Fans are jamming themselves into sporting events in Canterbury. TONY SMITH asks why and how long will the trend continue?
Remember the Kevin Costner character in Field Of Dreams?
Ray Kinsella heard voices imploring: “If you build it, he will come".
“He" was Kinsella's dead, distant dad - and baseball legend “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and his mates from the Chicago “Black Sox", banned for taking bribes to throw the 1919 World Series.
Kinsella carved up his Iowa cornfield and created a baseball diamond. His farmer neighbours thought he was mad, they didn't share his visions.
Sports industry insiders are simply still in awe at how post-quake Canterbury built a temporary $30m sports stadium in 100 days in Addington on the former Rugby League Park site.
And codes have been queuing up to use it.
Already the new AMI Stadium (the old one is damaged beyond repair in Phillipstown) has hosted an All Blacks test against Ireland and Crusaders and Canterbury rugby campaigns.
The Wellington Phoenix played there last Sunday - the same day as the Silver Ferns-Australia netball test in the adjacent CBS Canterbury Arena.
The All Whites will play their World Cup qualifying game against Oceania champions Tahiti next month and the New Zealand Golf Open - the sport's domestic showpiece - returns to Clearwater again in December.
One Christchurch promoter, who brought two teams of former North American ice hockey stars to the CBS Canterbury Arena for an exhibition game, is planning to bring them back again in 2014 - two months before possibly staging a NFL football game at AMI Stadium.
Another events professional with rugby league roots wants to lure the Warriors to AMI Stadium. Why are sports flocking to Christchurch?
Shouldn't they be giving the quake-strafed city a big Israel Dagg swerve? Aren't browbeaten Cantabrians too weary and broke from battling bureaucrats and insurance companies to be able to afford to go out and have a good time?
New Zealand Football chief executive Grant McKavanagh says bringing the All Whites to Christchurch is a no-brainer because Canterbury had “very patriotic fans". “That's a key thing; they do get out and support their teams."
The numbers back him up.
The full house sign was up for the All Blacks test and most of the Crusaders' games - albeit the capacity is only between 17,000 and 20,000 at the new arena.
But Canterbury Rugby Football Union chief executive and Crusaders supremo Hamish Riach says they could have sold many more tickets because demand clearly outstripped supply.
The Phoenix drew 7009 fans to last Sunday's friendly against the Western Sydney Wanderers. Seven thousand may not seem a bumper crowd to the non-footballing fraternity, but let's get some perspective here.
The Australian A-League is widely regarded to be of comparable standard to League One, English football's third professional tier.
Only two League One clubs (Coventry City with 10,674 and Swindon Town with 8533) drew bigger gates last weekend than the Phoenix, who were playing a pre-season friendly out of town.
David Dome, the Phoenix general manager, acknowledges the A-League club regards Christchurch as a home away from home.
They drew crowds of 19,000 and 14,000 for regular season games against Adelaide United at the old AMI Stadium in 2010.
Dome is impressed by the facilities and atmosphere at the new stadium and says the Phoenix will definitely consider staging another A-League game here, maybe next season.
McKavanagh is “certainly hoping for a lot more" than 7000 on October 16 for the All Whites' game which, serendipitously, will be Christchurch-born skipper Ryan Nelsen's 50th international game and his first in his hometown.
But McKavanagh has laid down a challenge. “We will take games to where people will support us."
Christchurch clearly ranks highly in that regard. Six thousand hoops fans - a record for a basketball game in the city - watched the New Zealand Breakers' pre-season game against the Wollongong Hawks at the CBS Canterbury Arena earlier this month.
Promoter Greg Shackell, who also organised another game between the two teams in Dunedin, says Christchurch has a strong basketball community and the Breakers' dual Australian NBL titles helped entice floating fans out.
The New Zealand-Australia netball test also sold out last Sunday with more than 5000 fans present, and the Canterbury Tactix still enjoy good support despite their lowly status in the transtasman franchise league.
So far, there's little sign the earthquake and recession has led to a widespread infestation of gorse in Canterbury sports fans' pockets.
Indeed, promoters universally agree Cantabrians seem to be extra keen on a good night out.
Craig Douglas was blown away by the response when 8712 fans flocked to see the NHL ice hockey stars event his Christchurch company, Douglas Webber, staged at the CBS Arena last July.
They faced big bills to assemble the Canadian and United States teams and import a special ice rink, so costs were sky-high. Tickets cost between $129 and $249 but “people flocked to it".
“We didn't sell out, we over-sold it . . . that doesn't mean people didn't have seats, we just used every square millimetre there was to get extra seats. But we turned thousands away in the last few days."
Douglas says staging the event so soon after the February 2011 earthquake was “scary to say the least".
They watched “150 other events" cancel or reschedule. They had overtures and incentives from the Hamilton City Council to shift the game to Hamilton but they kept faith with Christchurch “because we live here".
Besides, they had a track record from three International Rodeo events they staged here during successive Cup and Show Weeks.
More than 7000 cowboys and cowgirls flocked to New Zealand's first indoor rodeo.
But the New Zealand International Ice Hockey show wasn't without its challenges, including persuading the National Hockey League players' association to send their men here.
The puck-chasers were chary after seeing television images of death and destruction in quake-hit Christchurch.
“But we convinced them we still had a city and there were still 300,000 here who had survived," Douglas quipped.
Still, nerves were on a knife-edge. Had an aftershock of 5.5 magnitude or greater hit within five days of the event, the arena would have had to close and be re-checked by structural engineers.
“If we had an earthquake of 4.3 or more on the night we would have had to evacuate the place and it was going to take3 hours to get everyone back in."
Douglas says his firm had to “break every traffic law in the book" to unload containers holding the rink off a train at Rolleston “on to the side of the road" after the gear's arrival was delayed in the 2011 mid-winter snowstorm.
But their faith that Christchurch people would support “a great night out" proved well founded. They also staged successful shows in Auckland - “we got a record 10,500 crowd to Vector Arena" - and Dunedin, a 3500-sellout at “an existing ice rink".
Douglas says the three shows were “very successful" and emboldened his company to take the International Ice Hockey event to Melbourne and Sydney next June.
They want to bring it back to Christchurch in June 2014 and hope to stage the city's first NFL football game at AMI Stadium in August or September of the same year.
In the meantime, part of the imported ice rink is being used for the Christchurch City's Ice Fest in Hagley Park.
Justin Wallace, who runs the popular Fight for Canterbury boxing event held in November, says corporate table sales “are going absolutely nuts".
“We are talking to Vbase about how we can squeeze in more. We're on target to sell 100 corporate tables [seating 1000 guests]. There aren't many of these [type of events] around these days in Christchurch. That's why we put our event into November to target the corporate market, Christmas function season."
Wallace is aiming for 3000 fans in the stands and hopes sports fans might be lured to watch Canterbury Tactix netballer Bessie Manu box Charlotte Kight from the Northern Mystics and former New Zealand cricketer Mark Greatbatch go toe-to-toe with Christchurch chef Philip Kraal.
“We're keen to develop more Canterbury-Auckland clashes and keep that provincial rivalry going."
Motor sport is also enjoying a spectator boom in spite of (or perhaps because of) the quakes and challenging economic conditions.
Take Woodford Glen. “The last two seasons have been some of the best in our history," its promoter Steve Lennon says.
The track complex escaped unscathed from the quakes which ravaged nearby Kaiapoi and Lennon believes Woodford Glen “definitely benefited because there was nothing much to do" in the city last year.
Outside rugby, motorsport gets Canterbury's biggest sporting crowds. Woodford Glen's fireworks night traditionally draws “9000 to 11,000 and our Boxing Day meet averages 7500".
Lennon expects “full houses, about 10 to 11,000" for major meets this season, including the New Zealand stock car championships.
Add the crowds that flock to Ruapuna raceway, and motorsport community is clearly a significant bloc.
Many curious patrons who came to the speedway because the Crusaders were on the road and movie theatres were closed have become converts, Lennon says.
“I was a little stressed this year when the Crusaders had their first game in the new stadium on the same night we had a big meet. But we got one of our biggest crowds of the year."
The local community is benefiting too. “It's almost impossible to find accommodation out here when we have our big national shows. Everything's booked out by drivers and supporters."
Lennon says speedway is drawing a new demographic. A generation ago speedway punters perpetuated the “black jeans, black singlet and a mullet" image.
“But a lot of people have gone to Woodford Glen in the last couple of years and have noticed it's changed. We're a lot more family-orientated".
That's reflected in a family pass ticket price which allows mum, dad and up to four kids under 14 entry for $30 “for 3 hours of racing and entertainment".
Despite the high-revving interest in motor sport, rugby still remains a major drawcard for Cantabrians.
Riach is rapt at the response for games at the new stadium. “The Crusaders crowds were great, apart from two games, it was full. We couldn't put more in. There was clearly an unsatisfied demand.
“And Canterbury crowds [in the national championship] are really strong. We're getting 9 to 10,000 for each game which is very pleasing as well and compares well to other provincial unions."
Promoters say Vbase and the Christchurch City Council have generally been very supportive in terms of bringing events to Christchurch.
David Dome from the Phoenix said Vbase were “very good to deal with" and Craig Douglas said while he once had some “growing pains" in his dealing with Vbase, he believed they were “phenomenal" after working with other stadium operators elsewhere.
McKavanagh says the council were “providing value in kind" by assisting New Zealand Football with marketing the All Whites' match. “They've been massively helpful."
But promoters believe AMI Stadium's potential is yet untapped.
Wallace, a former Canterbury rugby league representative, wants to see the Warriors play at AMI Stadium in the 2014 pre-season. He and Douglas teamed up to get the NRL club to play here next year but Hamilton got the nod.
That was a shame, according to Douglas, who says any Warriors' match here “would not be a vanilla game". He had plans for pyrotechnics - $1000 worth of fireworks were to be set off “every time the Warriors scored".
Everyone extols the atmosphere at the rectangular-shaped Addington ground where fans are much closer to the pitch than at the oval-shaped, dual purpose cricket and rugby stadium in Phillipstown.
Phoenix player Ben Sigmund reckoned last Sunday it felt like a true football ground. Riach says the Crusaders and Canterbury players “really enjoy the intimate atmosphere.
But Riach is still looking forward to the new, roofed stadium slated for the Turners and Growers site in the Christchurch CBD.
He knows a major stadium is needed to attract big-ticket, A-level All Blacks tests and British and Irish Lions tour matches back to Christchurch.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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