The $100 million question

04:32, May 18 2013
A concept drawing of the proposed covered sports stadium.
A concept drawing of the proposed covered sports stadium.

Does Christchurch need a new stadium?

How much extra should Christchurch spend just to ensure that on a cold June evening in four years' time, a good chunk of the town does not have to head down to Dunedin for the opening test match of the Lions 2017 rugby tour?

This is the perhaps $100 million question being debated behind closed doors as Christchurch City Council and the Government's Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) square off over the scale and timing of the central city rebuild anchor projects.

Last July, the CCDU came out with its ambitious Blueprint design for the city which included a fully roofed, 35,000-seat rugby stadium, set in its own fan zone in Madras St.

A dream facility. But the price tag was going to be at least $300m with ratepayers being expected to foot much of the bill. And all apparently because the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) has told Christchurch how high to jump.

With Dunedin having beggared itself to build its 31,000-seat capacity Forsyth Barr stadium only a few hours down the road, Christchurch is going to have to beat that by a solid margin if it wants premier tests to be tossed its way. Even then, given the commercial realities of the modern game, there would be no guarantees.


Just remember the 2011 Rugby World Cup, where filling the 60,000 seats in Auckland's Eden Park several weekends in a row became a more attractive deal than allowing the semifinals to go to any of the lesser cities.

Christchurch was going to host a quarterfinal at the old Lancaster Park/AMI Stadium because it had invested $60m in a new stand, expanding the ground to a 45,000 capacity with temporary seating.

So the replacement stadium is shaping up to be the central city's single most contentious rebuild decision, rivalled only by the wrangle over whether to preserve or demolish the Town Hall.

For a while, the debate had faded from sight because the CCDU said the stadium was the anchor project right at the back of the queue. No pressure to make any rushed choices.

But now it has become clear that the 2017 Lions tour is being seen as a stake in the ground, a target to aim for. And given a year to design and two years to construct, this means the stadium would have to be locked into the rebuild budget before the end of 2013.

Rev Mike Coleman of the Wider Earthquake Communities' Action Network (WeCan) says the way the rugby authorities play on a city's pride is "almost blackmailey".

Christchurch has far more urgent spending priorities, he says. "We've got to realise there's only been 200 over-cap homes rebuilt so far. The residential rebuild has hardly started. So talking about building a covered stadium at the moment is completely missing the point."

Hard questions have to be asked, agrees Jim Anderton, former Wigram MP and chair of the Christchurch Stadium Trust which operates the temporary Addington AMI Stadium. Addington has been a great success story, says Anderton, yet it is still struggling to fill its 17,000 seats during regular season Crusader games.

Attendance fell to 13,500 for a recent match against South Africa's Southern Kings.

"We're in a situation where we've got to spend what we can afford to spend," says Anderton. "If you build something that's gold-plated - the thing's got 20,000 seats empty for any regular game - then it'd be ludicrous. Ask if it's all worth it to host one game every four years and the answer's obvious."

Former Jade Stadium board member, city councillor and champion triathlete Erin Baker says Christchurch is going to be quick to object if the new rugby stadium turns into someone's vanity project. "You'd get a violent reaction from the public."

However, Baker is hopeful of a sensible choice because she says, despite being a sports-loving city, Christchurch has a fair record of avoiding stadium-itis in the past. "I think we've had a reputation for being quite level-headed about our investments in fact."

The Addington temporary stadium was an example of the city acting out of high emotion, says Baker. Built in a heroic 100 days, the Government footing a bill that rose from $20m to $30m as earthquake proof foundations were added, it was about boosting Christchurch's morale at a time when little else was happening.

"But Christchurch is feeling much better about itself now. Other things are going on. People can see the cost of every road being dug up. So now we need to be much more pragmatic and I think that'll indeed be the case."

So what would a sensible decision for the city look like?

? ? ? ? Canterbury Rugby Football Union chief executive Hamish Riach still sums it up succinctly. Rectangular, covered, 35,000 seats. That is what the rugby authorities asked for when the CCDU's Blueprint team was doing its masterplan consultations last year.

Riach says rectangular means not multipurpose, a wide oval stadium to be shared with cricket or athletics, but a dedicated rugby ground with the fans sitting tight to the touchlines. He says if people are worried about creating white elephants, trying to cater for too many different sports is much more of a risk. "The further away from the action you are, the less desirable the stadium experience. So if we're going to build something, we may as well build it to celebrate the principal tenant and the people who go."

That box appears to have been already ticked with the council's early decision not to attempt to fix Lancaster Park. At one stage last year the council's insurers were claiming the old AMI Stadium in Phillipstown could be repaired for as little as $45m. But the council took the view it was a write-off and the full $143m insurance payout should go into a new purpose-built rugby stadium on the edge of the central city in accordance with the Blueprint design.

The idea of the stadium being roofed has also come to be seen as essential. Riach agrees covered stadiums overseas have had their problems. The retractable roofs have been expensive. The turf often struggles to grow. But he says Dunedin has now sold people on the benefits. Its fixed roof, made of greenhouse plastic, is both reasonably inexpensive and has produced about the country's best pitch. Again, says Riach, compromise here is more likely to create a white elephant. Modern fans expect comfort. And of course not only does the rugby season peak in midwinter, but TV coverage has long shifted games into the deep evening. "Any of us who've been to the old AMI Stadium on a really cold, foul night - you would wish for a roof."

Then the 35,000-seat capacity. Riach says people should remember that pre-quake, Lancaster Park had 38,600 permanent seats. And the income from selling tickets is critical.

"The NZRU, who control the allocation of test matches, have said at 35,000 we'd be second only to Auckland's Eden Park. But at 30,000, that capacity sinks below Auckland and Wellington, it is roughly equivalent to Dunedin and Hamilton, and so we can no longer command the same status in the allocation process.

"What the citizens of Christchurch risk is not seeing Australia, not seeing the Lions, not having world cup games, not getting those marvellous big occasions. And we've got to consider how this is going to feel over the next 40 to 50 years, how Christchurch will feel about its identity and sense of community in the long-term," Riach argues.

It should not be underestimated how much rugby matters to those who run Christchurch either. It is more special than other sports because the corporate boxes are where business and politics rub shoulders.

At a game between the Crusaders and the Highlanders, in one glass fronted booth you might have Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee hosting a party of councillors, MPs and recovery officials, in the next, a bank or law firm entertaining a mix of senior staff, clients and competitors.

The rugby acts as an ideal icebreaker. A few drinks, the home town solidarity, something in common to talk about. Even the powerful can prove a bit awkward in each other's presence and a rugby match bridges political or commercial divides.

So the threat of losing the really big matches will loom large. Some of the city's movers and shakers may already be imagining 2017 and what it will be like standing clutching a Speights at the Forsyth Barr when the All Blacks take on the Lions, slapping the backs of their Dunedin hosts, praising them for their guts in building such a fine facility, when it could be the other way round.

But on the other hand, those like Baker say Christchurch has to be sober-minded and take into account the highly uncertain nature of professional sports. Rugby may seem the be all and end all today, but what about in 10, 20 or 30 years when the stadium debts are still being repaid?

Baker says for a start, television coverage is already decimating ground attendances. Crusader fans can sit at home in front of their high definition widescreens with surround sound and instant replays from five different angles.

Project forwards what technology could deliver in another decade. Cameras mounted on players, 3D screens, microphones in the scrum, social media commentary. The virtual experience could leave the real one a pale imitation.

Baker says it is less likely but it is conceivable rugby could also go out of fashion. What would a few years of bad form do for the Crusaders' fanbase? What is to stop other world games like football or basketball someday getting an equal grip on the public imagination? What if other factors come into play like a social concern over health issues?

"There may come a time when people just look at the injuries and ACC cost associated with high- impact professional sports - the knee and hip replacements, the concussions - and say there have to be choices. In 20 or 30 years' time, when people like me are the oldies, we may well be asking if we should still be creating this kind of burden on society."

Building a bigger than necessary stadium is taking a lot about the future for granted. And even if test matches continue to draw crowds for the next 30 years, the commercial trends still play against Christchurch as a venue.

Anderton says the NZRU in fact makes quite an effort to spread the drawcard games across New Zealand. But it is a law of sport that important events gravitate towards the largest available stadiums. No-one is surprised that in Wales, all the internationals go to Cardiff, or in England, they use Twickenham.

Anderton says the political pressure is to support regional hosting but the case to centralise games at Eden Park is only going to grow stronger. Christchurch could build a 35,000-seat stadium, yet even this might not be enough to secure quarterfinals should a Rugby World Cup ever happen to come around again.

? ? ? ? So on to the decision. If there are compromises, they would appear to boil down to size and timing.

Going for quality seems important. A new rugby stadium has to offer comfort and atmosphere to keep selling tickets for its bread and butter events. Thus the choices seem to be around total seat number and whether to push ahead for a 2017 opening or put the whole project on the backburner for perhaps another five years.

The council came out with initial costings of the possible combinations in April last year. The top dollar Blueprint option - 35,000 seats and covered - worked out at around $300m, with half coming from the reinvestment of the $143m insurance payout on the old AMI Stadium.

By losing the roof, the council said $70m could be shaved off the bill. By cutting seating capacity to 30,000, $30m could be saved. By doing both - an uncovered stadium of 30,000 seats - the cost would be down to around $200m, a difference of $100m.

But those in the industry say the costings sound high and Christchurch may be able to afford more than it expects.

Steven van der Pol, a director of Arrow International which project managed the construction of the Forsyth Barr stadium, says Dunedin in fact got a lot for its money as the stadium was built for $6200 a seat compared to the $10,300 a seat of Auckland's rather more luxury standard Eden Park redevelopment.

Van der Pol says Dunedin's roof added only around $30m to the design. Given that even an uncovered stadium will need to spend about $5m to put some kind of lid over its stands, even roofing a somewhat larger Christchurch stadium should add between $35m to $40m, not as much as $70m.

The seating is another area where the difference may be less than suggested. Van der Pol says Dunedin wheels in temporary end stands for the big occasions. So Christchurch could build itself a stadium of just 25,000 permanent seats for regular season use and allow for expansion to 35,000 for the test matches. It would be functional looking, but it could be brought in for a budget of around $250m, believes van der Pol. And it would be roofed, feel right-sized, and have that comfort factor of being a modern venue set in plenty of space on the edge of the city. "If you've been to a Dunedin game, 10 minutes after the game's finished, everyone's out of the ground. It has that convenience."

Van der Pol says the only worry is that the Forsyth Barr was, of course, built during the global financial crisis when construction prices were at rock bottom. "In Christchurch, we are into a heated market - it could be up to 20 per cent more at the moment."

The 2017 Lions tour is being used as a driver. But if this is discounted, there seems to be the possibility of extending the life of the Addington temporary stadium for at least a decade. It is built, it works, why not get the most value out of it?

Anderton, the stadium trust chair, says it is not quite so simple. The ground was taken over with the kind graces of Canterbury Rugby League who hold the lease until 2037. And the building consents were granted on the condition that Addington be handed back as a cleared site - even the stands gone - by 2017. "That is the framework within which we are required to work."

However Anderton says given the will, it should be possible to keep Addington going another 10 years. Perhaps the temporary nature of the build will show in the maintenance costs, but with its own temporary seating, Addington can cope with a crowd of up to 26,000.

So shelving the central city stadium for a few years, keeping Christchurch's debts at a manageable level until other things are paid for, is a clear option, says Anderton.

The choice will have to be made in the next month or so. The council has to pass its budget, the Christchurch City Three-Year Plan, by August. And much depends on what, if anything, the Government can be persuaded to contribute to the construction.

The council has drawn a line in the sand, saying it only now wants to build whatever $200m would buy. But with the behind the scenes horsetrading, the council may have to give on some anchor projects to get on others.

There seems widespread agreement that the world will not end if the city misses out on a 2017 Lions test. It will hurt. And it will hurt even more if Christchurch falls off the NZRU's map. But a boutique stadium for a local audience looks the right option.



Seating capacity at existing stadiums.

ANZ Stadium, Sydney - 83,500

Twickenham Stadium, England - 82,000

Millennium Stadium, Cardiff - 74,500

Etihad Stadium, Melbourne - 56,000

Eden Park, Auckland - 60,000

Waikato Stadium, Hamilton - 30,500

North Harbour Stadium, North Shore - 25,000

Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth - 25,000

Alpine Energy Stadium, Timaru - 10,000

Fairfax Media