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Garry Law: Super-size stadium faces empty future
Wednesday November 8, 2006

There is a requirement for a 60,000-seat stadium for the Rugby World Cup final. At the moment there are not even dates for the event, let alone a schedule of games - nor is there likely to be until well after the current excitement about stadiums has concluded in some decision.

The event is being run by the New Zealand, not the Auckland, Rugby Union. It will want to keep its members happy by having many games out of Auckland.

It's a safe bet that the semifinals will be at Jade Stadium and the Cake Tin. Of the quarterfinals, one can place a fair bet on one in Auckland. If the All Blacks are in that quarterfinal it will fill the stadium. If not, then who knows? No one can guarantee which team will be in which quarterfinal.

No doubt there will be many pool play matches, but the provincial centres will be hanging out for most of these. In each pool there will be a couple of contenders and a make-up of tryers. Some entertaining games, for sure, but only the contenders will be the big crowd pullers. Romania v France, say, will be one for the fans, not a stadium-filler. There is likely to be an All Blacks pool play match in Auckland, but it may not be against the other contender in that pool.

Certainly there will be contenders in other pools who will play each other in Auckland. Australia v Ireland, say, if they were in the same pool - lots of visiting fans in shades of green but 60,000 posteriors on seats?

It is becoming a rare event to fill a football stadium. The great variety of other entertainment, the accessibility of sport on television and a degree of overexposure of rugby are no doubt all to blame. Tri-Nations matches could not get a stadium-filling crowd here, nor could the Super 14 series. An NPC or Super 14 series final might, but they are occasional events.

An Auckland stadium is not a national stadium. It will get these finals only if Auckland Rugby wins the right to compete on the field. So how many times can we guarantee a capacity crowd in, say, the first decade of existence of a 60,000-seat stadium? The list is short - it is the world cup final. A 60,000-seat stadium is going to spend its life looking a lot less than half full, not as the proud legacy some seem to conceive it will be.

Stadiums do not pay for themselves. They are rarely full even at their present capacities.

Auckland's stadiums can usually cover their running costs but not their capital costs. Eden Park and the North Shore stadium have both needed to be rescued from a capital cost burden they could not bear.

With those two and Mt Smart, Auckland has arguably one more than it needs already.

With a fourth stadium, one or two of the present three is going to become a stranded asset, a place no one needs.

Stadiums get only a small part of the gate takings - the bulk goes to the event organiser - and none of the stadium advertising income for large events. The benefit to a city of stadiums fit for large events is not the gate take but the spin-off from the events. Overblown facilities are a burden, not an asset.

Football stadiums which work best are designed for the purpose. They do not accommodate athletics tracks or cricket pitches, for these force the seating further from the field.

The choice between being at the back of a stand a long way from the action and staying home and watching it on television is a choice the public often make and one the couch is winning. If there is little justification for a football stadium of this size there is certainly none for one for cricket.

Take cricket to new stadium and it will be a compromise - and Eden Park certainly will be a stranded asset.

The 1990 Commonwealth Games at Mt Smart had a lot of temporary seating. It was never going to be used for any football event there and the seating and the track went soon after. The city also took a pragmatic view about the America's Cup facilities and many of those were tailored to the likely once-in-a-lifetime nature of that event. Did they suffer because of that approach?

There is an option to get 60,000 people into Eden Park with some temporary additions. It is also the cheapest option. If we have money for more than that, let's spend it on some real legacy assets - there is no shortage of needs.

* Garry Law is an Auckland engineering consultant with a long association with Mt Smart Stadium, including its first grandstand, and getting venues ready for the 1990 Commonwealth Games.