Plans to revamp Auckland's stadiums are heading nowhere - with a multimillion-dollar price tag - as the Warriors rule out moving to the far end of the North Shore. Steve Deane examines how it came to this.
Aucklanders are set to spend $27 million upgrading a stadium in Albany so it can host 30,000 spectators. The stadium will host as few as seven matches a year, with attendance for the vast majority expected to be well below 10,000. That's a good thing, as when crowds get above 20,000, accessing the stadium becomes a nightmare.
At the same time, city officials will shell out another $12 million of ratepayer money building a world class cricket venue which the local association has no plans to call home, meaning it too will host a handful of matches a year. And we'll evict our NRL franchise, turning its home ground of the last 20 years into a speedway track - a move the Warriors say will force it to take matches out of the city.
This is Auckland's plan for its sporting stadia for the next 40 years. In just 10 months it will become a reality. Time for some hard questions.
What is the Stadium Strategy?
Auckland's town planners believe the city cannot financially support three major outdoor sports stadia (Eden Park, Mt Smart and Albany's QBE Stadium). Tasked with finding a cheaper solution, the planners have decided to transform Albany into the city's premier venue for matches that will attract crowds of up to 30,600. Mt Smart Stadium in Penrose is to be converted into a speedway circuit and Western Springs into an international standard cricket venue.
So what's the problem?
The Warriors rugby league club will not relocate to Albany. It considers the venue unsuitable, mainly because of its remote location and poor transport links. The council's planners say the city cannot afford to maintain and upgrade Mt Smart, having costed doing so at over $70 million. The Warriors believe Mt Smart could be kept viable for as little as $10 million.
If the Warriors won't go to Albany, then what is the point of upgrading it?
Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) - the council-controlled body that manages more than $1 billion of the city's infrastructure - has earmarked $27 million to upgrade and maintain QBE and says the upgrades are justified regardless of whether the Warriors play there. It says the spending isn't about the Warriors and never has been. QBE's stakeholders include North Harbour Rugby, The Blues, New Zealand Rugby, New Zealand Football, Wellington Phoenix, and various other sport-entertainment promoters. Upgrading it will better meet the needs of those organisations and their patrons.
How many events and patrons are we talking about then?
North Harbour typically plays five ITM matches a season at the ground, with crowds well under 10,000. The Blues played twice at QBE this season but that was because Eden Park was unavailable due to the Cricket World Cup. The Blues typically play one match in Albany per season.
RFA recently announced the Wellington Phoenix soccer team will play one match a year at QBE for the next three years. It's worth noting that Kiwi A-League franchises (The Football Kingz and NZ Knights) were located in Auckland between 1999 and 2007. The ventures failed in part because they could not attract fans to Albany.
Seven matches - surely that can't be it?
QBE did just host six matches at the Fifa U20 World Cup and also hosted four matches during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. There is also an All Blacks test against South Africa slotted in for 2017. But that will be just the seventh time the All Blacks have played in Albany, and the first time in 12 years.
RFA says there are more events in the pipeline, but as it stands QBE could hold as few as seven matches a year, none of which is likely to attract a crowd of over 20,000.
What if the Warriors did move to Albany?
It's not going to happen. The club has categorically ruled out playing at QBE. The Warriors play 12 home NRL matches a year, each attracting roughly between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators. The original idea of the Stadium Strategy was that the Warriors would play the majority - if not all - of those matches at Albany after 2018. RFA now disputes that that is the case and says reports - including a Herald exclusive published in September last year detailing the plan - are misleading. RFA says the Warriors are being offered a choice of stadia post-2018, one of which will be an upgraded QBE.
Is this true?
Technically, yes. But it's also a non-starter for the Warriors. Once Mt Smart becomes a speedway circuit the only RFA-operated venue capable of hosting the Warriors will be QBE. The other option in Auckland is Eden Park, which is operated by a private trust. The Warriors trialled Eden Park over three matches in early 2014. Fans hated it and it was a financial disaster. The club reckoned it would cost it roughly $1 million a season to play there and announced in June 2014 it did not view Eden Park as a viable home ground - four months before the RFA settled on its strategy of upgrading QBE. So in effect the Warriors have been offered a choice between playing at a stadium they believe would send them bankrupt - or QBE.
What's wrong with QBE?
Geography and transport. Albany is situated well inside the Super City's northern boundary, but it's far enough away that people from many parts of the geographically strung out metropolis view getting there as a major headache. That situation is compounded by the city's underlying traffic issues. RFA says these issues are not insurmountable.
But weren't there major transport issues just a month or so ago during the U20 World Cup?
Indeed. Delays getting to the ground and finding parking meant many missed the start of the opening match between New Zealand and Ukraine. After the game traffic congestion was so bad some reported that what would usually have been a 15-minute drive to Birkenhead took them two-and-half hours. RFA says the problem was alleviated when more people used public transport.
So driving to Albany is pretty much out?
RFA states that: "Any potential capital investment into QBE Stadium will be aligned to the scheduled works by NZTA and Auckland Transport on the northern corridor of SH1 and in and around the Albany precinct. The works by these Government agencies will improve access and egress from the precinct generally, not just for events."
The Herald asked Auckland Transport for details of the "scheduled works" and was told transport infrastructure had been "discussed in principle only ... In terms of the roading network, AT and NZTA are reviewing all plans around the venue and the wider Albany area for the future, this may include putting some traffic signals in."
What about public transport?
The Herald picked a random South Auckland address - Golf Ave in Otahuhu - and used AT's trip planner to plot a journey to QBE. We aimed to arrive by 7.30pm on a Friday night - kick-off time for prime time sports matches. The planner suggested we leave home at 5.43pm and walk 1160m in 17 minutes to catch a $5 train from Otahuhu to Britomart. Following a 3-minute walk to Queen St we would catch a bus, for $6.50, to take us on a 30-minute trip to Albany Station. From there it's just a 21-minute, 1.43km stroll to the stadium. All up, the trip would take 1 hr 38 minutes, meaning we'd arrive four minutes before kick-off.
According to Google maps the same journey by car would take 30 minutes with no traffic and 44 minutes with moderate traffic. What does RFA say about this?
RFA says "standard timetabled public transport is not relevant in this context". It typically works with event holders to put on special event transport such as direct buses from Britomart to QBE.
So presumably RFA puts on special event transport for Warriors matches?
Er, no. "The Warriors matches at Mt Smart are currently something of an exception," RFA's spokesman said.
But if they did put it on, special event transport makes getting to and from QBE a breeze, right?
That would be overstating it. Figures supplied by AT show the clearance time for fans for the opening match of the U20 World Cup was 1 hour and 40 seconds. For the final, the clearance time was 1 hour nine minutes. Clearance time is the time it takes the last spectator at the ground to board the last bus. It does not factor in how long it takes the bus to reach its destination. AT says, according to international best practice, a clearance time of between 60 and 70 minutes is considered acceptable.
But if the Warriors aren't going to QBE, who cares how long it takes to get there from South and East Auckland?
With or without the Warriors, the $27 million upgrade is designed to transform QBE into the city's premier venue for crowds under 30,600. Part of the justification for the upgrade is that - a little bit like Kevin Costner's corn field in Field of Dreams - if they build it, more events will come to the stadium. If that turns into a reality, Aucklanders from all over the city will need to be able to access the stadium.
Presumably RFA has done plenty of financial analysis on the benefits of upgrading QBE?
It says it has, however the nature of much of what it has done is inherently commercial so can't be shared with the public. RFA does quote a Massey study that indicates Albany will be a major area of population expansion over the next 40 years. It says upgrading the stadium will help service that population, along with Aucklanders who live along the Northwestern corridor.
Isn't this whole stadium strategy thing on hold, anyway?
No. The council voted in May to approve the strategy, says RFA. The delay in implementing it is because RFA "is acting on the Council's request that we re-engage with stakeholders within a 12 month frame in good faith to ensure that all options have been fully explored".
What does that mean?
Good question. One view is that RFA is pressing ahead with the strategy in its current form and could simply be using the "re-engagement" period to tick all the boxes required by the council. Another view (the one held by Warriors boss Jim Doyle) is that the council voted to approve the budget for the strategy but not the strategy itself. Doyle believes it is now RFA's job to see how it can best utilise the $45 million at its disposal on behalf of Auckland stadium-goers. The Warriors will argue that should include retaining Mt Smart as their home, finding speedway a new home and possibly shelving the planned upgrades to QBE.
Could that happen?
Only with a major change of tack from RFA. The strategy is underpinned by the belief Auckland cannot afford Mt Smart, QBE and Eden Park. Reversing that stance this late in the piece would amount to blowing up the whole process and starting again. It's possible, but you wouldn't bet on it.