The fan experience at New Zealand rugby has, by tradition, been very basic.
My father and I watched my first rugby test in 1959, at the Dominion Rd end of Eden Park. They called it a terrace, but it was actually just a muddy bank, which was as slippery and boggy underfoot as a race in a cowshed.
Things have improved since then, but it would be fair to say nobody goes to footy here for the dining or cultural experience, just for the game on the field.
So it was fascinating during the week to talk with Don Tricker, these days the director of player health and performance at the San Deigo Padres' baseball team, about what a day at Pecto Park in downtown San Deigo is like.
Back in New Zealand to join up with the All Blacks to start what will be the official report for New Zealand Rugby on the 2019 World Cup campaign, he said that "the fan experience is paramount at the Padres. For example, they sought out the best food suppliers in the city."
A review on the local NBC television station's website says the choices for fans provide "mouth-watering masterpieces", and with all due respect to local chips and doughnuts, I'm unaware of any Kiwi grounds offering $9 gourmet Neopolitan pizzas, $8 grilled fish tacos, $10 fresh red snapper cerviche, or beers from seven craft breweries, ranging from Swingin' Friars Ale to Iron Fist Hazy Wheat Ale.
"The Padres were pro-active," said Tricker. "They went out and found the best local food people and encouraged them to come to the stadium." In 2012, for example, a hamburger café, Hodad's, world famous in San Deigo since 1973, and a regular haunt of actor Bill Murray, set up a new branch in the stadium, where the burgers are cooked to order, and can be washed down with shakes they promise "will always have three full sized scoops of ice cream."
There's more. A kids' park inside the park allows children to enjoy themselves before the game, and the players become more then remote figures on the field, because at most breaks in play there are specially commissioned videos, which Tricker says "can genuinely have the whole place roaring with laughter", where Padre stars will take part in a singing contest, or are blindfolded, and asked to identify a mystery object inside a cardboard box by feel. Fans can join in too. They've even had a baby race, where infants literally crawled to the finish line.
The whole aim, said Tricker, is to build a relationship between the team, the fans, and the city, so Padre supporters have a sense of ownership.
In some areas, he is quick to point out, when you look at differences between sport in the United States and in New Zealand "we are not comparing apples with apples. In baseball there are frequent pauses in the game, so it's easier to introduce entertainment." There's also the sheer scale of population. There are 3.4 million people living in San Deigo County, and crowds at Pecto Park usually top 40,000.
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But, as one example that would be easy to install, and would surely add atmosphere to the game day experience, Tricker wondered aloud about laying down some turf outside the stadium in Wellington, putting up small goalposts, and encouraging children to kick some rugby balls around.
Another idea that rugby already embraces to a degree that is bone deep in the Padre philosophy is having small groups of players heading out into the community.
"It's humbling to see players connecting with children, especially, and I think we can underestimate in sport how much joy a club can bring into a community."
There are also some inspired marketing ideas that help fill the park with enthused fans. San Deigo has a large military community, with the Navy, Navy aviators (think "Top Gun"), Navy Seals, and the Marines, all having bases in the city. For Sunday games a complimentary section is packed with military personnel. "Late in the game, in the sixth or seventh innings, the whole stadium acknowledges that group, and it's spectacular and heart-warming."
If it all sounds a little high flown keep in mind that Tricker has Kiwi sport in his DNA, and as a man is as grounded as a Steve Hansen speech. Growing up in Porirua, he became a good enough softball player to be in a Black Sox team who finished second at the 1988 world championships. "He wasn't that big and powerful but he was mentally tough," said team-mate Dean Rice.
Tricker needed that resilience when he turned to coaching. He stepped so quickly from playing to coaching the Black Sox he and the team found it almost hard to believe. "I still remember that team meeting in 1998 when I first got the job," he told the Herald's Julie Ash in 2001. "I looked across at Dean Rice and they all started laughing. All Dean said was, 'this is going to take a bit of getting used to'."
It quickly did. In 2000 in East London, and again in 2004 in Christchurch, his team won world titles. He won a Halberg Award for his coaching, and then the attention of first SPARC (the forerunner to High Performance Sport New Zealand), and then the NZRU.
His reputation for deep, analytical thinking was so great that after the debacle of the quarter-final exit of the All Blacks from the 2007 World Cup, he and lawyer and Cambridge University graduate Mike Heron, were called on to conduct the official review.
They didn't pull punches. "There remained a sense to us that the All Blacks, coaches and management were looking past the quarter-final," they wrote. "An example was (how) the leadership group chose not to 'push the emotional button' because there is generally a let-down period during the week following such an approach. Yet playoff rugby at the World Cup is different to all other internationals. If the team does not win there is no game next week."
It's a measure of Tricker's integrity, and the respect he was held in at high levels in rugby here, that when Graham Henry and his team were reappointed for the four years to 2011, Tricker would soon be appointed high performance head of New Zealand Rugby, and, before he left for San Deigo in 2017, would come to be described by coach Hansen as "the All Blacks' secret weapon."
Tricker's genuine enthusiasm for what he's seen in San Deigo is surely enough to convince any local rugby officials who want some ideas for staging big games, and engaging spectators, to use whatever chance they can find to tap into the Padre experience.
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