This weekend Harry Lowe will tuck his soccer shirt into his shorts, pull up his socks, adjust his shinpads and run on to the pitch for his first ninth grade game of the season.
The 8-year-old will do this on 16 Saturdays for his Eastern Suburbs club. Last season, he played most of his games at Madills Farm in Kohimarama - a well-drained, sand-carpeted turf - and had only one game cancelled. But ask his mates who play for the same club at St Heliers' Glover Park, a soil surface, and it's a very different ball game. They managed just four games for the whole of last season because the grounds have to be closed.
"Glover is no worse than many grounds in Auckland," says Eastern Suburbs president Chris Ruffell. "And Crossfields is literally a lake for much of winter - you can't play on it."
Each week thousands of soccer, rugby and league players are given the disappointing news that their games are cancelled. Even a day's rain can force Auckland Council to close the grounds because of poor drainage and the risk of damage.
Soccer is worst affected because, of 4666 teams playing the three football codes in Auckland, 65 per cent play the round-ball game, 22 per cent play rugby and 13 per cent league. They play on 777 community sportsfields around the city - both council and privately owned (546 full-size, 47 three-quarter, and 184 half-size). Most soccer games are played on council land.
Over the year these grounds are closed more than 20 per cent of the time (on average, including summer months). The number explodes in winter. In the first half of the 2011 season, Orakei area fields, for example, were closed 33 per cent of the time (Glover Park for 57 per cent of the season).
Many soccer families say they're so fed up with cancelled games, they've given up. Subs for an 8-year-old at Eastern Suburbs are $140, plus boots, shirt and shorts. If a kid plays only a quarter of the season's games, basketball starts to look like a good alternative.
Mr Ruffell says in five years the club has lost 32 per cent of its players, and surveys show the most common reason is cancellations.
"To be honest, it's lucky we do lose them because we immediately get new ones back. If we kept them all we would be in even more strife with the lack of playing fields."
"Orakei is the most extreme example," agrees Auckland Football CEO David Parker. "For 10 years there has been a shortfall in the area that services Eastern Suburbs, Ellerslie and Mt Wellington [clubs]. There's a big population and not enough to play on. Those clubs have closed their rolls but even if kids stop playing, another kid joins, so a 3.5 per cent growth rate remains."
In 10 years the number of Auckland footballers is projected to grow 40 per cent. The region will be home to 38 per cent of New Zealand's population in 2031, compared to 33 per cent in 2006.
Eastern Suburbs and six other clubs that make up the federation's central league (Central United, Ellerslie, Onehunga, Three Kings, University-Mt Wellington and Waiheke) are worst affected by the shortage of grounds.
Suburbs is the biggest, with 1900 players who spread their home games across Madills Farm, Glover Park and Crossfields Park in Glendowie. It has 12 senior grounds, three sand-carpeted (at Madills). The council is also sand-carpeting three at Crossfields.
"They're probably a couple of weeks away from being finished, and then will require some 'growing' time for the grass," says Mr Ruffell. "I'm hopeful by mid-to-late May we can use them. Fingers crossed, if the weather can hold out until then, they should be usable this season and it will get better every year."
Mr Parker explains soil grounds give, on average, 10 hours of play or practice a week; sand-carpet 20 hours; artificial 40-50 hours.
Sand-carpeted and artificial turfs are not cheap. Sand-carpeting costs around $250,000 for each field, with consents and drainage, and will give it eight more hours of use a week.
Training can continue almost year-round, along with summersoccer. They should last around 10 years but, because they are overused in some parts of Auckland, some last just five.
Upgrading a soil ground to an artificial ground costs up to $2 million, and adds an extra 30 hours a week.
The council has plans and consent for an artificial turf at Michaels Ave, Ellerslie, which it says is a priority for 2012-13. That includes a full-sized pitch and smaller warm-up and training area. It says there is also funding available to install sand-carpets and training lights on the lower sports fields in the next two-three years.
Mr Ruffell, involved with Eastern Suburbs for many years, says this is the first season he's felt positive that something is finally being done.
"The future is a lot brighter than it has ever been, with a huge push by the council to bring all sportsfields up to a decent standard in the next 10 years," he says.
Mr Parker agrees. "This council has been very empathetic. I've been here six years and this is the most optimistic I've felt."
SUPPORT FOR FUNDING
Last year, after a study of projected demand for the next decade, the council requested an extra $10.3 million a year. They didn't quite get $103 million - but $87.5 million awaits a stamp in the Draft Long Term Plan in June, on top of $77 million in the legacy council's coffers and another $38 million for maintaining sand-carpets. That's $202.5 million for development and renewal over the next 10 years. "Public consultations are being held from April to May, but there is a high degree of political support for this funding and a lot of work has been done on researching the city's needs," says Mark Bowater, the local parks and sportsfields manager.
He says sportsfields are part of the council's core role. "This shows the advantage of the Auckland Council model - we can finally take a region-wide approach."
The study looked at issues all over Auckland, with the central region shown as worst affected.
"The central clubs are large and the pressures are greatest on them," says Mr Bowater.
Across the bridge, where Northern Football Federation looks after the game, the population is projected to grow more than 43 per cent by 2021. Northern competitions manager Terry Hobin says with 20 per cent of its matches put
off by ground closures, the situation is a challenge for administrators and players alike.
'We make sure all the competition and championship games do get played, but that might mean games on both Saturdays and Sundays at the end of the season to catch up."
Northern soccer has asked council to look at upgrading the artificial turf at North Harbour Stadium, showing signs of wear because of overuse. They've also suggested an artificial alongside it that they hope gets the nod for 2013-14.
"That will really help but the ideal is to have two artificials at the bottom of Rosedale Park, one full-size and one almost full-size, for training."
In the West, Mr Hobin says the artificial pitch at Parrs Park, Oratia, has been a godsend, and another at the multi-sports facility at Starling Park in Ranui should be started by the end of the season.
Like his counterparts across the bridge, Mr Hobin is feeling positive about council's indication it's addressing the sportsfield issue. "We've had good meetings with them and things are definitely changing - they can pool the legacy councils' money together and spend it in the right places."
Surprisingly, there is officially a surplus of 697 playing/training hours available each week across Auckland (see Fields of Play). But closures in recent years have turned that surplus into a shortfall of 1047 hours.
"At school you study for an exam, and then do the exam," says Mr Ruffell. "With so many trainings cancelled, we are making kids play their games on Saturday without any practice, without learning skills to play in the game."
His federation spreads demand by running youth and women's leagues on Sundays and junior leagues on Friday nights. But midweek play is limited by the impact on surfaces in any week, plus lack of floodlighting. In another move, the council is working on a partnership between Auckland Rugby Union, which owns the former Marist club grounds of Liston Park in Ellerslie, and soccer. Auckland Rugby is set to develop the grounds for the Blues, but would make them available to soccer for more than 100 hours a week, with the Ellerslie club given priority.
Auckland-wide, demand equates to 20 new artificial fields over a decade - 10 central, four south, three each in north and west. Even if they were in top-priority areas, the region would need 200-300 sand-carpet upgrades to meet the shortfall for training. "The next two to five years is crucial," says Mr Parker. "If we can make inroads, then we will be on the way."
Mr Ruffell agrees. "Football numbers would skyrocket if we had enough grounds. I'm a football nut but I don't care what sport kids play ... they just need to be out there being active."
PRIVATE DEVELOPMENT AT ORAKEI
The Oceania Football Confederation - Fifa's umbrella body for Pacific soccer - wants to build a $12-$15 million floodlit sports complex with three artificial pitches and an indoor arena at no cost to the ratepayer. It's looking at Ngahue Reserve, near the growing suburb of Stonefields, and wants the council to give a peppercorn lease in exchange for the fields being available for community use eight months a year.
Neighbour Greg Nikoloff is concerned. "There's a definite need for more efficient sportsfields, but I think the sports facility is going up in the wrong spot," he says.
The complex could accommodate 2000 spectators, and a carpark is planned, but Mr Nikoloff says the area can't cope. Traffic is a problem with the netball centre (26 courts, 600 carparks, Sunday markets) next door to the site; and a growing shopping centre.
Auckland Transport spokeswoman Sharon Hunter says approval would be needed for parking before the Oceania plan went ahead.
The Orakei Local Board supports the idea and says any agreement should see 96 hours a week available for the community. Confederation secretary Tai Nicholas says it recognises a need for more recreational facilities, but is wary of commenting during talks.
Eastern Suburbs club chairman Chris Ruffell says the club's supportive of the proposal but worries "if council sees a $15 million development happening in the Orakei ward they might think we are being well looked after and put the upgrades so desperately needed on the back-burner. We need Council to rubber stamp its planned spending on council grounds before this goes ahead".
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