Does Christchurch “deserve” a better stadium? Should we just “get on with it”? James Dann dives into the argument that is almost as confusing as rugby’s tackle ball rules.
The Crusaders are strongly tipped to retain their Super Rugby title in the final this Saturday, being held at the “temporary” AMI Stadium in Addington. But how temporary is temporary, and what should Christchurch be looking for if and when we build a replacement? While the team is busy preparing for the game, noted local government economist, chocolate biscuit salesman, and some-time All Blacks coach Steve Hansen waded into the debate, telling the powers that be to “get on with it”. This echoes the comments of break-dancing enthusiast and some-time Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who said that spending $500 million on a stadium to be primarily used by him and his professional sports team was “too good an opportunity” for Christchurch to pass up.
Both of these arguments – and indeed most of the cases put forward for the stadium – hinge on the feel good factor, rather than a convincing case backed up by numbers. Indeed, in his statements about the need for a new stadium, Robertson eschewed any idea of money completely, saying “right now we have the chance to do something special. It is a decision that should be made for now. Money will work itself out over a long period of time.” These bullish statements are at odds with some of the other coverage about the state of our sports crowds.
In an excellent piece by Ben Strang at Stuff, we can get beyond the vibe and into the numbers. Boring, I know, but numbers are numbers. I was genuinely surprised by how good some of the numbers are, especially for the Crusaders. They have the highest attendance, as a proportion of stadium size, in Super Rugby, with more than 75% of seats sold in the 2017 season. In comparison, the Chiefs, Highlanders, and Hurricanes sell around half their seats, while the Blues hover around the 25% mark.
While the Crusaders have been doing pretty well, crowd-wise, they only sold out the stadium three times in their title-winning 2017 season. To me, “we need a bigger stadium cos we filled it three times” isn’t a great argument. But what shocked me the most about the story that quoted Hansen this morning was the size of the new stadium. A number of options were put forward, and the one that is currently favoured is for a stadium with a roof and 25,000 seats. The current stadium has 19,000. $500m is a hell of a lot of money for a stadium that is only 6,000 seats bigger.
The crowd figures are generally pretty positive but there are two which should be of concern to any potential stadium builders. First up are the Highlanders, who have seen a 20% drop in crowds since 2015. Of course, 2015 was the year in which the Otago team won the competition, and you’d expect a larger crowd for that. But they still did pretty well this year, getting to the quarter finals – and of course any sports team, even the Crusaders, will have their good seasons and their bad ones. They’ve got a roof over their stadium, so they can’t blame falling crowds on the weather. A roof isn’t a magic bullet.
Of much more concern are the crowd numbers in South Africa and Australia. I am not a big Super Rugby fan any more – I much prefer league, as anyone who has read my pieces here about the Warriors would attest – but what I do know is that the competition itself is a mess. The conferences, the international breaks, it’s too complicated for the casual fan to follow. In South Africa and Australia, the crowds are crashing. It could be that they simply have more competitive sports markets, especially in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne.
Whatever is happening, it’s clear that SANZAR can’t continue with the competition as it is indefinitely. I don’t know what the future looks like, but it’s not inconceivable that we see something similar to what happened when the Australia-New Zealand netball competition broke up. This would probably be good for New Zealand audiences, as the derby games are what crowds want to see. However, even if each Super franchise played each other twice, this would still only be five home games, plus maybe a finals game or two. There’s also the NPC I guess, though tickets aren’t exactly flying out the door for these games. Last year, at the Burger King down the road from AMI Stadium, they were giving away a double pass to that weekend’s match for anyone who spent $12 on a value meal. Would you like fries with that?
The collapse of Super Rugby might seem like a bleak scenario but it must least be considered when you’re committing to building a $500 million stadium. Christchurch has one professional sports team that can play in this stadium, and they play in a competition with a very uncertain future. The All Blacks will sell out the one game that they play there. Beyond that, the stadium gets a Warriors game most years, which usually does well. There’s an occasional All Whites game, and we’re on the map when bigger events like the Fifa Under 20 World Cup or the Rugby League World Cup come to this part of the world. That’s it. One main tenant who refuses to pay anything towards the construction of the facility.
There’s also the possibility of attracting big concerts. Dunedin has got Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheehan this year, events that both bypassed Christchurch. However, if we were to build a covered stadium, and then aggressively bid for this sort of concert, that’s going to be bad for the stadium in Dunedin. Taking off my one-eyed Cantabrian eye-patch, I can’t really see the point in two councils burning ratepayer money to attract concerts which have the same potential audience. Besides, Christchurch has still managed to pull big gigs without a covered stadium, including Bob Dylan, David Byrne, and Bruce Springsteen. As David Williams comments over at Newsroom, “there’s a fair chance a roofed Christchurch stadium will kill the gains made by Forsyth Barr. Christchurch has more people, more places to stay and better air links.”
Building a big stadium was floated as part of National’s anchor projects, and has been (disappointingly) carried on by Labour’s Megan Woods. During last year’s election campaign, one of Labour’s promises was for a $300 million fund for Canterbury, for Cantabrians to decide what to do with. They delivered on the money bit but I don’t recall the consultation bit happening. Mayor Lianne Dalziel responded to the campaign promise, saying “Labour has indicated this will require a business case. You’d have to show that the cost-benefit really stacks up.” You would, and we’re still waiting to see if it does.
While we’re waiting, things seem to be proceeding on the assumption that everything will stack up. The council brought their funding for the stadium forward two years and at the same time passed a decade of rate rises that will see rates increased by more than 50% by 2028. And now that there’s potentially $300m of government money going in, this is no longer just a Christchurch issue. It might take a brave government to pull out of a policy with so much appeal to people who might usually not engage in politics, but in my mind it would be a truly foolish one that would commit to spending so much money on something with such a ropey future.
We have to face it. Attending rugby just isn’t as popular as it once was. To even raise a question about the stadium, or the dominance of rugby, seems to be an affront to many people’s fragile sense of national identity. In a column for Radio Sport, Gregor Paul fired up the hyperbole generator, calling the stadium a “national disgrace”. If he thinks that a few hundred people choosing to sit in the cold for a couple of hours is a national disgrace, wait till he finds out about the thousands of people who have no choice but to spend their nights in the cold, sleeping rough or in their cars.
What truly is disgraceful is Paul’s use of the phrase “domestic carnage” to dismiss the deaths and injuries of those who suffered in the quakes. In the most patronising tone, he commends Christchurch for our “resilience”, tells us what our problem is, then tells us how to spend our money to fix it. It is this sort of redundant, ill-informed garbage that has got us to the point where we are at, where the stadium is only driven by nebulous concepts like “passion”, “dynasty”, and now, “disgrace” and “shame”. We shouldn’t be blackmailed or emotionally manipulated into spending $500 million dollars. As a city, and as a nation, we deserve so much better than this.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.