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Image: Archi Banal
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OPINIONSportsMay 5, 2023

A very expensive way to not solve Auckland’s stadium problems

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Eden Park, a venue that’s already way too big for most of the events it holds, wants to get even bigger. It’s likely to cost over a billion dollars, and it’ll solve basically none of the things that are wrong with the stadium, writes Brian Finn.

This is an excerpt from The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.

As a stadium junkie, I love a good artist’s impression… All that potential. The swooping fly-throughs. The sweeping arcs around, into and then through some new venue design. They really are thrilling.

For a sports fan, what’s even better is a real, functioning stadium. One that works well. In a good location. Easy to access. Has convenience and atmosphere; history and high-quality catering. Merchandise stands and toilets. Comfortable seats and, ideally for winter codes at least, some shelter from the elements.

Last weekend we had a flash fly-through to lead off a bold new announcement from the Eden Park Trust Board. Eden Park 2.0, which will, according to the park’s CEO Nick Sauntner, deliver “a world-class, multi-purpose, hybrid stadium”.

All that potential. All that excitement. All that BS.

I hate to rain on a parade, especially after all the rain we’ve had and all the parades we haven’t, but this is not Eden Park 2.0. Not even close. It’s more like Eden Park 6.8.

You see, Eden Park has been constantly tinkered with over the years. A new stand here. A lick of paint there. Heck, there’s even one of the old stands from the middle of last century sitting out the back.

In the mid-1990s, I was involved as a PR advisor in launching “Eden Park: Genesis”. A 25-year vision for the park that would deliver a, you guessed it, “world-class multi-purpose stadium capable of hosting the best national and international events.” (I would argue that our artists’ impressions and fly-through were, for the time, better than the latest lot. Even the Herald’s (paywalled) Simon Wilson might have liked them!)

Eden Park: Genesis – take my money (Photo: Brian Finn)

The weekend coverage led with the claim that achieving this new vision for Eden Park would be a “multi-million dollar” exercise. Clearly, no one was paying attention when Christchurch’s stadium build cost ballooned into the $700 millions last year. This vision, if it was ever realised, would be a billion-plus exercise. Yes, that’s a billion, with a b.

Surely I’ve just plucked that number from the sky. Well, no. In a report published in July 2020, the Eden Park Trust told an Auckland Council review team that “an upgrade to its stadium to provide covered seating for 60,000 would cost between $500 million and $800 million”.

That estimate was made pre-Covid, pre-construction costs blow-outs and pre-runaway inflation.

When a walkway bridge from Kingsland, over Sandringham Road to Eden Park, was proposed as part of the upgrade for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the cost of that item alone was tens of millions of dollars. It was quickly dropped for cost reasons.

Three new stands. A bridge. A roof. And… and… and you can see the numbers flip over faster than a dead-body counter on a Game of Thrones episode.

In case you, like many New Zealanders, think it’s cheaper to renovate than to build new – that would be a fallacy. The cost of retrofitting Eden Park would be astronomical.

According to Eden Park chairman Doug McKay, decisions on a future big-capacity stadium need to be made before further, massive ratepayer investment is placed in ageing assets at the council-owned stadia such as Mt Smart, Western Springs and North Harbour.

To paraphrase: you need to make decisions about massive investments in our ageing and privately-owned facility before making decisions about using your money to invest in community-owned facilities. Hmmm.

This bold new vision will also not overcome most of the significant, historical difficulties and limitations associated with Eden Park. It is in the wrong place, smack in the middle of a largely leafy residential area, and transport and access are difficult. Yes, some change is coming but it will not solve the need to re-route Auckland’s transport system every time there is a major event at Eden Park.

The sight lines aren’t great, especially for cricket, and the sidelines are not great, in general, for rugby (not a rectangle), or cricket (not an oval).

Curiously, the latest Eden Park images make a big deal of it being a cricket ground, with extra field space to accommodate cricket according to Sautner. Yet, if the rumours are true, Eden Park is bidding for more summer concerts at the venue. If that eventuated, with or without the upgrades, we would see no cricket at the venue given the length of time that concerts need to use not only the main stadium but also the outer oval (which might be a goneburger anyway, according to the Herald).

Even without the multi-multi-multi-million upgrade, it’s already too expensive and too cavernous to use except for the very largest of events. That applies to its two most frequent hirers – the Blues and Auckland Rugby.

And none of this solves the fact that a private trust that financially benefits only two relatively modest regional sports organisations, Auckland Rugby and Auckland Cricket, will be pitching this idea to the government (taxpayers) and Auckland Council (ratepayers) for funding.

McKay says there was no way the trust could fund this new vision without government and council help.

“Previous funding has been a combination of the park itself finding ways to contribute, the government funding most of the upgrade and the council pitching in from time to time with its share. So it’d be a three-way package financially.”

I think you mean a two-way package with morning tea provided by the Eden Park Trust, Doug.

Eden Park cannot afford to maintain the facility it has now. Just last month, the Trust Board was back with its hand out asking for more money from council to upgrade its two replay screens. This is despite it receiving a grant of nearly $10m in 2019 to, among other things, add a big new screen to replace these two old screens.

And Eden Park doesn’t just want to modernise. It wants to grow. Yes, you read right, the venue that is too big for most of the events it holds, wants to get even bigger with 10,000 more seats proposed under the new plan.

In the words of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax: “I meant no harm I most truly did not, but I had to grow bigger so bigger I got.”

We the people – ratepayers and taxpayers – will be on the hook for decades more to fund this folly and all of the ongoing costs, blow-outs and maintenance that Eden Park already admits it cannot afford to fund for the upgraded venue the Trust was gifted by taxpayers for RWC 2011.

We must also be wary of any promises made by Eden Park about its future.

In the lead-up to its application for funding from Auckland Council in March 2019, the Eden Park Trust Board said that it “has never opposed a downtown stadium” and that given any new stadium is 10-15 years away, “the Trust’s focus remains on ensuring Eden Park is sustainable for that period”.

Ironically, Eden Park’s new vision just “happened” to land just days after another group – the Waterfront Stadium Consortium, had invited key stakeholders to a briefing presentation, to update on their sunken-stadium “vision”.

So let’s enjoy the fly-throughs and the artists’ impressions. The hope and hypotheticals for now.

Ultimately, however, we must set aside all of the half-baked stadia we have in Auckland and land one really good one in the right location that is future-proofed, well-designed and built to last. A great place to play, watch and be entertained in.

With a favourable tailwind, it might even be world-class.

Keep going!