sportsroom

Lessons for NZ from Perth’s field of dreams

Newsroom's sports editor at large, Steve Deane, spent four days at Perth’s magnificent Optus Stadium, pondering what might have been for Auckland – and whether a similar stadium really would be a great idea

It has been a good decade and a half since Helen Clark’s third term Labour government offered to pony up $500 million to build a 60,000-seat national waterfront stadium in Auckland as a fitting centrepiece for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The problem was, you will recall, that the proffered stadium didn’t fit, at least not on the wharves where it was to be located. And there were other insurmountable issues, such as the impact on the price of imported secondhand Japanese vehicles that could no longer be offloaded downtown; and Fred “The Needle” Allen losing his lifetime carpark at Eden Park.

The death knell for 'the stadium that isn’t' came in the form of an Auckland Council vote on the proposal that muddied the waters of the Waitemata so badly, the government gave up trying to erect its magnificent edifice next to them.

In truth, the concept was as good as dead the moment the NZ Herald published a front page featuring Germany’s Allianz Stadium (the suggested blueprint for Auckland) super-imposed on the city’s industrial waterfront.

Never mind that no one had proposed airlifting in a giant bathtub from Germany and dropping it from a great height in the middle of a fully operational wharf, the damage had been done. The image stuck, and it wasn’t one that screamed “reasonable use of taxpayer funds”.

A Herald graphic package and caption that didn't age well.

Fifteen years on, Auckland is still searching for the answers to its stadia conundrum. Down south, in quake-stricken Christchurch, progress isn’t all that much better.

Meanwhile, across The Ditch, impressive stadia continue to sprout like massive steel mushrooms on an autumn morning.

Victoria – hardly a state lacking sporting infrastructure – threw up the $A258 million AAMI Park in 2010 to provide the Melbourne Storm and its soccer teams a more suitable rectangular home with ridiculous ease.

Just last year, Parramatta’s impressive 30,000-seat $A360 million Bankwest Stadium rose from the weeds. And then, of course, there is the crown jewel of them all, Perth’s $A1.6 billion, 60,000-seat Optus Stadium.

Perched on an old tip site on the banks of the Swan River, if any recent erection speaks to what might have been for Auckland – and what many forlornly hope may one day still be – then it is West Australia’s magnificent edifice.

As stadia go, Optus is truly wonderful.

Complemented by the adjacent stunning Matagarup Bridge, for beauty from afar Optus surpasses even Paris’ Parc des Princes, even allowing for the operators’ propensity to plump for green and gold when firing up the 15,000 LEDs that adorn the superstructure.

If aliens were to hover over Perth looking for the spot where we human ants convene with our gods, odds-on they’d head to Optus.

If said aliens pitched up during the recent New Zealand v Australia day night cricket test, doubtless they’d have been bemused to find a dozen humans standing around in a field wearing flannels, while a crowd of 20,000 watched them not do much. But they’d still figure they were in the right place.

The sun sets over Optus Stadium as Australia pounds New Zealand into its perfect turf. Photo: Supplied

Optus is a shrine. But the thing with shrines is that they don’t tend to inspire the same level of awe in all who behold them.

“Perth Stadium might look like a careened prison hulk from a distance but it is new, shiny and clean,” Andrew Faulkner wrote the day after the December test in The Australian in an article outlining the state’s intention to throw another $A75 million at transforming the nearby historic WACA ground into a boutique 15,000-capacity venue.

Beauty, in these matters, is clearly in the eye of the beer holder.

Which brings us neatly to Optus’ strangest feature – a drink holder attached to the back of every one of its 60,000 seats. These drink holders are a brilliant feature – right up to the point when someone sits in the seat in front of you and sends a good portion of your enthusiastically-priced beverage onto the scalding concrete at your feet.

And here’s the rub with a venue that promised to offer an enhanced spectator experience for Perth’s suffering citizens. It delivers on that promise, but the issue is that there is only so much enhancing of a spectator experience that can be achieved. However comely and functional – and Optus Stadium is both in spades – suffering through four days of a cricket test match in 40-plus degree heat in a concrete jungle is still a punishing experience.

Optus is without doubt a vast improvement in many ways on the historic WACA and the 1908-constructed Subiaco Oval that homed cricket and AFL in the city – but it is still just a stadium.

As you would expect, there was debate at the time of construction as to whether Perth’s citizenry would receive a healthy return on the $A1500-per-household, or $A600 person, they chipped in via the public coffers.

Original estimates of a $A700 million construction cost, plus another $A300 million for transport infrastructure, blew out to $A1.21 billion plus $A390 million.

With the construction period coming during an era of mounting state debt and significant tax hikes, support for the stadium was hardly unanimous. As you’d expect, the project’s supporters touted the economic returns that the investment would deliver.

Tim Kellison, an American academic quoted in an ABC News article that ponders the stadium’s true value, dismissed the notion of major economic returns.

“There's a really long and reliable history of academic literature that suggests that public investments in major sports stadiums do not result in net positive economic benefits for cities or regions,” Kellison said.

“If the stadium didn't exist, people would likely just spend their money somewhere else.”

Perhaps. But Mr Kellison clearly hasn’t seen this writer’s last credit card statement.

Magnificent new stadia in Auckland and Christchurch will cost a $hitload to construct and be a drain on the public purse throughout their existence. The question is whether the expense will be worth it. The answer to that is a resounding: maybe.

Among its charms is that Optus is pretty much a cash-free venue. All of its food and beverage outlets operate exclusively using tap-and-go/paywave technology, meaning queues are non-existent (at least with 20,000 in the house) and spending is blissfully hard to track at the time.

The piper, however, must eventually be paid. Four days of keeping the writer and his son fed and watered added up to an in-stadium spend of over $A600.

Throw in daily meals and pre-match drinks at the massive Camfield pub adjacent to the stadium, plus transport, accommodation and a bit of shopping, and you’re looking at contribution to the West Australian economy of around $A2000.

Kellison might be right that I’d have only spent that money somewhere else – but that somewhere else would not have been anywhere near the outpost perched at the gates of a fiery hell that is Perth had it not been for the chance to check out a stadium billed as one of the world’s finest.

Leaving that aside, few would argue that there is ever a strong business case for building what are clearly costly public amenities. As another academic John Wilson, an economics boffin from the University of South Australia, opined in the ABC piece, the true benefits of a shiny new stadium are somewhat intangible.

“They do give feel-good effects to the population and maybe that's the best reason to build them,” Wilson said.

“But say you're going to build a stadium because it's a great thing to do for the state and don't pretend it's going to give you economic gains.”

Which is precisely the reality that discussions about much-needed new venues in Auckland and Christchurch should acknowledge at the outset.

Magnificent new stadia in those cities will cost a $hitload to construct and be a drain on the public purse throughout their existence.

The question is whether the expense will be worth it.

The answer to that is a resounding: maybe.

With cost projections for an Auckland waterfront stadium now starting around $NZ1.6 billion and stretching beyond the $2 billion mark, Optus provides a pretty darn good parallel for New Zealand’s largest city.

Whether by bus, train, taxi or foot, transport in and out of Optus is a breeze. Viewed from inside and out, the stadium invokes a decent dollop of awe. The audio-visual experience delivered via the ultra-high definition big screens and PA system is brilliant, the playing arena magnificent, the food and beverage offerings a cut above standard stadium fare.

Plonk Optus on the city’s waterfront – a la the giant German bathtub – and Auckland would have a national stadium befitting the name.

But here’s the thing. It would still just be a stadium. As good as the butter chicken-loaded chips were, they were unmistakably stadium food.

Stadium catering will forever be stadium catering. Photo: Steve Deane

The crafty-ish bright ales were delicious, but still came in a plastic cup that couldn’t safely be put into the well-intended drink holders.

The playing surface may have been magnificent, but that didn’t make watching David Warner smash the ball to the boundary any more enjoyable.

The same concept applies to the views from the stands that were fantastic from pretty much every vantage point.

Speaking of views, Optus boasts a field-side swimming pool – great for the few dozen folk that got to linger in it, not so much for the 19,900 of us who didn’t.

It even has a prayer room, which this column can attest does not work.

There is no doubt that the in-stadium experience at Optus would be totally different when taking in an AFL or a Big Bash match in a bumper crowd, as opposed to suffering through a test match in a heatwave of historically savage proportions.

But that rather underscores the point that it is the entertainment on offer that is paramount, not the quality of the venue.

In Perth, moves are already underway to return test cricket to a redeveloped ‘boutique’ WACA that sits just across the bridge from Optus.

As incredible as Optus is, it’s not really fit for purpose for an increasingly niche game that lasts for days on end.

If we in New Zealand haven’t learned the lesson from Wellington’s construction of a venue that is rubbish for both cricket and rugby, then Optus provides a great example that, regardless of expense, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to stadia.

The other major takeaway from Optus is that while it is nice to throw enough cash at a stadium that the architects can shoot for the stars, it is best not to lose sight of the fact that it is the sports stars that grace the venue who should really be doing that.

When New Zealand finally gets around to replacing our creaking stadia for future generations, we should aim for sensibly located, fit-for-purpose venues supported by efficient transport links.

Let’s leave the bells for the mooloo fans, and the whistles for the referees.

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