We are the sporting capital of western Victoria, one of the biggest sporting hubs in regional Victoria, and still the question gets asked – why Ballarat?
This Ballarat hosted an FFA Cup clash between A-League soccer rivals Melbourne City and Sydney FC.
At the same time, we have been hosting National Basketball League club Melbourne United for its pre-season camp.
A near-full strength United played last season’s grand finalist Adelaide 36ers, albeit an untried Sixers outfit, in a full practice hit-out at the Minerdome on Friday night.
Both matches drew big crowds and vocal support.
The Minerdome was almost filled to capacity with fans keen to watch United in its first public match since its rebranding.
Almost 3000 soccer fans turned out at Morshead Park to watch City and Sydney battle on a cold, school night.
Still the question gets asked: why Ballarat, when the same game played in Melbourne could potentially attract double the crowd?
City and United are smart.
They are based in a very AFL-centred state, clamouring to compete, and a key step to do this is to get out of the metropolitan mindset.
Their names may say they are Melbourne, but really they are vying to represent the state as a whole and, to do so, they are taking their games to us in regional Victoria.
Country visits are fantastic ways to connect with fans and broaden the geographical supporter base.
But their visits were also well-earned for Ballarat.
This week alone we got to watch elite national and international players in matches.
We got the first sneak peek at Melbourne United, formerly Melbourne Tigers, playing under its new branding the same way we got the first look at A-League club Melbourne City playing as City, formerly Melbourne Heart, when City played a friendly in Ballarat last June.
This is about more than just luck or winning fans.
Ballarat has impressive sporting facilities, plans to keep improving, and hard-working home-grown sporting organisations that we should not take for granted.
We have the talent too.
United called up Ballarat Miners’ guard Ash Constable to spend the week training with the team.
When City had its first hit-out here, they battled Ballarat Red Devils.
City chief executive officer Scott Munn told The Courier at the time that it was an easy choice of a rival – the Reds were an in-form National Premier League Victoria team and could offer City a quality hit-out.
City and United gave a big tick to the city in adopting Ballarat as a training base – City reinforced this in its FFA Cup return – and they are not alone.
AFL club North Melbourne has made week-long community and training camps in Ballarat the past six years.
This has brought intra and inter-club AFL practice matches to Ballarat and this year delivered the city its first NAB Cup clash, a televised bout between North Melbourne and Carlton.
Other elite teams to camp in Ballarat include national women’s basketball team the Australian Opals (2013) and the Australian cycling team for its briefing and uniform fitting ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
This is no coincidence for Ballarat. We are good.
Soccer is a booming sport. Ballarat Red Devils chairman Duncan Smith said the city and the Ballarat soccer fraternity could not afford to rest on its laurels.
Ballarat won the right to host the Bahrain international team this coming summer ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup and with more international franchises potentially coming to Melbourne there was more chance to capitalise.
“They’ll be playing at the MCG but they’ll need somewhere to train,” Smith said.
“Imagine a Liverpool or Real Madrid training at Morshead Park and the people that will bring.
“It’s great for me as a soccer fan, it’s great for Ballarat soccer but it’s also great for the whole community.”
Smith has fielded positive calls from Ballarat business in the wake of the FFA Cup match this week.
It is the flow-on effect of visitors eating tea, staying in town or shopping that often gets overlooked when the big players arrive.
The hospitality from such businesses and the community is also an immeasurable factor in sporting teams’ visits.
Really, we are a friendly and welcoming city.
United’s American import Stephen Dennis told The Courier he loved the welcome his team has received about town this week at school and community visits.
Dennis said it was important to promote the game of basketball with the United brand about regional Victoria.
Players too, enjoyed a change of training location. Ballarat’s proximity is not too far from Melbourne, but it was far enough to allow players a chance to focus completely on their game with a break from their usual routine.
Why Ballarat? We are the gateway to a big, passionate regional fan base and we have the facilities to host teams well.
Imagine who else might visit Ballarat if we keep getting the funding to develop our sporting precincts.