It’s not as obvious as you think, argues Dylan Cleaver.
This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.
As a sports writer and fan, I’ve enjoyed an absolute bonanza of live sport over recent days. So it made sense to use the opportunity as a little matchday-experience exercise, pitting rugby union at Eden Park last Saturday against rugby league at Mt Smart last Sunday.
Because context is important, I need to lay out my differing motivations for going to the All Blacks v Ireland and Warriors v Wests Tigers.
I went to the Warriors on a media accreditation to write a bit of colour here and there. I went to the All Blacks after an old friend from the ’Naki managed to source me a ticket with less than 24 hours to kickoff. When you get to my age and your childhood friends live busy lives, often in different parts of the country or world, any time spent with them is treasured, so my mindset was more positively predisposed to the rugby.
Also, if I had to choose one of the codes to watch for the rest of my life, it would be union. It’s super, super close and I’d miss league dreadfully, but the international factor and the slightly less rigidly structured elements of the 15-man game (I’ll always argue that coaches are league’s worst enemy), tilt it for me. This is a choice I’ll thankfully never have to make. I’ll never understand the “never-the-twain-shall-meet” types who love one code and feel they have to bash the shit out of the other.
Anyway, this is not a head-to-head on the quality of the matches, but on the venues. So here goes…
Getting to the ground by car
Both are high in niggle factor from my East Coast Bays lair. While both stadiums have train stations nearby, that doesn’t help me and I’m not close enough to walk to the bus hub for the Eden Park specials, so although I was by myself, the most convenient way to get there was to jump in my car and pump some carbon into the atmosphere. While Eden Park is closer, the Sunday afternoon drive was much easier to Mt Smart.
Advantage: Eden Park (but it really depends where you live).
Getting to the ground on foot
Yeah, not even close. Mt Smart is a lesion on the leprous skin of Auckland’s industrial heartland. I don’t have a problem with Penrose per se. Large cities need areas like this. It can’t be all coastlines, pohutukawa and members-only golf courses. We need manufacturing and industry. We need aluminium joiners and auto shops, recycling plants and fibreboard solutions; we just don’t need a decrepit stadium in the middle of them. Food and drink options outside the ground? Good luck. Just an epically awful walk-up venue; a relic of a bygone era and a testament to poor civic choices.
By contrast, the walk from a friend’s place in Sandringham to Eden Park is through leafy streets full of charmingly high-maintenance villas. High-priced suburban heartland isn’t a great place for a stadium either, but if you draw the bow long enough it’s city fringe, and although I wasn’t in the market for pre-drinks and dinner, there’s Kingsland or Dominion Rd if I was.
Advantage: Eden Park
Getting into Mt Smart was easy. Granted, a 26,000 capacity is a lot less than 48,000, but even so that does not account for how much smoother and simpler entry into the stadium was. There are a few possible reasons for this.
One, the Warriors have a few thousand season-ticket holders who can cruise through in their own line.
Two, because there are no nearby eating and drinking options, people come to Mt Smart in their own time; they don’t go to Kingsland to lube up and then all descend on the park with 20 minutes to go before kickoff.
Bags are my great bugbear. Why do so many rugby fans feel the need to bring them along? Granted, some might have genuine reasons, like carrying potentially life-saving medication or for drug dealing. Everything else – bank cards, keys, tickets, hygiene products, hip flasks, top-secret documents – can be carried in pockets. For some unearthly reason, rugby fans love their bloody bags. It’s insane. Every single one has to be checked by security. Bag carriers, you’re killing the rest of us!
Eden Park has to get smarter about this. I know there are “Express” lines for those without bags but when so many people are descending upon Gate A they all get muddled and pointless. Take the bag check out of the entry lines. Make it a single-point bag check-in, like they did at Synthony at Spark Arena recently, and make it such an annoying process that nobody, except for the medically fragile and the unsophisticatedly criminal, will bother.
Advantage: Mt Smart
Eden Park purchase: 2x Jameson Smooth Dry & Lime premix cans for friend and I.
Mt Smart purchase: 1x long black.
Food was taken out of the equation by eating well before both matches.
Regardless, the concession experience at Eden Park was hideous. The concourse in the Northern Stand was a heaving mass of unmasked humanity, all seemingly queuing at the same drinks outlet. I bought a couple of drinks pre-match after queuing for about 15 minutes, and my mate thought about it briefly at halftime before coming to the conclusion that he was quite looking forward to watching the first 10 minutes of the second half.
At Mt Smart the variety of food trucks and ease of access to food and drink was miles better. I almost regretted not having an appetite.
Advantage: Mt Smart
Seats, booze and bad-luck factor
One of the biggest reasons for the decline of live-sport attendance is, I believe, parents not wanting to take their kids – not just because of the cold and potential precipitation, but the amount of pissed-up people.
Even though the Warriors was a Sunday late-afternoon kickoff, as opposed to the night game at Eden Park, there were a lot of drunkenness at both. I’ve been that person before, back in the day – and by god it’s annoying for everyone else.
I don’t know what the answer is. I’d like to see 0.0% ABV sports events at least trialled. All the major brewers are producing alcohol-free drinks so they probably wouldn’t mind as much as sports administrators fear.
A reader suggested that there should be bar areas in the stadium precinct but outside the four stands, so people could drink but not take them to their seats.
But none of those in-stadia solutions can mitigate against the pre-loading.
At the moment it’s pot-luck who you get seated close to. If you’re a parent, with tickets costing so much, the risk of being near dickheads definitely factors into your purchasing decision.
Last Saturday at Eden Park was a bloke near me at the rugby doing shoeys, including a double shoey, and a sad-sack just behind me who sang the “Ireland, Ireland” part of rugby anthem ‘Ireland’s Call’ every time the All Blacks scored, obviously hoping that a small group of attractive young Irish women in front of us would pay him some attention (they didn’t). But overall it was pretty mild in the offence stakes.
When I briefly sat in the pressbox overspill area at Mt Smart on Sunday I could see a group of young men in front of the box, a couple of whom were lagered up and obnoxious. It was heartening to see another couple of them telling one in particular to pull his head in– peer pressure is always the most effective policing.
I took a long review of the situation and asked myself this question: If I had two kids, say eight and 10, and wanted to instil a lifelong love of live sport into them, would I have been happy giving either of them the experience I had on Saturday and Sunday in and around the grounds?
Honestly, it’s touch and go.
Comfort and amenities
No real need to expand on this, though I’ll add I laughed when my phone said I was on 5G and yet I couldn’t text my family a photo from the rugby.
Advantage: Eden Park
New Zealand Rugby is trying. Shapeshifter and Drax Project on a massive sound system is a long way from piping ‘Slice of Heaven’ through the tannoy. Well played, I thought, well played. Then, just when I thought it was all going swimmingly, “You Can’t Touch This” came on. Honestly, the time when it was last OK for MC Hammer to be played even in an ironic fashion was about 25 years ago. Eden Park had been so close to getting it spot on.
Across town, ‘Slice of Heaven’ was playing, though it was excusable because it was the man himself, Dave Dobbyn, singing it live. There were no surprises with the short setlist, but ‘Welcome Home’ was genuinely lovely and apt, so much so that I drove home and started to learn it on the old Takamine acoustic.
I really wanted to avoid the lazy Corporate v Blue Collar tropes, but there’s no dodging the fact that the crowds are different at each venue. At Eden Park you know you’re at an event; at Mt Smart it feels more like a house party.
To fall back on another cliché, at the end of the day (weekend), Mt Smart had too many advantages going for it in the atmosphere stakes. It had been two-and-a-half seasons since the Warriors had been home. The atmosphere at the All Blacks was good; the atmosphere at the Warriors was special.
Advantage: Mt Smart (though it had little to do with the venue)
I cheated. I could see Wests were cooked. I had all the colour I needed for my article so I bailed out of Mt Smart early. Given what a momentous occasion it was, I was surprised at just how many had the same idea.
On Saturday night, it took a long time to get from my seats near the front of the North Stand to the concourse and then out of Eden Park. Too long. Negotiating all the buses on the Sandringham Rd side of the ground was a minor pain in the neck.
Advantage: Not applicable
There’s a big difference between need and want. Auckland needs hospital beds and teachers, it doesn’t need a world-class stadium – which is just as well because it certainly hasn’t got one. Under the leadership of Nick Sautner, Eden Park has tried hard in recent years to be a better, more modern and more usable venue, but it has shortcomings that can never be solved, most notably shape and its place among some of Auckland’s most nimbyish residents.
Mt Smart? I don’t know where you’d start.