There’s been a lot of talk recently about Eden Park. The future of the stadium is in serious doubt and requires substantial financial investment and support. Auckland ratepayers are being asked to take on $40 million in existing debt and $64 million maintenance costs for the next ten years. Opinions are divided about whether it is even worth keeping the stadium as a going concern.

Now, sports stadiums are incredible things. They host the drama and excitement of various sports and can be utilised for live performances as well. I’ve spent some very happy hours at stadiums around the world, and I still hold a particular affection for one permanently put out of commission by the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.

“The question that I think is important, is what sort of stadiums do we need in this day and age to hold sporting events, or concerts, considering the massive change in how we generally consume sports in the contemporary world of television and online broadcasting?”

I’ve spent a bit of time pondering the whole question of sports stadiums and the place they hold in the contemporary world. I’ve read the opinions of commentators that demand that Eden Park be financed and supported, and the detrimental effect it would have on the city of Auckland, and New Zealand sports in general, if the stadium were to be decommissioned and knocked down. I’ve read the views of those who say enough is enough and if the stadium can’t generate the revenue to survive then it is not viable.

The question that I think is important, is what sort of stadiums do we need in this day and age to hold sporting events, or concerts, considering the massive change in how we generally consume sports in the contemporary world of television and online broadcasting? Before the domination of television, rugby, and cricket, grounds were the only places (apart form smaller venues for sports like tennis, hockey, or bowls) to see sports live, and crowds were huge. As television evolved to be the driving force in sports consumption, crowd figures fell and while particular teams  – like the All Blacks, for example, can still attract significant numbers and fill stadiums – the same can’t be said for most teams around the country. Super 15 games, Black Caps tests, one days and 20/20 games are hardly ever at capacity – unless it’s finals or a World Cup. Not enough bums on seats for games means a drop in revenue and the need to either ask for money, or seriously reconsider how large stadiums need to be and what can be done to attract more spectators to regular sports fixtures.

“As kids we would spend the hours engrossed in the play, lunchtime at the dairy across from what became the Hadlee stand and a bit of a play with bat and ball on the field between sessions.”

As a child my first introduction to a ground was test cricket matches ant Lancaster Park in Christchurch. This was in the days when the gas works still spoiled the view and the seats were wooden planks. None of that mattered. As kids we would spend the hours engrossed in the play, lunchtime at the dairy across from what became the Hadlee stand and a bit of a play with bat and ball on the field between sessions. The wicket was roped off and protected by vigilant Victory Park security personnel, but hundreds of kids would play cricket on the field. This was the 1980s – before the advent of total onfield security. I saw Canterbury play what was the traditional foe back then – Auckland – and saw most of the games that the ground hosted in the 1987 World Cup. I saw many one day and cricket test matches as well. If I had been able to get tickets I would have seen Dire Straits perform there, in what was acclaimed as a fantastic concert.

One of my most cherished sports memories is the hours of the last day of the cricket test between New Zealand and England, where Nathan Astle destroyed the English bowlers and, with Chris Cairns, nearly salvaged victory from most certain defeat. A friend and I perched high in the newly build South stand and were witness to possibly the best batting performance I have seen in person, or on television. Even that day, there were not many people people at the ground – although there would have been hundreds of thousands of people sitting at home, glued to the screen.

“I think that those who were in charge of the ‘experience of the event’ became far too greedy and actively pushed spectators to the comfort of their own homes to watch live matches on television.”

I’m not sure when it happened but I imagine it was around the time that the All Blacks became a ‘brand’ rather than a team and played substantially more test matches in a year than they ever used to, that the experience at stadiums soured for me. I think that those who were in charge of the ‘experience of the event’ became far too greedy and actively pushed spectators to the comfort of their own homes to watch live matches on television. When they did, they would only return for special matches, or events and made trips to games far less frequently than they had previously.

The experience of the event used to be about the game, obviously, but also the amenities at the ground. Eden Park for example, provided woeful and exorbitant food and drink. For the life of me I can’t recall the time when Kiwis gave up our abhorrence of monopolies but I would be exposed to the distasteful monopolistic practices at cricket and rugby matches. For a country that produces a wide array of superb beer, why would Eden Park serve up middle of the road brews with only two or three choices, at prices that had you looking about for the criminal who had just nicked your wallet? Why only provide the usual fried food options at restaurant prices? I’ve often wondered why particular places think it’s fine to fleece their customers, and I guess that stadiums and airports do it, and seem to get way with it, because they have a captive audience.

“A stadium that can hold 50,000, that is filled once a year and half empty for every other event is about as much use as a chocolate helicopter.”

With all of that in mind, why would spectators not chose the comfort of their own homes, with cheap and satisfying food and drink choices? Sport and greed have gone hand in hand for the past few decades. Spectators aren’t people attending games but consumers to be sold at. Sadly, the attendance numbers at games speaks to that and I find that a bit sad – if only because actually being at the game is an incredible experience – being part of a crowd, listening too the roars, the cheers, and yes, the boos.

Personally I think Eden Park got into its own mess and if it can’t dig its way out then that’s a shame but life goes on. It would be a better idea to create a ground dedicated to cricket – of the right dimensions as well – like Hagley Oval. Live concerts are better suited to places like Western Springs. Rugby could be better served by a ground that works for the game and spectators, no matter which team is playing. A stadium that can hold 50,000, that is filled once a year and half empty for every other event is about as much use as a chocolate helicopter. Aucklanders have more pressing needs than baling out an unsustainable outmoded, and user unfriendly stadium, in my opinion.