Chris Keall talks to the former Aussie rules player turned chief executive who is trying to save Eden Park.

Nick Sautner shows off a scar from two rounds of surgery that left him with 14 screws in his left hand.

"But they could never fix the thumb," he says.

He also had his nose broken four times.


The battle scars come from a 15-year career playing Aussie Rules in Melbourne, mainly for Sandringham - the feeder club for top-ranked St Kilda.

He set kicking records, captained the club and ultimately entered its Hall of Fame. When people met him face-to-face they would say, "I thought you would look bigger," quips Sautner, who is 186cm tall, but slim-built and more corporate smoothie than gnarled ex-footballer.

Sautner played for Sandringham. Photo / Getty
Sautner played for Sandringham. Photo / Getty

Here, people don't recognise him at all. At least by sight. But they are probably familiar with the sorts of tussles he has these days as the man in charge of Eden Park, where he was appointed chief executive in late 2017.

The stadium lost $7.3 million in 2018, as it generated twice the red ink than the year before on revenue that fell from $21.0m to $17.1m.

On Thursday, Auckland councillors met behind closed doors to discuss a $50 million bailout of Eden Park.

A leaked document shows two proposals were presented. The first is for the council to take over a $40 million loan between Eden Park Trust and ASB bank, together with another council loan of about $6m, with interest charged to the trust at commercial rates.

The second proposal is to provide $9.8m on interest-free terms to the trust, which can draw down on it over three years from July this year for maintenance work on things like a new turf, floodlights and giant video screens.

The proposals will be voted on next week.

Sautner became chief executive in November 2017. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Sautner became chief executive in November 2017. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Chris Darby, who chairs Auckland Council's planning committee, quotes the latest version of Eden Park's trust deed, which says the stadium should be "a prudent commercial basis so that Eden Park is a successful financially autonomous community asset". That is, stand on its own two feet financially, with no handouts.

Sautner says that's exactly how he wants to run Eden Park and that he can get it into the black without council or government help, as long as he's allowed to hold the six concerts a year allowed for in the city's Unitary Plan - it's a point of contention with a neighbourhood action group - and expand or introduce a number of left-field initiatives that include "Staydium Glamping" or staying overnight under one of two custom-built domes, rooftop tours and zip-lining, stadium golf, citizenship ceremonies and food truck nights.

Sautner says he needs concerts re-classified from a discretionary activity - where he would have to battle for consent for each act, on a concert-by-concert basis - to a permitted activity, as they are for the council-controlled Mt Smart and Western Springs.

He says promoters think in two-year time-spans and won't consider a venue where consent is constantly up in the air.

He rattles off six events he says could have been held at Eden Park over the past year - Phil Collins, Bon Jovi, Eminem, Billy Joel, Monster Trucks and the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Artist impression of Staydium Glamping. Photo / Supplied
Artist impression of Staydium Glamping. Photo / Supplied

There was also the Eden Park Trust's application for a "Live Aid" style concert to raise money for Sir Ray Avery's LifePod incubator project. The concert ran into flak from high-profile local and former prime minister Helen Clark, who called it a "Trojan horse" for other events. The trust ultimately pulled the plug, saying its application would take at least four months and cost around $750,000 for an uncertain outcome.

Sautner says the six events would have injected a combined $150m into the Auckland economy and, like any big event at Eden Park, created 3000 temporary jobs apiece.

Darby wonders aloud whether promoters would, in fact, plump for Eden Park, if it did become an option.

Concert kingpin Brent Eccles - the local rep for Australasia's largest concert promoter, Frontier Touring - says his final decision would hinge on resource consent details such as where freight could be stored and trucks parked.

An Eden Park concert ran into flak from high-profile local Helen Clark. Photo / Greg Bowker
An Eden Park concert ran into flak from high-profile local Helen Clark. Photo / Greg Bowker

But assuming those elements were favourably sorted, "We would absolutely embrace it. It could be a great seated venue in the same way that Western Springs is a great general admission venue."

Although there could be a standing area, Eccles sees Eden Park set up as fully-seated "for acts like Billy Joel and the Rolling Stones, that appeal to an older demographic".

It's "nuts" that the stadium isn't being utilised for concerts, he says.

Sautner has drawn up plans that would give Eden Park a 45,000 to 55,000 capacity for concerts, depending on the configuration of stage and seating.

Mark Donnelly, who heads the Eden Park Neighbours Association (EPNA), says the pack-out issue Eccles alludes to is no small detail. When Taylor Swift played Mt Smart in November, she had 40 containers on site, a week-long build, and then 58 trucks for production build-in – to the early morning hours, and overnight to a 5.30am pack-out. "That's fine in an industrial area," he says, but not high-intensity Mt Eden where there are 4000 homes within a kilometre of Eden Park, compared to 93 within the same range of Mt Smart.

Darby says he's far from convinced that six concerts a year will be enough to deliver financial autonomy. He says the bigger issue behind Eden Park's loss last year was an 18 per cent decline in overall attendance at its existing paid fixtures - largely rugby and cricket games.

The EPNA has been blocking plans to expand activities at Eden Park for 15 years and has had high-profile support from ex-PM Clark.

But Sautner maintains the demographics and mood of the neighbourhood are changing.

Lawyer Genevieve O'Halloran, who lives within 500m of the park, says she and her husband jumped at the chance to take their young son to last month's day/night cricket test (opposed by the EPNA, in part, because it was slated for a Sunday - a school night) and took him to Nitro Circus last weekend too.

"This is what life in Auckland in 2019 is all about - a vibrant city with things happening and the community getting out there to enjoy them - not the 1950s Auckland of the EPNA's dreams where kids go to bed early and Sunday is a day of rest," she says.

"The fact that they will oppose test cricket - the most sedate of sports - indicates to me that they will complain about literally anything," she adds.

Cricket and concert fan Genevive O'Halloran lives in Kingsland with her son Fraser Earl, 4. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Cricket and concert fan Genevive O'Halloran lives in Kingsland with her son Fraser Earl, 4. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Eden Park has been there for over a hundred years; it pre-dates all of the residents and most of the buildings. And if the residents of St John's Wood in London coexist happily with Lord's then we should be able to cope with Eden Park."

O'Halloran is not quite the perfect poster girl for Eden Park, however. She says she would also be happy if cricket moved to Western Springs

Niwa scientist Matthew Smith says he and his young family, who live about 300m from the stadium, are also in favour of more events.

"During a big cricket or rugby game, our street is closed [to all but residents] so it's actually easier for us to get around than usual.

"And they clean up really well. The day after a big match, you might see the odd bottle, but generally you'd never know there had been a game."

He and his partner Louise McKenzie Smith took their kids for walks around Eden Park every game night during the 2011 Rugby World Cup just to soak up the atmosphere. Many other locals did the same.

Another resident said chatter on a local, closed Facebook group ran heavily in favour of more day/night tests and the introduction of concerts. "The EPNA think they speak on behalf of the neighbourhood but they don't; they're any outspoken minority," he says.

On the question of a possible six concerts, O'Halloran says "I would be 100 per cent okay with it. It would be awesome and beat trekking out to semi-industrial Mt Smart.

"I've been going to Eden Park since I was a kid in the 80s and the boogie monster that the EPNA seems to fear - lager louts getting hammered and causing havoc in the neighbourhood - just isn't the risk it used to be.

"Liquor licensing laws are far stricter, stadium management is much slicker and I think Aucklanders are a bit more mature than we used to be when we were happy to pay $10 to sit on a concrete bleacher."

Darby won't be drawn on which neighbourhood faction he supports.

He says Eden Park's concerts and special events plans have to be assessed against the RMA and applicable bylaws. "That will be undertaken by the regulatory arm of the council, which can't be interfered with by the political arm."

After the Ray Avery benefit concert was cancelled, Eden Park's 2018 Annual Report included the cutting line that the episode "brought into sharper focus the Council's conflicted role as both regulator and competitor, with respect to the disparity between Council facilities' rights to host concerts as a permitted activity at venues such as Western Springs and Mt Smart, versus Eden Park's discretionary activity status."

But Darby shrugs off the criticism, saying "The council regulates nearly every single thing in Auckland, bar a tiny amount of Defence land."

Councillor Chris Darby. Photo / Greg Bowker
Councillor Chris Darby. Photo / Greg Bowker

Sautner says a survey by UMR found 91 per cent of Aucklanders and 87 per cent of local residents support concerts at Eden Park, and that focus groups by the independent researcher backed that finding.

The EPNA's Donnelly says the sample (350) was small, and that the definition of "local" was too broad, with one of his members in Mt Roskill [Mt Albert?] getting a call.

Donnelly says EPNA membership is around 440. Sautner says members of The Hood, a supporters group founded by the Trust in late 2017, now number more than 1400.

Helen Clark says, '"Last year, the majority of local submissions opposed the proposal for a concert." The ultimately abandoned concert for the Avery charity, which Clark labelled a "Trojan horse" for other events, received 100 submissions in favour and 130 against, by an EPNA analysis of submissions (which is disputed by Eden Park, whose own count is 362 submissions in support, 122 in opposition and 1 neutral.)

"In the run-up to approval of the Auckland Unitary Plan in 2016, the vast majority of Unitary Plan submissions related to Eden Park opposed the-then chief executive's plans for an expansion of night activities and concerts," Clark says. (Again, the Trust disputes her analysis).

Sautner says critics of expansion are a "vocal minority, but we do meet with those individuals because we want to work in harmony and 25 events a year isn't onerous compared to other stadiums. With Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, we had up to 90 events a year."

He has not met with Clark. He says he invited her to open the Suffrage Day celebrations hosted by Eden Park, but unfortunately she was not available.

Sautner's daughter was born within days of the first baby. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sautner's daughter was born within days of the first baby. Photo / Greg Bowker

Meanwhile another local, current PM Jacinda Ardern, has been notably neutral on stadium issues. Sautner's daughter was born within days of the Ardern's daughter Neve; he gave the PM a children's book for her baby and he indicates their relationship is positive.

Sautner says that as an Aussie Rules player, he was cognisant of the maxim that sports people are "a long time retired," so he juggled games with studies toward a Bachelor of Business at Victoria University, majoring in management and minoring in marketing, with an eye to entering the then embryonic field of stadium management. He later gained an MBA at the University of Melbourne.

He rose to become chief commercial officer for Melbourne's Etihad Stadium. The stint ended messily with Sautner's dismissal through redundancy amid allegations that he used free tickets as currency and committed a breach of trust by mocking the stadium's then CEO for falling asleep during meetings. Sautner took successful legal action, but a local court decision was overturned by a federal court and his dismissal ultimately stood.

"I learned a lot and I'm confident I'm a better manager as a result," he says. "I'm very proud that I stick my my morals and ethics."

He moved to Perth to take up a new role as chief operating officer for the West Australian Football Commission, a position he held for three years before getting a nudge on LinkedIn from soon-to-depart Eden Park CEO Guy Ngata - whom he knew from international conferences - in 2016, letting him know the stadium had a general manager position open.

One take on Sautner's issues at Etihad was that he lacked a mentor. Is there anyone he runs ideas by today?

"The three most important people in my life are my mother, my wife and my daughter. Unfortunately my father passed away when I was 2 and mum really dedicated her life to raising three boys," he says.

"So often I bounce ideas off family. I bounce ideas off my wife, but also my leadership team. We've got a quality team within the park and they can see the opportunity. We have staff who have had 30 years associated with the park.

He considers Australian businessman Peter Coleman a mentor. He consulted Coleman (chief executive of energy company Woodside and director of the Business Council of Australia) when mulling over whether to take the job in Auckland.

Ngata and Eden Park Trust chairman Doug McKay say they thoroughly vetted Sautner, including interviews with people who had first-hand knowledge of the Etihad Stadium issues.

McKay says Sautner was promoted to chief executive in late 2017, succeeding Ngata, because he had proven himself as GM, introducing a new "Icon" programme that brought in a string of new sponsors.

Sautner keeps an eye on new stadiums around the world, including the recently opened $2.3 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the under-construction $7.3b Rams complex under construction in LA for the American Football team and the home ground of Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur's almost-completed $1.6bn stadium in North London (original budget $678m).

It's probably no coincidence that he assiduously includes a price-tag with each stadium he name-checks, given a proposal is on the table for a new waterfront stadium in Auckland, and a $91m plan is being discussed as part of the council's Venue Development Strategy - to transform Western Springs as the city's home of cricket (councillors are split on the strategy, which still hangs in the balance).

"It's important for any city to keep building new stadiums," Sautner says. But he says any new arena is probably at least 10 to 15 years away and "any development on the waterfront would need to be evaluated against a redevelopment of Eden Park".

He says new stadiums overseas have reinforced his belief that a stadium can be a community hub as much as a sports and concert venue. The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is closer to local homes than Eden Park, he says.

Sautner is an admirer of the retractable pitch at Spurs' new home, which will allow it to host games by visiting NFL teams (and potentially concerts) without the damage to the pitch caused by visiting American football teams that has marred Tottenham's temporary home, Wembley Stadium.

That sort of frill is not on the table at Eden Park, given - as things stand - it has to go cap-in-hand to the council to maintain its regular pitch.

A Nelson Mandela exhibition is coming up at Eden Park. Photo / Supplied
A Nelson Mandela exhibition is coming up at Eden Park. Photo / Supplied

But Sautner pitches Eden Park as "a half billion-dollar underutilised resource".

He wants to expand the way it is used beyond sport and - once he bags them - concerts.

The past few months have seen the stadium used for a citizenship ceremony for 700 new Kiwis, a Suffrage Day celebration and a food truck evening that drew around 1000 locals to the park. In the build-up to Christmas, the stadium was used as a collection point for the City Mission. It will host a Lifewise Big Sleepout in June.

From April to August, Eden Park will host Mandela: My Life The Official Exhibition , a multimedia exhibition created by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the activist's birth - which will also mark something of an iconic shift for the stadium that hosted an infamous riot-torn and flour-bombed All Blacks-Springboks test match in 1981.

And Sautner has just secured Te Matatini for Eden Park in 2021 following a pitch where he described the kapa haka event as the "Edinburgh Tattoo of New Zealand or the Olympics of Maori" (perhaps not uncoincidentally, the high-energy Renata Blair - a Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei Trust director and corporate event producer - has recently joined the Eden Park Trust). Some 40,000 participants are expected over a two-day schedule of competition.

If rooftop walks, ziplining and Staydium Glamping get resource consent go-ahead, then Sautner sees potential for Eden Park to become a tourist destination, and garner a lot of tourist business on the back of the 2021 America's Cup and other events.

Sautner says many Kiwis aren't aware of the power of Eden Park as a global brand. Twice daily tours are already attracting around 1000 participants a week, at $40 a pop - with most of the takers international tourists.

Eden Park also has ziplining. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Eden Park also has ziplining. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

When the Weekend Herald visits, a tour is under way with South Africans and South Americans buying tickets. It includes a walk on the pitch. Two members of the party lie on their backs on the grass in a star shape while the others take photos.

Sautner says though he visits other stadiums and keeps tabs on them, "my point of difference is that I bring ideas from other industries and put them in a stadium context".

He says Adelaide has picked up on Eden Park's "G9" stadium golf idea, and he hopes to license the "Staydium Glamping" idea - which he positions as a world-first - to other arenas around the world.

He sees more cultural and philanthropic events, but also some types that Eden Park hasn't seen before. Sports and entertainment are undergoing a shift with the rise of the likes of e-sports and UFC, he says. During his time in Melbourne, Etihad Stadium drew 55,000 with a WWE pro wrestling event.

"We've got a strong relationship with all the promoters and there's no reason why in the future Eden Park couldn't hold a WWE event," Sautner says.

Gemma McCaw, 2nd from left, joins a group of friends at Eden Park for the G9 event at Eden Park in 2017. Photo / Greg Bowker
Gemma McCaw, 2nd from left, joins a group of friends at Eden Park for the G9 event at Eden Park in 2017. Photo / Greg Bowker

Would that give Helen Clark a stroke?, the Weekend Herald asks.

"Are we still recording?" Sautner quips.

The Eden Park boss says catering to thrillseeking one-off marquee events will be an important supplement to more stable revenue from cricket and rugby, and essential to getting the stadium back in the black.

And those ideas keep coming. Sautner highlights a partnership with Lime that sees special parking areas and "juicing' (recharging) areas for the popular e-scooters. He's put a worm farm in to help with composting. Two beehives are now on site to help with a study on the movement of bees. A "pianos in the park" initiative will soon see pianos dotted around the concourse for punters to play at whim. And stencils from London street artist Wordsmith are now dotted around the ground.

Still, there's only so much revenue that can be gained from ziplining and glamping at a time when Eden Park needs tens of millions more coming in the door.

Has Sautner been frustrated by the Blues' poor performance in recent seasons?

"It can be frustrating to see teams underperform. But I've been encouraged with the signs I've seen with the Blues off-field this year; the changes they've implemented I'm sure will see an improved performance this year.

Sautner and rugby legend Keven Mealamu take a ride on Lime e-scooters. Photo / Supplied
Sautner and rugby legend Keven Mealamu take a ride on Lime e-scooters. Photo / Supplied

"And we saw last year with Auckland the turnaround from a team that was almost relegated to winning the Mitre 10 Cup in an epic final at Eden Park. So I'd hope that then translates into the Blues - and I'm very confident that will be the case."

But even if the Blues do lift their game, Sautner says these days it's harder to get sports fans through the turnstiles.

"Historically, a Mitre 10 Cup final in the 1980s would attract 40,000," he says.

"Last year, with complimentary access, it attracted 20,000. So there's no doubt that buyer habits are changing."

There's more competition for attention these days, he says, with the rise of e-sports and other distractions.

But he also blames the rise of pay TV in NZ.

"One of the things that influences attendance in New Zealand is the lack of free-to-air content. When you look at Australia, the marquee sports - be it cricket or AFL - is all on free-to-air."

He sees free-to-air sports coverage boosting interest, from youngsters up, and worries that young Kiwis are losing interest in the major codes.

He recalls from his time managing Etihad Stadium, "Melbourne - then a city of 4 million people - 10 per cent of the population would go to live sport on the weekend, so 400,000 people would see AFL at the weekend, including three games at Etihad Stadium and two at the MCG."

New Zealand First MP Clayton Mitchell introduced a private member's bill that would have seen NZ match Australia's so-called "anti-siphoning" legislation requiring major sports events to be screened free to air. But without Labour's support, Mitchell's bill failed to get past go.

Now that he's been chief executive for more than a year, is Sautner frustrated that his initiatives, from big to small, are mostly still waiting for resource consent?

He goes for the diplomatic answer. "With any decision process, there needs to be diligence undertaken, and that takes time."

But he's confident change will come.

"Businesses know if they don't change they go extinct, " he says. "Twenty years ago you couldn't shop on a Sunday. Expectations and society are changing and we need to change with them."

Coming up at Eden Park

March 9: Nitro Circus

March 22: Blues v Highlanders

March 30: Blues vs Stormers

April 6: Blues vs Waratahs

April 13 - Aug: Mandela: My Life The Official Exhibition

May 10: Blues vs Hurricanes

May 18: Blues vs Chiefs

May 31: Blues vs Bulls

June 20: The Lifewise Big Sleepout

Aug 9: Auckland vs North Harbour

Aug 17: All Blacks & Black Ferns vs Australia

Aug 24: Auckland vs BOP

Sept 8: Auckland vs Canterbury

Sept 22: Auckland vs Wellington

Oct 5: Auckland vs Southland

Nov 22: Rugby league triple header (Kiwis vs Great Britain, Australia v Tonga, Samoa vs Fiji)

Dec: City Mission annual food parcel drive

2021: Te Matatini kapa haka festival