Discover more from The Bounce
A pot-holed history of NZ's stadium woes
Guest writer Brian Finn on how we got into such a sorry sporting infrastructure state, PLUS: A Father's Day special offer!
The former New Zealand Rugby communications chief and stadium advisor follows-up on his “one-off” rant about the state of our stadium infrastructure.
AS THE All Blacks ran out to take the field for what would be an historic and unwelcome loss to Los Pumas in Christchurch last Saturday, they ran past a row of portaloos.
It was perhaps a fitting metaphor not only for a poor performance - to paraphrase Steve Hansen one must flush the dunny and move on - but also for the poor standard of some of our sporting venues in Aotearoa.
Christchurch’s Orangetheory Stadium in Addington was a temporary option until the city got its long-promised new covered stadium. The stadium was built to last for five years but it’s had to be extended three times already. It is symptomatic of how much of our sporting and other civic infrastructure has been developed over the decades.
At the height of the recent debate about increasing funding for Christchurch’s new stadium, Te Kaha, one headline stood out: “Why does Christchurch need a stadium, anyway?”
The question was a provocative one. Why does any city need a stadium? And, for clarity, I’m talking about the larger outdoor stadiums here.
For most of us, the answer is self-evident. We need a place to stage big events like major sporting clashes, concerts, cultural and community festivals. A stadium is a piece of public infrastructure that sits alongside civic facilities such as the library, the arts centre, the theatre or opera house, the swimming pool and the botanical gardens.
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Stadiums, or stadia for grammar pedants, are not a new idea. Remember Olympia, that place outside Athens that hosted the ancient games. That stadium is still there!
So how did New Zealand’s stadia evolve to the network of round and rectangular structures dotted across our landscape now?
It’s a long and sometimes complicated story. But to save you some time, the shorthand is that rugby and cricket organisations and occasionally other sporting codes, helped establish and run the venues in their earliest days, sometimes with the help of local civic bodies.
Wellington’s Athletic Park hosted the first All Blacks test match played in New Zealand in 1904. The opponent was the British Isles, forerunner to the Lions. The following year, Dunedin’s Tahuna Park hosted the second test – against Australia. By 1908, Carisbrook was in play and hosted a return trip by the British Isles, with the Auckland test match on that match being hosted at Potter’s Paddock (in the area now containing Alexandra Park and Greenlane Hospital).
Eden Park had been a swamp, surrounded by kōuka or cabbage trees. Originally leased by the Kingsland Cricket Club, it was purchased by the Auckland Cricket Association in 1911 and in 1912, the Auckland Rugby Union leased it for rugby during the winter.
New Zealand’s first cricket tests were against a touring England side in 1930, with matches at Lancaster Park, the Basin Reserve in Wellington and Eden Park.
All of the early venues had been hosting local cricket and rugby prior to internationals and continued to evolve over the following decades. The local (provincial) sporting bodies who governed them had exclusive access that recognised their attachment to those venues.
In addition to cricket and rugby internationals, they would become the focal point for great sporting and cultural events. Eden Park was the main venue for the Empire Games in 1950. In 1956, when the Springboks toured in that epic series, the tests were played at Carisbrook, Athletic Park, Lancaster Park and Eden Park, where Peter Jones uttered the immortal words, “I’m completely buggered,” after the All Blacks completed their first series win against the Bok.
Over time, some of the venues came and went. The All Whites used to play at various grounds as captured here in this excellent New Zealand Herald piece (by The Bounce’s own Dylan Cleaver). Until it was demolished to make way for a student village, rugby league’s home ground was the crumbling, muddy but much-loved Carlaw Park. Mt Smart Stadium, under the auspices of the Auckland Regional Council, later became the home of league – hosting the NRL’s Warriors from their opening game in 1995.
By the 1970s and ’80s, the growth of our populations and of sport and need for creature comforts called for larger venues so embankments were replaced and new stands and seating added. In that classic Kiwi fashion, instead of remodelling we did a bit of home-spun renovation by changing out an old stand here for a new one there. This, by and large, is how all of our stadia were modernised and ‘improved’ over time.
The first significant venue development for a major event came with Christchurch’s staging of the 1974 Commonwealth Games. We joined together, as Steve Allen famously sang, and Christchurch got a new athletics stadium, a flash new swimming and diving facility and the almost brand-new town hall, which hosted wrestling and weightlifting. While the city was reportedly left with debts from the hosting of “the friendly games,” it had been a leap forward for venues in the Garden City. Sadly, each of those venues were brought down by the 2011 earthquake, along with AMI Stadium (formerly Lancaster Park).
In 1987, New Zealand hosted the first ever Rugby World Cup, thanks in part to lobbying by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and one of their councillors - an unsung hero from Whakatane by the name of Dick Littlejohn. While the World Cup did not, at the time, specify venue size or shape, it did create something of an appetite for events and for the inaugural champion All Blacks, who began packing out venues again. In those days, All Blacks fixtures were hosted by the provincial unions in test cities, as they held the exclusive right to book and promote rugby in their local venue, with test-match revenues shared with the national body.
In 1990, Auckland hosted the Commonwealth Games. After the chastening experience of Christchurch having to be bailed out with lottery funding, Auckland’s hosting was more modest - a new velodrome in Manukau, a new swimming complex in Henderson and a revamped Mt Smart as the main venue.
In 1992 New Zealand co-hosted – with Australia - the Cricket World Cup for the first time. We repeated that co-hosting in 2015. While neither event generated a need for a new venue, there were some upgrades around the place (notably at Dunedin’s University Oval, while Christchurch by this stage had controversially developed a corner of Hagley Park into Hagley Oval to provide a home for cricket in Canterbury once AMI Stadium was condemned).
In terms of rugby, in 1995 everything changed.
When rugby went open (that’s professional for those of us not steeped in the Corinthian values of the amateur era), money came pouring in. Rugby supporters became fans. And some of our rugby cathedrals started to look a bit crappy under the bright lights of televised Super Rugby and All Blacks matches.
Those venues that couldn’t host night fixtures began adding lighting. One of the last to secure lighting was Auckland’s Eden Park, which went through a lengthy and public battle with its surrounding neighbourhood to win the right to install lights. It also did a Shift-Alt-Delete of the old North Stand which became the-then new ASB Stand.
There were a hodgepodge of other stand replacements and upgrades in other places including Carisbrook and Lancaster Park around this time.
Then Wellington went one better in the late 1990s and built a whole new stadium. Now called Sky Stadium, it was cleverly located near the Wellington waterfront and train station and close to the CBD. This replaced the decrepit (but somehow still loved) Athletic Park in Newtown, which was literally “retired”. Once demolished the area became an aged-care village.
Hamilton developed a great little package of stadia with upgrades to Rugby Park (now FMG Stadium) and Seddon Park providing good-sized rugby and cricket options close to the middle of town.
In Auckland, the fact that the region had about 20 civic bodies (I exaggerate but you get the picture) meant each of the ‘cities’ wanted their own sports facilities. This saw North Shore City work with local sports and a development trust to establish North Harbour Stadium. Auckland Regional Council controlled Mt Smart. There was a provincial rugby stadium in Pukekohe and the venerable Ponsonby RC played out of Western Springs, ostensibly a speedway venue.
In 2005, two major things happened. New Zealand Rugby hosted the Lions for the first time in the professional era. Sell-out matches, crazy fans and a drama-filled tour proved a great platform for the second major thing. New Zealand bid for and – against all odds - won the right to host RWC 2011, beating out South Africa and Japan.
The RWC hosting decision started a stadium development frenzy of sorts.
A civic war broke out in Auckland with competing visions of the main stadium for the tournament. New Zealand’s then-Labour Government proposed a brand-spanking new stadium to be built over the wharves on the waterfront and which – incredibly – it would fund entirely. Auckland Regional Council said hell no (and didn’t even say thank you).
Auckland Council said yeah… maybe. Thanks to Auckland’s flaccid enthusiasm, the proposal ebbed away. Eden Park Trust Board, meanwhile, had waged a self-preservation campaign to keep hold of its place as the main venue for the tournament and for rugby. Such was the level of noise about this choice, a PR company at the time worked out that there were more column inches printed on the waterfront stadium debate than on the outbreak of World War II.
With the waterfront option gone, Eden Park was the last cab left on the rank (although North Harbour Stadium did put forward an upgraded version of itself as a last-minute alternative). In the end, Eden Park was begrudgingly granted $190 million in Government funding for an upgrade that saw a new South Stand and replacement of the eastern terraces. But despite the success of the tournament, the stadium outcome left most sports fans with a nagging sense of disappointment for what could have been with a purpose-built downtown stadium.
While all this had been happening, a man about town in Dunedin, Malcolm Farry, led a campaign that – incredibly – managed to plan, fund (mostly) and build a brand new, roofed stadium just in time for the RWC. This was timely because Christchurch’s unavailability due to the earthquake impacts meant games needed to be reallocated and Dunedin was one of the cities to benefit. Dunedin continues to boast the only covered football stadium in the country.
Thanks – in part – to the undignified stadium debate, Auckland’s local authorities were merged to form a “Super City”. The new Council came into effect in 2010 and a new Council entity sprang up to manage most of the city’s sporting venues. All except Eden Park.
As I have written previously, the fact that Eden Park is a privately owned and run venue that sits outside of the public structures is a major drawback for Auckland and for ratepayers, who have to kick funds into a venue that also siphons revenue away from the ratepayer-owned stadia.
It also prevents a city-wide conversation on what Auckland might do with its catalogue of poorly located and only partly useful stadia. While other local authorities have moved on and replaced their ageing facilities (or are in the process of doing that in Christchurch and Tauranga), Auckland has struggled on with the status quo.
This sadly reflects New Zealand’s poor history of strategically planning for, funding and developing infrastructure. In short, we’re crap at it as this report highlights. We don’t need to look far for examples of those doing it well.
Across the Tasman and around our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood, there are many great examples of cities, regions and countries that have wrestled with and resolved their infrastructure needs in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for a second Auckland harbour crossing. The plans for the first one – built way back in the middle of the last century - originally included eight lanes, a rail line, a walkway and a freaking cycleway. Our city burghers of the time said no thanks. Too expensive. Within months the penny-pinched bridge was already at capacity.
In the past five years in Australia they have opened two brand new, mid-size football stadia (Parramatta and Townsville), one terrific new oval venue (Optus Oval in Perth) and are about to open another new major stadium development (Allianz/Sydney Football Stadium) and have plans for more. That’s not to mention the many AFL training and playing grounds that have benefited from recent upgrades. Further afield, Singapore and Hong Kong have built or are building a new national stadium.
Our tendency – on stadia as much as on harbour crossings - is to delay and tread water as the costs go ever higher (Christchurch’s Te Kaha) or continue to kick the can down the road Auckland (downtown stadium feasibility study anyone?). Then, when a major event is imminent, we are forced into action, often with inefficient and less than stellar outcomes.
Now in 2022, New Zealand has just hosted the women’s Cricket World Cup, is about to host the RWC for women, and next year will co-host with Australia the Fifa Women’s World Cup.
These events have not – in themselves – required new venues although the rapid growth of women’s sport is changing some of the specifications that modern stadia need to provide, for example, in the changing sheds (less urinals and communal showers, more and better changing rooms). The change in demographics, as well as a focus on health and safety and, increasingly, environmental outcomes, is presenting new challenges but also opportunities in the way we go about designing, developing and operating major stadia.
But our higgledy-piggledy and needs-must/last-minute approach to developing stadia in this country means we continue to lack facilities that genuinely cater for all sporting bodies, promoters and – most importantly – for our fan and community needs.
We have facilities, yes, but are they world-class? Do they provide a quality viewing experience? Kudos to those cities and regions that have wrestled with this and done something about it, but if we’re honest, the answer is generally no – especially if you live in Auckland.
(Side note to Auckland’s next mayor – Tauranga/Mt Maunganui has a cricket oval and plans for a footy stadium!)
As a country - and for Auckland as a super city - we can do better.
Our love for and success at a wide range of sports and growing demand for a whole raft of new entertainment options justifies investment and support for better facilities.
The potential for another Lions Tour (2029) and for New Zealand to host the Commonwealth Games (2030 or 2034?) are opportunities to take a detailed and long-term look at our venues and how we might take a leap forward so that we are set for the now and the future.
A strategic approach would also mean these facilities will perform better, be more financially and environmentally sustainable and attract the right mix of private and public investment.
In the third and final of my “one-off” stadium articles, I will outline a plan as to how we might do that.
A former head of communications for New Zealand Rugby, Brian Finn runs public affairs consultancy Engage Group. He has had a lifelong love affair with stadiums and big sporting events. They haven’t always loved him back.