What to do with Eden Park? Stadium questions of New Zealand Sport

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What to do with Eden Park? The stadium questions of New Zealand Sport
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 15: A general view of Eden Park is seen ahead of the round eight Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Hurricanes at Eden Park on April 15, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Discussion in New Zealand this week, has returned to the longstanding question ‘what to do with Eden Park?’ The home of the very first Rugby World Cup, site of two RWC victories for the All Blacks and Cricket World Cup matches, but commonly thought of as poorly positioned and an ageing white elephant.

All sentiment aside, the large stadium site is now poorly situated in a sprawling suburban area. With more residential restrictions in place on it’s operation than are tolerable for a large, sports entertainment venue, it’s place is under threat. While it can create a wonderful atmosphere for sports, the design is now outdated.

Sports commentators and broadcasters this week lambasted the Park, for not being ‘as much as what the modern sports fans requires’ of it. It’s use recently for Cricket has seen it mocked for it’s mis-shapen outfield, short boundaries where an NZLvAUS Twenty20 match produced nearly 500 runs!

While exciting to watch – including the chance to ‘Catch $50k in Prizes’ – the discussion that the adapted park is less than fit for purpose, is growing louder. With the Blues about to kick-off their season, some question if the Goliath stadium is out-dated.

Today, the need for an new International quality multi-sport facility is obvious.

What to do with Eden Park? The stadium questions in New Zealand Sport

The call to build a replacement stadium is getting louder. One that can host a multitude of events; from rugby, rugby league, sevens and other grass sports on a rectangular field. Cricket is most likely not an option, as the circular ground needed takes away from oval ball use–and vice versa.

The stadium must importantly be utilized for other uses. Large stadium concerts, events; anything from Ice Skating to X-Games (examples only) and much more. Eden Park–like other stadiums–has too many limitations. Like many historic places, it is now overwhelmed by it’s suburban neighbours. Located today in a position that does not allow for more night-time events [this is due to resident demands for noise pollution controls/light pollution and crowds] so the number of dates is limited.

The Auckland Council, local and central government have decisions to make….and to make then quickly. Should a large stadium retain it’s place, when it is being squeezed out ofa traditional home. Sooner, rather than later, a call has to made with an eye to the future.

Multi-Sport Facilities the Future Direction

Examples can be found world-wide. The StubHub Center, Madison Square Garden, Wembley Stadium and the Principality Stadium [formerly the Millenium Stadium] to name a few. They have more than one core function. Some include football as well as rugby/rugby league. They also have training facilities, often with gymnasium, offices and commercial facilities.

While many have long histories, others have been renovated and upgraded, to be future proofed. However, the call for others has been to replace the old, with new facilities. Some built on the same site, but many by shifting to more suitable sites. This could be the option for Eden Park, with it’s high yield from the valuable land available. A big call–as current teams and tenants may need to relocate–but that option is only hyperbole.

Not even active sports people involved, those who perform on the field, can say what planning and decisions might be made. The majority have an affinity for Eden Park, or Lancaster Park prior to that being damaged beyond repair, after the 2011 Earthquake.

What is clear though, is that the usage-mix does not work favourably. The visiting cricket players from Friday would be more than perplexed; bowlers at being blasted all over the park, batters at having such short boundaries to score from. From a layout perspective, it is a strange mix of activities, which is all too often ridiculed.

Last Word on Rugby can only describe the conversation occurring, and theorize on possible resolutions and usage.

Sports Entertainment

The needs of the consumer can influence sport. The example being test rugby, 15 players per side. Still the most desirable product that World Rugby delivers, but now with a confident alternative – rugby sevens. At just a fifth of the time needed to play a game, it has a broad market.

A growing market too that is attracting many fans. Often new to the sport, it can be called a ‘entry level’ place for rugby fans. And it is also a member of the sports entertainment industry.

Recent changes to the host venue of the HSBC New Zealand Sevens event proved that the game; when appealing and with elements designed to engage with fan-specific choices, is popular. And hosted well at FMG Stadium Waikato, it was a successful reinvention of the once popular Wellington Sevens. Sport as entertainment, shows how modern sports fans have different needs. The organizers used new tactics, which included motorcross rider Levi Sherwood performing in an entertainment zone.

And the same can be said of cricket. Test cricket and one day cricket, and more so now, T20 cricket may be played on a similar field but, the facilities must too be different. The faster version requires the same sized field, but can be played at times that are more attractive to fans today. At night; the NZLvAUS game was scheduled for 7pm.

So while the T20 saw a large crowd turn-up to Eden Park, factors which drew criticism were common. Transportation, parking/traffic chaos, food/beverage quality, amenities and the especially the layout of the boundaries. And all these concerns have been raised before–but again, only discussion. No options, no planning and what appears to be ‘no action’ to improve the fans experience.

Note: the Eden Park Trust Board have looked at innovative uses. The novelty of the ASB G9 promotion, delivered golf fans a unique opportunity. And recently, a zip-line was fixed from a high point down across the field. That is supported by the popular stadium tour groups. New options are being sought, yet they do not seem appropriate use for a 45,000 seat stadium.

Poor Patronage of Domestic Rugby

Although, at times the capacity of Eden Park can meet the capacity. Think the last British and Irish Lions tour matches. Sold Out, and the facilities seemed to meet demand. However, those test matches are too few to become self-sufficient. The high costs of maintenance; and a huge debt of $50 million dollars will become more, and more difficult to manage. This factor alone could influence stakeholder decisions. It seems that the weight of debt could well be a catalyst for change.

Add to the fact that, for domestic fixtures–and some Blues games–the ground is only half the filled. Broadcasters and facility management attempt to disguise this, by placing the crowd on one side of the stadium. The camera footage shows the maximum number of fans when shown in wider shots. But that often feels ‘fake’. When attending a Mitre 10 Cup game, a crowd of 5000 or less, can be soul destroying for a rugby fan.

Options need to be make, whereby Auckland Rugby games can be played at regional venues; Waitemata Stadium which has a covered grandstand was an option put forward by former-Auckland Rugby Chairman Andy Dalton. Only applicable to Mitre 10 Cup provincial games, the Blues also play matches at the North Harbour stadium (capacity of 30,000).

Super Rugby franchises must be the leading examples, for stadiums in New Zealand to house. The most effective being the Highlanders (Forsyth-Barr), the Hurricanes (Westpac), the Chiefs (FMG Waikato) and the Blues (Eden Park). Sadly, the Crusaders have had to endure the ‘temporary nature’ of AMI Stadium–past it’s use-by-date by any sports fans imagination.

New Zealand Stadiums must become class leading

In reality, New Zealand have many good facilities. Not exactly world-class, or even breaking new ground. But in several cases [sadly] not up to the standard. And with many of the administrators and designers having travelled and visited class-leading stadium, sports fans would envisage that the newer grounds would always be an improvement.

Forsyth-Barr Stadium is the newest stadium, and has many positives and some negatives. Some features are designed specific to the region and one of the most visible positives, multi-sport needs. The assorted use of the stadium is the envy of entertainment fans across the nation (and Australasia). Drift cars, Military Tattoo, Dog Shows, Agricultural shows and the most obvious, leading entertainers visiting the South Island.

But in being the first ‘covered stadium’ to be constructed, it is also class-leading. The ground and field is world-class. That turf technology can be employed across new developments–certainly not replicating the Millenium Stadium turf issues–and something that the South Island designers can be proud of.

That local ‘can do’ philosophy must be transferred to all new developments. Regions looking at what they desire, what teams and events will (and can) be hosted. That starts with the Christchurch concept, and as most will agree, that MUST HAPPEN. Their need and requirements are already known. The government support is known, so to the design/funding/administration who must all look towards the regional needs, the future and to drive the project.

If the fans of rugby, ball sports, entertainment and large venues can direct their voices toward a common goal, then the key stakeholders, cannot ignore them. Eden Park has a fine history, but when the needs of the populace change, then the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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