It's a debate that seems to have been raging for ages - what does the ideal modern-day stadium look like and does it exist in Auckland?
While most would agree the answer to the latter question is "no", unpacking the former isn't quite as straight forward but is even more pertinent with New Zealand's second wave of Covid-enforced restrictions again forcing fans from their favourite sporting venues.
With no major renovations to our facilities in recent years, Auckland has fallen well behind the likes of Dunedin (Forsyth Barr Stadium); Sydney (Bankwest Stadium); Perth (Optus Stadium) and soon others with more new stadiums planned or under way in Christchurch and Sydney.
Unfortunately, in Auckland we have tended to take a "rear-view mirror" perspective – protecting existing stadiums and historic inequities, rather than looking to a future shaped by new technology, changing customer expectations and shifting societal needs.
The days of sitting in an oversized, cold and damp stadium, designed by men for men are numbered. Enjoying a well-designed, right sized, right shaped, covered, comfortable stadium, with craft beer, café quality food, seats close to the action and interaction on stadium screens is what fans want and deserve.
It's also what professional sports franchises, their commercial partners and broadcasters want. Full houses. Demand for tickets. An electric atmosphere. A venue that is attractive to fans regardless of the weather conditions or Friday night traffic.
Just look at the facilities on offer elsewhere. Such has been the success of Bankwest Stadium in Paramatta, which opened in 2019 at a cost of A$360m, that the NRL is discussing with the New South Wales State Government about the prospect of building five more stadiums just like it across greater Sydney.
In Dunedin players, officials, fans and staff enjoy perfect conditions under the roof as they take in the spectacle of rugby, rugby league, football or concerts. Forsyth Barr opened in 2011 at a cost of $198 million. Up the road, Christchurch ratepayers will soon enjoy the same offerings.
The age of mega stadiums is over. Smaller, more intimate venues that offer great facilities, good sightlines, are easy to get to and get around and that generate atmosphere, are attractive to fans and sports organisations. Especially when they are part of a wider entertainment and hospitality precinct.
So what could we do to bring that kind of reality to Auckland?
Auckland's major stadiums – Eden Park, North Harbour Stadium, Western Springs, and Mt Smart – now all seem to be mainly funded by Auckland ratepayers, which means Auckland Council has the ability to influence what is possible in the future.
Ratepayers have a few options. We could keep doing what we've always done – keep trying to maintain our fleet of ageing stadia. That is the very definition of craziness.
We could upgrade Eden Park. As reported in the recent Council Controlled Organisations review, an upgrade to its stadium to provide covered seating for 60,000 would cost between $500 million and $800 million, according to the Eden Park Trust Board.
We could upgrade and modernise Mt Smart which would come with a reported price tag of around $350 million.
Or the other option is to bite the bullet and invest in a new, fit-for-purpose, right-sized (and I would suggest that is 30,000 to 35,000) football stadium downtown - as has been suggested numerous times. The numbers being bandied around that a new stadium would cost well over $1 billion seem to be high given the costs of building new venues in Sydney and Dunedin (even with inflation).
Before we consider which option is best for Auckland, we must look forward (not in the rear-view mirror) with an understanding what an ideal stadium looks like.
Great modern stadiums not only offer the fundamentals of good viewing and comfortable seats irrespective of the weather, but are smart stadiums, bringing together the best digital and physical experiences.
They offer interactivity to fans that deliver a multitude of views and replays, match data, exclusive interviews and behind the scenes content to fans' phones. They offer apps for ticketing, ordering food, drink, merchandise or ticket upgrades, as well as assisted watching technology for visually and hearing impaired. This is all supported by high definition screens – large and small - inside and outside the venue so fans don't miss a beat.
The stadium operators' ability to produce content will become as important as the quality of the playing surface or the food and beverage facilities.
The advantage of any new stadium is it could incorporate the latest design and technology trends; have fan comfort and experience at its heart; and in particular utilise the expanding transport, hospitality and accommodation infrastructure in the central city.
It would also create jobs – during construction and once operational – as former Prime Minister John Key noted at the recent Auckland economic summit. What better way to stimulate the economy and drive life into the downtown area in the long recovery from Covid-19.
Last week's CCO review noted: "Almost all stakeholders we spoke to agreed that tough choices about the future of the city's stadiums were long overdue, and that such decisions needed to consider the long-term – not short-term – interests of all Aucklanders."
And the good news is that we – ratepayers – wouldn't have to pay for it all (but that's a topic for another column).
When you consider the options for our stadium future, it's pretty obvious to me what the best long-term option is for Auckland and all Aucklanders.