Seeing the Sevens from all sides

Last updated 08:40 15/02/2014
sevens
FAIRFAX NZ

POLICE PRESENCE: For the past few years tournament bosses have been working to manage alcohol consumption.

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Police criticism of drunken behaviour at last weekend's Wellington Sevens has prompted a storm of debate over the direction future tournaments should take. Is the sevens an entertainment spectacle, or a sporting event (or both?) Do the costumed fans care that sevens is now an Olympic sport – and that organisers would like to see more attention paid to the onfield action than the antics in the crowd? What is not in doubt is that alcohol laws have changed and that sevens security was tighter than ever this year, with 270 people ejected over both days. We asked the tournament organiser, Westpac Stadium's new boss and a die-hard fan for their thoughts on where to next for one of the city's most famous events.

THE DIE HARD FAN - GARY BROWN

Gary Brown (aka Austin Powers) is widely credited as one of the first people to introduce costumes to the Wellington Sevens. He reflects on how the event has changed, and how it could be improved.

I first went to the Wellington Sevens in 2001 with my brother and have been there every year since. That first time, it was really an excuse to dress up. I thought I'd go down and see what happens, have a bit of fun. I didn't realise how it would take off.

That year, no-one dressed up. I was Austin Powers and my brother was a random groovy 60s guy ... that was it. The crowd was mostly avid rugby fans, typically over 40, with a few kids as well. It was all new, experimental.

But when New Zealand got knocked out early I just felt I needed to do something to keep people entertained.

So my brother and I started dancing, playing around with the people, just off our own back.

After a while I was invited into one of the corporate boxes and ended up going all over the stadium, with the cameras playing a "Where's Austin?" game.

After the tournament the New Zealand Rugby Union tracked me down and offered to pay me to come back next year and entertain the crowds. I have been doing that ever since, with next year number 15.

In that time, the sevens has changed enormously. In the second year, a few people started wearing costumes but it was mostly only groups with matching Hawaiian shirts. The next year people started getting more inventive and by 2005 it had taken off, with 99 per cent of the crowd wearing something wacky.

I have been Austin ever since and perform at about 90 shows a year, for sporting events and corporate functions. I've done the Dubai and the Hong Kong sevens, but they don't get into the costumes like we do, they don't have the same atmosphere. The Wellington Sevens is without a doubt the highlight of my entertainment every year.

These days there are a lot more young people and that brings its own hassles. I would like to see more older people coming back, more families.

There are probably changes that can be made for the better.

I think the concourse could be made less inviting, and the inside of the stadium more so.

One good suggestion I've heard is having people with alcohol on trays selling in the stadium instead of the concourse, to help keep people in. Stricter drink limits would also be a good move.

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But overall, it is less than 1 per cent of people who cause the problems and the balance between a costume party and sporting event is about right.

People say rugby isn't the draw, but whenever there is a real tough game people will come back into the stadium to watch it.

I've talked to a lot of players and coaches over the years and they love playing in Wellington. Just the atmosphere and how the crowds will cheer on any team.

There is a lot of stuff that makes the Wellington Sevens work: the stadium within walking distance from town, the careful second-by-second management of the entertainment, the national love for the game.

But for a lot of people the big drawcard is just a chance to dress up. Normally most people are so conscious about being cool and not making fools of themselves. But for that weekend you can look and act foolish and it doesn't matter.

You see guys that are 6ft 4in walking around in a dress. They would never do that anywhere else. That's what makes it. AS TOLD TO BEN HEATHER

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THE STADIUM BOSS - SHANE HARMON

Changes to alcohol sale laws will provide "enormous challenges" for events that attract large crowds, says Westpac Stadium's new boss, Shane Harmon . It is ultimately up to the fans if they attend the sevens for the rugby or the entertainment – but it's imperative that individuals need to take more personal responsibility for their behaviour.

There has been a lot of soul-searching since the weekend about the Wellington Sevens and many views expressed.

I welcome every one of them. We are engaging in a healthy debate which I believe will lead to a bigger and better event.

From the stadium's perspective this year's sevens crowd was the best behaved in years.

In fact we have seen a significant downward trend over the past six years in alcohol consumed at the stadium. This year we saw a 14 per cent decline in beer consumption per patron year-on-year – and a 50 per cent decline since 2008.

Wellington Free Ambulance's stadium team treated 21 intoxicated patients this year from a crowd of nearly 60,000 – half the number treated in 2013. We ultimately wish to see this number reach zero.

However, much of the media coverage gave the impression that standards for this year's event have slipped compared to previous years. So what differed this year?

Two things: the introduction of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act in December and how the act is policed. These changes have occurred at a time where there is also a wider societal shift in attitudes regarding excess consumption of alcohol.

The new act heralded several changes, including defining intoxication for the first time.

Unfortunately for some patrons, this additional scrutiny meant a greater number of evictions than we had seen in recent years.

Most will appreciate the enormous challenge this poses to our staff in monitoring 60,000 people over a weekend, particularly during peak times when 8000 fans entered the stadium in an hour, the vast majority of whom had consumed alcohol somewhere else in advance. Having experienced my first sevens in a working capacity, I believe complying with the act is going to provide enormous challenges for stadium and festival events that attract large crowds.

The second change concerns the policing of the act.

For this year's sevens, 10 Alcohol Harm Prevention Officers performed compliance checks and undertook intoxication assessments of patrons. This was the first time the police had conducted an operation of this scale since the introduction of the new act. We had been working with police for several months in preparation.

While police disappointment at intoxication levels among a minority of patrons was widely reported, their praise for the majority of patrons and the collaborative working relationship with stadium and tournament staff was not.

We have a very good working relationship with police and we are fully supportive of their desire to deliver a sea-change. Planning for next year's event has already started. We are committed to further improvement.

So is the party over, as raised by The Dominion Post on Monday? Far from it in my view.

Those who argue that the party has significantly more appeal than the sport miss the point.

Sport and entertainment are now mutually entwined. Live sport competes with a multitude of other entertainment experiences. Social motivations and the entertainment experience often trump on-field factors for attendance.

The Wellington Sevens' carnival atmosphere is one of its strengths, and it would be a mistake to diminish this. Sevens is escapism, a temporary suspension of everyday roles where we can dress up and have a lot of fun.

Every other sevens event wants to be Wellington. It is ultimately for the fan to decide whether they wish to attend for the sport or the entertainment, and we should not dictate.

But what we need is balance. We need continued improvements in our alcohol management processes. We need more education around harm prevention. But we also need individuals taking more personal responsibility. Would we rather usher in a period of new puritanism, where the behaviours of a few mean wholesale changes for the law-abiding, good-natured fans who drink responsibly?

We are already working with the sevens organisers and police on 2015.

We are confident that we will deliver the biggest and best sevens yet.

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THE SEVENS BOSS - MARTY DONOGHUE

For the past few years tournament bosses have been working to manage alcohol consumption. Wellington Sevens general manager Marty Donoghue says the sevens' inclusion in the Olympics means the time is ripe to discuss how to strike the right balance between sport and entertainment.

More than 15 years ago Wellington city invested in an idea to host what is a unique international rugby event – the sevens tournament.

It put the city and the country on the international rugby agenda as part of the sevens world series.

It was a bold move but it has paid off enormously by developing into a world-renowned event offering premier sevens rugby entertainment on and off the field. It has been recognised as one of the must-do summer events and a generation of attendees from New Zealand and overseas regularly attend to get their "sevens fix".

In the past few years far more attention, particularly media attention, has been given to the off-field action. The costumes got more risky (remember Borat?), attendees' behaviour became less desirable and a party atmosphere took over. There has been less spotlight on the sporting prowess of the rugby players.

Organisers did not sit back and do nothing.

We identified some years ago that action was required to ensure the event managed alcohol consumption, and the focus of the tournament remained on international sevens rugby. We also recognised the need to do more to mitigate any risk that intoxicated attendees may have on the city and community.

We took action. This year we recruited 50 more staff to assist in our alcohol management plan, we worked closely with the police and the health promotion agency and we, with the stadium, introduced measures in the bars to ensure the new legislative requirements were being met.

We love this event and, as a learning organisation, accept all feedback to ensure we deliver a tournament that Wellington and New Zealand can be proud of. We have 300 committed staff dedicated to delivering an outstanding experience, the vast majority of them volunteers.

All of them are dedicated to our values – being passionate about Wellington; delivering excellence (which includes learning from our mistakes) and teamwork; as we are committed to working together and delivering a great experience for the attendees, teams and Wellington city.

While the weather did not come to the party, the running of this year's tournament went without a hitch. We received wide praise from the IRB, and the New Zealand team won too.

We are certainly proud of the platform we provided that allowed 60,000 fans to enjoy a unique entertainment experience which, of course, included 18 hours of top sevens rugby – the quality of the rugby on the field is testament to the huge investment teams across the world are putting into the game ahead of its debut at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

We have worked hard to manage intoxication at the tournament. We know we have to do more to ensure the antics of a few do not spoil what has become a fantastic Wellington event.

What we will do now is undertake a systematic review of what did occur and focus on the facts. We are committed to ensuring the tournament continues to be a summer highlight for the country and a strong feature in the sevens world series.

Is what we developed 15 years ago relevant, or do we need to change?

We have a great opportunity with sevens now being an Olympic sport to make the changes and achieve our vision of a world class tournament for Wellington and New Zealand. We want a tournament that provides the best platform to help the All Blacks Sevens and their new Olympic rivals shine. It is about achieving the right balance between sport and entertainment.

We accept that we need to make changes and, in particular, deal with the anti-social behaviour of a few. We have been the leaders and at the forefront in developing the sevens rugby tournament format – which is the envy of others around the world –and we can do so again.

Change is coming, and we are determined to seize the opportunity to ensure Wellington remains a unique, fun and safe sevens event.

- The Dominion Post

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