The iconic Ellis Park Stadium, with its towering 62,500-seat capacity, is widely regarded as a key monument for both the city of Johannesburg and South African Rugby. However, a recent spike in crime and a drop in attendance in the area could see the local URC outfit, the Emirates Lions, depart for a small stadium.
Writing in the SA Rugby Magazine, journalist Simon Borchardt wrote that URC the Emirates Lions could soon be looking for a new home.
As the 2023-24 European Challenge Cup kicked off, the Lions secured an impressive win against Perpignan in France. Anticipation was high for their first home match against the Newcastle Falcons, yet Ellis Park witnessed an almost desolate atmosphere, with a meagre official attendance of 2,500, likely including suite holders.
While rain and holiday travel may have contributed to the sparse crowd, the glaring issue lies in the stadium’s location in Doornfontein—a dilapidated, crime-ridden suburb next to Hillbrow in downtown Johannesburg. The once-thriving in-stadium experience contrasts sharply with the nerve-racking journey to and from the venue.
Safety concerns have plagued Ellis Park, deterring fans from attending matches. Tales of muggings, robberies, and even hijackings have created a sense of unease for spectators. Personal anecdotes recount the need to be vigilant, even during daylight hours, and avoid red traffic lights at night to evade potential hijackings.
The question now looms: What does this mean for the Lions’ future and even the Springboks fixtures at the site of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final? Fans, media, and even locals have voiced their concerns on social media, with many suggesting a move to a smaller, safer venue. Suggestions range from university stadiums like Wits and UJ to renowned venues such as Pirates and Wanderers. The idea of relocating to Orlando Stadium, which hosted the 2010 Super Rugby final, has also gained traction.
Some have proposed a more ambitious solution to a brand-new stadium in a secure area, integrating shops, restaurants, and entertainment. The thought process behind this is that fans would be drawn not only by the game itself but by the overall experience.
CEO Rudolf Straeuli acknowledged earlier this year that the Lions had considered alternative venues but faced challenges due to existing Ellis Park season ticket holders. However, as the season unfolds with visibly empty seats and downtown Johannesburg’s continued decline, the need for change becomes more apparent.
While Ellis Park’s manager, Pieter Burger, remains optimistic about the facility’s potential, the reality of diminishing crowds and safety concerns may push the Lions towards a new home sooner rather than later. As one tweets, “There’s still too much opportunity and life left in a very iconic facility to just give up,” but the resounding question remains: for how much longer?