NRL | Newcastle Knights officials are counting on their largest home crowd of the season when they host St George Illawarra on Saturday.

PAROCHIAL: Knights fans have turned out in strong numbers all season. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
PAROCHIAL: Knights fans have turned out in strong numbers all season. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

THE Newcastle Knights are confident of finishing the season as they started it – with a bumper home crowd that reaffirms their reconnection with long-suffering fans.

The Knights play host to St George Illawarra at McDonald Jones on Saturday and are optimistic that a year of significantly improved home attendances will culminate in a season-high turnout.

Newcastle’s largest crowd of 2018 remains the 23,516 who attended the season-opener against Manly, memorably won with a field goal from star signing Mitchell Pearce in golden point.

Knights chief executive Phil Gardner is hopeful the combination of the finals-bound Dragons, who are usually a strong drawcard, and the annual Old Boys celebration will result in the club’s first crowd of 25,000-plus since the “Rise for Alex” round in 2014.

“There’s been a lot of interest,” Gardner said.

“We’ll be hoping for about 25,000, and I think that would give us a chance of finishing as high as second in the overall crowd figures, behind the Broncos.

“That’s a pretty good outcome for us, given that Brisbane’s stadium holds almost twice as many as ours. Our crowds have been fantastic all season.

“The support has been quite humbling, and it bodes so well for next year.”

Newcastle’s average home crowd of 18,456 is an improvement of almost 3000 per game on last year (15,619), or an increase of 18 per cent.

Only Brisbane (30,297) and South Sydney (19,162) have better numbers, and Souths’ average has been boosted by including the 38,824 that attended their season-opening clash with the Warriors in Perth – part of a double-header.

Take out that crowd, and Souths are actually averaging 17,195, more than 1000 per game less than the Knights.

Gardner said all of the other “metrics” have increased since the Wests Group assumed ownership of Newcastle’s embattled NRL franchise last November.

“Our memberships [17,451] have grown, as has our corporate support, our crowds are up, and we can finish as high as equal 10th, which is pleasing,” he said.

“Given where we’ve come from – three wooden spoons in a row – and that we’ve had a fairly injury-hit season, I think most people would agree that our position on the ladder is meritorious.”

Newcastle’s improved gate-takings will contribute towards the Knights finishing a season in the black for the first time in more than a decade. “Our expectations are that we will certainly break even, or even make a small profit,” Gardner said.

The Knights are understood to have lost more than $4 million last year, when the club was still under the NRL’s interim control after the demise of former owner Nathan Tinkler.

“It’s been a substantial turnaround,” Gardner said.

“Every single metric we’re up in. Certainly we’re more efficient, because of the economies of scale, in being part of a bigger business [Wests].

“But the support of the sponsors and the box-holders and members and fans, that has been the most pleasing thing. The credit goes to them for coming along to the games. The support of the community has been fantastic, and we want to repay them by building a team that can really get to where we want it to go.

“And I think we have the makings of that.”

Gardner admitted that, in the lead-up to Wests taking over, there had been concern about the prospect of the Knights becoming a financial black hole, given that for much of its 30-year history, the club had struggled to remain solvent.

“Even our [Wests] members were concerned,” Gardner said.

“They voted overwhelmingly in support of the takeover, but at the same time they were expecting us to lose money in doing it, especially in the first couple of years.

“That hasn’t transpired, which is great, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

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This story Knights banking on season-best crowd against the Dragons first appeared on Newcastle Herald.