John Watson: Auckland does not need another stadium

Eden Park has virtually been rebuilt in its entirety since the 1990s. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Eden Park has virtually been rebuilt in its entirety since the 1990s. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The announcement last weekend that consultants have been commissioned to investigate a new $1 billion stadium for Auckland's waterfront evokes a disappointing sense of deja vu.

Having kicked Regional Facilities Auckland's expensive and illogical "stadium strategy" to touch in the previous term of the council, it would appear there is now an appetite to embark on an even more expensive and equally illogical one.

At least part of the rationale driving this latest proposal, we are told, is the apparent $250 million maintenance bill looming for Eden Park.

Leaving aside the fact the Auckland Council doesn't actually own Eden Park and its maintenance, therefore, is not the council's responsibility, it's hard to see where this frightening figure comes from.

Eden Park has virtually been rebuilt in its entirety since the 1990s. There was a new South Stand cantilever structure around 1990, a new West Stand in the mid-'90s, a totally new North Stand built in 2000 and a massive $256m upgrade for the 2011 Rugby World Cup incorporating the South and East stands.

That doesn't leave much else to upgrade.

Grandiose plans for alternative stadiums such as the waterfront invariably take little or no account of the substantial public investment that has occurred in getting Auckland's existing stadiums to where they are today.

In the case of Eden Park this relatively recent investment runs to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The result is a venue and playing surface that is internationally acclaimed. It is our de facto national stadium and one with a long and proud history dating back more than a century.

It's difficult to assign a value to such heritage but it's hard to imagine such disparaging talk of demolition being applied to the likes of Twickenham or the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

As far as Mt Smart goes, it wasn't so long ago Aucklanders were being told by Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) it would take more than $100m to ''fix''. This was when they wanted to demolish parts of the stadium and turn it into a speedway track.

In the event it's taken a mere fraction of that cost and RFA now proudly boasts that Mt Smart is one of Australasia's premier sporting venues.

Back then the Warriors were fighting tooth and nail to remain at Mt Smart. Now the private franchise's owner is one of those leading the charge for the latest stadium "refresh".

I'd doubt, however, whether his proposed Warriors-themed bar and merchandise store will be big contributors to the capital cost of a new stadium.

Nor will there be too many stadium-minded philanthropists jumping off the bench to chip in with the sort of money required to make any sort of meaningful impact on the more customary funder, the ratepayer of Auckland.

The brief for investigation apparently centres around either 25,000- or 50,000-seat options. Therein lies a further contradiction.

If it's 25,000-30,000 then it won't be able to host 50,000-plus test matches. In the unlikely event that space and budget can be found for a 50,000 option then the Warriors and Blues will end up playing to a half-empty stadium for most of the time.

When it comes to the reality of crowd-pulling results, neither of these mediocre performing franchises have the consistency to merit such investment, certainly if their results during the past decade are anything to go by.

A final consideration is that many people, even ardent sports fans, prefer to stay at home and watch the extravaganza of live sport available on TV from the comfort of their own lounge.

In this difficult environment, the NRL is finding, ironically enough, that it is the smaller suburban stadiums in Sydney, such as Leichardt Oval and Belmore that are attracting crowds back, not through the provision of plush new facilities but through the atmosphere and sense of community that has been engendered from spirited games at local venues, almost a nostalgic return to the past.

In reality the decision on Auckland's stadiums was made back in 2006.

In 2017 Auckland has far more pressing priorities to deal with. More expensive reports and constantly changing strategies are not going to change that.

The challenge is to make the most of the significant investment that has been made in the stadiums we already have, not building an expensive new one that isn't required.

• John Watson is an Auckland councillor for the Albany ward.

- NZ Herald

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