall of noise that physically shook them as they ran on to the famous arena.

Ask any cricketer on what day and in which match they’d most like to pull on the Baggy Green – it’s Boxing Day at the MCG.

As these dreams get stronger with the years, so too does the MCG’s place as the heart and soul of Australian sport and of Melbourne. 

At 150, the story book of the MCG is only partly written.  Its best is yet to come.

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