Turf wars: Battle over Baypark's future

By Julia Proverbs

3 comments

Gumboots line the entrance of Baypark Stadium.

Despite it being the middle of summer, they are clogged with thick, orange clay.

It's an occupational hazard of working at the venue, which was originally built for, and is still predominantly used by, speedway.

The dusty ochre track has become a mudbath over the past fortnight as the grassy infield has been carved into jetsprint water channels for a world first.

It's enough to make ardent rugby supporters weep. Three days out from the event, ticket sales have already exceeded that of any Super Rugby match held here.

The V8 jetsprint races, the first to be held inside a stadium arena, are an innovation that it is hoped will boost the stadium's takings and mana.

Home of the Bay of Plenty Steamers, Baypark has hosted an array of events - concerts, rugby games, kapa haka and, of course, speedway, which currently accounts for more than three quarters of its use.

The 17,500-seat stadium (expandable to a capacity of 19,700) boasts the southern hemisphere's largest speedway track, but it sits as uncomfortably with punters as it does with the eye.

The grit and roar of speedway is not a natural fit with the flawless finish high-level sports teams require.

This is the stadium that Bob built. "It was one of my weak moments," Tauranga property developer Bob Clarkson says laughing.

"I was building industrial buildings for a fair while and I was looking for something to do a little bit different. A lot of people buy a big boat to pick up some chicks ... I spent the money on a stadium."

Twenty-four million dollars to be exact. "We all have desires, big or little," he adds.

Clarkson, who has been involved with speedway for 55 years, planned to spend $1.5 million to "build something better than a tin fence and a dirt bund" to replace the Todd and Pollock speedway at Mount Maunganui that had closed in 1995 due to urban growth.

"I started drawing plans and I found the bigger I made it, the better it got financially. It was a bit of an over-run."

He says it was always his intention for the stadium to be multi-purpose.

"I made the track slightly bigger than normal in diameter so I could fit a football field in the middle. It was built in anticipation of football."

The track opened in 2001 with the roar of engines, although it was not the stadium of today - the roof came later to accommodate rugby.

"The first three nights averaged 15,000 people. People flew in from England. One couple came for their honeymoon. They got tickets six months before the stadium was built. It started with a hiss and a roar," recalls Clarkson.

The Steamers later came on board and the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union shared the costs and takings with Clarkson.

The arrangement worked well, with the Steamers winning the Ranfurly Shield in 2004.

However, after three years the union decided to go it alone.

"They wanted to take it over themselves ... and it took a giant leap backwards. Financially it took a giant leap backwards too," says Clarkson.

"We rolled along and they paid for the use of the stadium when they had a game."

Then a few years later a throw-away comment by Clarkson sealed the fate of the stadium.

"I was overheard at a function saying that if someone paid me half price I would sell it. The council came to see me the following week."

Clarkson agreed to sell and in 2007 Tauranga City Council took ownership of Baypark, having paid $12 million.

"I'm achievement-based. I'd achieved what I wanted," says Clarkson of his decision to sell.

But he is less sure of the council's decision to buy.

"Buying the stadium was the best deal the council has ever done but why the hell did they want it when it was being run successfully?"

Stadiums are well renowned for not making money, he says. And hard economic times have taken their toll.

"I told them they would have a tough few years because the economy was going down. We've been through tough times. People haven't got the money," he says of dwindling crowd numbers.

"Given time it will come back."

He admits having a dual-purpose stadium is not ideal, but says people should "wake up and stop rubbishing the stadium".

In time, it could be modified to accommodate large, professional sporting events.

If it was in his hands, Clarkson said he would move speedway, when its contract expires in 2020.

"I would move speedway and take the concrete wall down, put an extra four to five rows in (taking it to 18,000 seats) and raise the football field so it can drain better."

Meanwhile, council needs to think outside the square, he advises.

"They're doing that with the jetsprinting. I don't know if it's a good idea, but good luck."

Willie Kay was employed by Clarkson to promote speedway during its heyday, later buying the rights off Clarkson and, later still, selling them to council.

"It was the highest attending speedway in New Zealand and Australia ... Baypark was up there in the bunch of speedways," says Kay, who came to Baypark after 10 years at Western Springs.

It is not, he says, an easy business to run.

"You have to work hard to stay on the ball. You have to spend money in the hope people are going to come through and reimburse the losses."

He believes moving speedway from Baypark would be its death knell.

"It would be the end of speedway as we know it. I've always adhered to the principle it's all about the fans. Speedway is an entertainment and a spectator sport. Sending it off to somewhere else that is remote would seal its fate as a participants' sport. There's no question about it."

While sharing the venue with the likes of rugby is not ideal, he thinks it is the best solution.

"I've always found rugby relatively difficult to deal with, mainly because of my intense focus on speedway ... but we've got a stadium and all the facilities and we need to utilise that," Kay says. "Building another stadium for this size of city for what they want probably isn't sensible."

Andrew Flaxman, chief executive of the Chiefs, says the turf at Baypark is not up to the standard required for Super Rugby, and is hazardous to players.

"My understanding is that it's more a purpose-built speedway," Flaxman says.

However, the team's new alliance with Taranaki is also a factor in its decision not to play at Baypark this year. Flaxman said he would not rule out playing at Baypark in the future if the turf was brought up to scratch.

"If the playing surface was of a standard expected and demanded by Super Rugby teams, absolutely we would. We have a long-term association with the Bay of Plenty and we value that association. The yield at Baypark has always been good. It stacks up very well. We've had good crowds there."

Ervin McSweeney, Baypark's commercial manager, says that level of playing surface could be achieved but it would come at a cost.

"You can make it perfect but it's a question of how much you invest. To make the turf the desired standard in Super Rugby has a large cost. Obviously speedway doesn't help it but with the right turf culture we can improve it - but is that the issue?" he asks.

"For the last four years we've had four very successful Super Rugby games here but it doesn't attract test matches. The All Blacks have not played here. They haven't played in Rotorua either. If you had a 15,000 stand in Tauranga you wouldn't get the All Blacks to play in Tauranga very often because they need to generate a much bigger gate than that."

The loss of Super Rugby to Tauranga this year impacts the community more than to the viability of the stadium, he adds.

"The stadium is still underpinned by speedway. Our obligation's to broaden that ambit. There are more things we can hold here. When we put something on with an extra element of entertainment it attracts a bigger crowd."

The stadium is running to budget, McSweeney says.

But it is budgeted to run at a loss.

"We expect a small loss this year, which is an improvement on last year. Not many stadiums do [make a profit]. They cost so much to build and there is a lot of community facility aspect to them, not like a private business."

But, with the addition of the $42 million TECT Arena in 2010, the venue is starting to work as a single unit, he says.

"We want to encourage the community to use it as much as possible and attract as much business. "

McSweeney says speedway is waning but hopes with sunnier economic times ahead it will recover.

"Inevitably if there is a change in the economic environment, if there's an upturn, it will see a lot more money spent on leisure activities. Hopefully speedway will come back stronger."

Baypark is a "fantastic asset", he says. "I think you have to accept it was first set up as speedway, not a specialist venue. That creates a situation where certain elements are compromised, such as the ability to be seated right on the sideline or to have flawless turf. Some can be overcome with investment, some can't."

Sharon Jackman, who originally ran the stadium for Clarkson, says there needs to be balance in discussions.

"A city our size definitely needs a stadium. Maybe Baypark isn't perfect but the reality is we would need to spend a whole lot more money when the city has other needs," Jackman says.

"Before the city goes off building another stadium, it needs to clearly define what it's going to use it for."

- Bay of Plenty Times

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 23 Dec 2014 04:43:42 Processing Time: 559ms