They built it, but nobody comes anymore

By Vicki Salmon, Chair Tātaki Auckland Unlimited

Kevin Costner’s Oscar-nominated baseball movie Field of Dreams popularised the saying “if you build it, they will come”. The catchy phrase resonated with the public and infrastructure developers alike.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that in the real world.

Back when North Harbour Stadium opened to fanfare in 1997, passionate local dreams of a showpiece venue on the North Shore had finally become a reality; there was an expectation ‘they’ would come.

And for a while, they did. Provincial and super rugby, and elite football matches at Albany had decent attendances, as did Rugby World Cup 2011 games using temporary extra seating.

Post amalgamation in 2014, the community trust that built and ran the facility handed it over to Auckland Council, and Regional Facilities Auckland – now part of the organisation I chair, Tātaki Auckland Unlimited (TAU) – became its operator. Since then, we have attracted big events including the sell-out 2017 All Blacks-Springboks match (with NZ Rugby choosing a different Auckland venue because Eden Park was hosting two other major tests), and the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 Play Off Tournament.

But overall, they don’t come anymore. The heyday crowds for North Harbour Rugby’s ‘Battle of the Bridge’ with Auckland have vanished.

Today, diehard fans’ shouts usually echo around a sparsely populated main grandstand. North Harbour Stadium is – by far – the least used in the region’s stadium network.

People suggest TAU should ‘just put more events on’. But that’s not a stadium operator’s role – it is event promoters and sports administrators who develop and stage events; our experienced major events attraction and stadium teams market and showcase the venue to prospective hirers or tenants, and they do that with dedication.

Unfortunately, concert promoters and sports executives who decide where to put their events on dislike the Albany venue for a number of reasons.  Some have been stung in the past by poor ticket sales, or post-event attendee flak about severe traffic congestion in and out. The venue is much too big and expensive for most potential hirers, and too small to make it financially viable for most stadium music acts.

Equally importantly, the stadium doesn’t meet the North Shore community’s needs, or the requirements of its main long-term users including rugby and football. We have asked local sports bodies what they need in a stadium, and they say it’s not the existing facility.

So Auckland Council is asking for Aucklanders’ views about the stadium’s future as part of its Long Term Plan (10-year budget) consultation – which is open until 28 March. Councillors will consider all public feedback when they vote on what is, or isn’t, in the budget in June.  

There are three options: one is leave the stadium as is and spend up to $33 million in the next decade just to keep it up to the required standard; two is to re-develop the site with facilities that better suit the community’s needs, with that $33m re-allocated towards the cost – and any additional funding needed partially coming from selling a portion of the site (but, crucially, the community playing fields will definitely be retained); and option three is to change the operational management.

TAU believes option two could create an amazing legacy for Auckland’s future generations; and we believe it makes no financial sense in tough economic times to spend tens of millions to maintain an often-empty stadium that works for almost nobody.

Most North Shore sports codes share TAU’s vision for a more appropriately sized stadium on the site – a venue that works much better for the main users (including broadcasters) and the community than the current one.

There would be no impact on the community playing fields, nor the nearby council pool complex.

To be clear: there is NO option to just level the stadium and sell all the land. Anyone misrepresenting that as one of council’s LTP options is simply scaremongering.

It’s a fallacy that North Harbour Stadium was in a strong financial position in the ‘good old days’. In 2006, North Shore City ratepayers loaned the stadium trust $30 million so it could pay off its debts. North Shore City Council – which paid $6 million towards the stadium’s build – later forgave the loan. North Shore City Council also helped the trust out by contributing millions in marketing and operating costs.

When Regional Facilities Auckland (now TAU) took over operating the stadium, it was reliant on council funding to break even. Our immediate focus was to attract new content, to try to counter an established trend of a shrinking event calendar and falling attendances.

With the benefit of perfect hindsight, critics point to TAU’s decision in 2018 to invest in significant alterations needed by a promising new tenant – the Auckland Tuatara professional baseball franchise. But that call was based on a business case which considered the long-term opportunity.   In its first season at North Harbour Stadium, the club showed strong promise – reaching the playoffs and building a strong local following, with game day crowds of up to 5000 people.

However, unlike its hardy reptilian namesake, the baseball Tuatara were doomed by a catastrophic run of bad luck. The COVID-19 pandemic blindsided the world, and travel restrictions severely impacted trans-Tasman sporting competitions. Restrictions eased just in time for Auckland’s terrible 2022/23 summer weather to ruin any chance of recovery for the Tuatara’s season. Unfortunately, that final setback forced the club into liquidation a year ago.  

It was a big blow to North Harbour Stadium, with no replacement regular tenant revenue, or one-off major sporting or music events on the horizon.

TAU believes the right option is a fresh start with a fit-for-purpose, appropriately sized stadium, the North Shore can be proud of. To misquote the Hollywood classic – if we rebuild it, they will come back. I urge everyone to have their say on the stadium’s future by making a submission to the LTP consultation.

Please have your say by 28 March -

Photo credit - Photosport