A tale of two stadia

Six months since my last post – ouch! Apologies to my thousands hundreds two dozen admirers casual followers, but there was the little matter of an arduous yet ultimately successful election campaign (more of that in a later post) and then a long Christmas sojourn in Blighty and Singapore (more of that later too).

But all my gloating on FaceBook at being stuck on an equatorial island basking in 30 deg. over New Year, cut no ice with joyous Wellingtonians living the dream of Wellington-on-a-good-day every damn day of this summer. The one time Welly bakes in Auckland-esque sultriness, I’m overseas – typical.

So now I’m back, the natural thing to do was a visit to the cricket – well, two actually. I didn’t plan sporting gluttony, but after enjoying the Black Caps thrash a hapless Pakistan at the Basin on the Friday, I thought I might as well enjoy the Black Caps thrash a hapless Pakistan in the T20 at the Cake Tin too.

Two great results (from an NZ perspective, obv), but two quite different ambiences. And it’s the vibe of the thing, as Dennis Denuto might say, that prompted this post.

The Basin has come under fire in recent years. The player facilities are not particularly first class, let alone Test class, apparently. NZ Cricket were so ashamed that those connoisseurs of class, the Barmy Army, might turn their noses up at the Basin’s rather tired fabric, that they scheduled a day-night affair for the first Test at glitzy Eden Park – the suburban ground that’s always been a bit identity-fluid between rugby venue and cricket venue. Dire warnings were issued that if the grand old Basin didn’t tidy itself up with a haircut and a revamp, it might not host a ‘top’ side again…

Stung by this criticism, from torpor into a sort of mild lethargy, there have been some modest changes. Well, actually, the end result is excellent. Food and drink, often historically a poor choice at Kiwi stadia, is superb. A mini precinct was created by temporarily closing the little bit of the roundabout that passes directly in front of the main gate, and putting down a piece of astroturf. This was then filled with a delectable range of food trucks – Greek food, Churros, gourmet burgers, craft beer – where Fritz’s Wieners was perhaps the least imaginative of the bunch. And with a good clutch of them, the queues moved quickly.

Wellington on a good day, squared.

In contrast, the Cake Tin fare was still grimly predictable: manky chips, petrol station pies and hot dogs. Our new arrival from Switzerland was mortified by the sausage-on-a-stick hotdog he mistakenly ordered: I tried to reassure him that had he stipulated the American hotdog he was hoping for, it wouldn’t have tasted much better. We were fortuitously close enough to the concourse bar, where one could at least purchase Chomp beer. For most of the plebs, it was a Hobson’s Choice of Tui or Heineken Light.

The food situation is insuperable for Westpac Stadium: there is a need to have a single onsite caterer (Spotless) for all the corporate catering. Their contract understandably precludes parachuting in Macca’s or Hell, let alone more gourmet food trucks, apart from the ubiquitous Fritz’s, which usually sells out well before the end of play anyway. Nor do I think the service or management is bad. There is a refreshment place by every other aisle, and so the queues were not long. But if the alternative is firing up the BBQ at home and putting on the big TV for its excellent, detailed coverage, I can see why many don’t bother. There is a closeness to the cricket at the Basin which can’t be replicated by TV.

At least you’re not really required to stay in your allotted seat.

This isn’t really a problem for football codes. There’s only really enough time during the match to grab a few beers and some chips anyway. But when the shortest format of cricket weighs in at plus three hours, the customer experience needs more care and consideration.

The main issue, however, seems to be that Wellingtonians (well, the ones that like cricket) are making their preference plain. The crowd for the T20 was a lowly 8,500. In a 35,000 capacity stadium that makes for a lot of empty seats. There were at least as many at the Basin if not more; or at least it felt that way, and the atmosphere was somehow more substantial. Furthermore, Monday was a public holiday and a required commitment of just 3 hours, while Friday was a working day for many for a full-day ODI. Still, the Basin seemed to be where it was at, so to speak.

Nor is it the format: I’ve seen the Basin three-quarters full for a weekday Super Smash T20 game, commencing at 4pm, which had nothing riding on it because Wellington were unable to qualify for the playoffs. An earlier fixture featuring big Jesse Ryder tonking sixes was played on a mild Saturday evening to just a few hundred spectators at an eerie, echoing Westpac. Perhaps the most damning evidence is that NZ Cricket has been signalling its intent by moving most domestic matches and more and more internationals to smaller ’boutique’ stadia, largely to make the smaller crowds look better. The quintessential Kiwi cricket experience is found at the Basin, Pukekura Park, University Oval and the like. I doubt Kiwis will ever embrace live cricket attendance in the same numbers as Aussies or Poms: 80,000 turned out at Etihad (or whatever it’s called these days) to watch the Melbourne Stars play crap again in the BBL. Cricket certainly matters to Kiwis – just not with the intensity that rugby does.

There is even scope for relatively inexpensive improvement. If Wellington can ever come to any agreement on the transport ‘solution’ around the Basin, a mild reboot of the venue is surely worth factoring in: floodlights, a strengthened Museum stand, some more covered areas and competitive stand pricing for those who don’t want to melt on the bank. The ‘Gabba even has a pool, although a cluster of hireable hot tubs might be more suitable for the cooler Wellington climate.

Oh yes. Definitely.

Oh look – I seem to have indulged in my annual Cake Tin hatchet job again. I don’t wish to rub further salt in: its location and facilities are still light years ahead of rickety, exposed Athletic Park. And it has hosted some cracking events in recent years – AB Tests, the odd Warriors game, the Bahrain qualifier, the Sevens in its heyday, Elton John, Bowie in the rain and that England v. NZ Cricket World Cup match – but it just isn’t cricket anymore for me. The wisdom of hindsight only fuels pointless regret, but the decision to build the Cake Tin as an oval, rugby-cricket composite stadium without a roof was probably a mistake. Such multi-sport stadia are quite normal in Oz, but only really in the AFL states, where both summer and winter sports are supposed to be played on the same size field anyway. And the weather is consistently better.

Ominously, WCC are looking seriously at a new, medium-sized indoor arena to bring more entertainment acts to Wellington, with opportunities for netball and basketball. When you consider that Guns ‘n’ Roses came this close to canning their last gig at the Cake Tin due to the swirling wind and drizzle that is hardly unusual for Welly, it’s not hard to see more events being lost. Even for football, league and rugby, one often feels too far away from the action. Yet the costs of installing a roof or converting the stadium to a rectangular one are prohibitive, and much more costly than my suggestions above for improving the Basin.

The resolution of how best to use, manage and improve Wellington’s group of sporting and entertainment facilities will surely keep the councillors’ thinking caps on for quite some time. I’m just not sure that cricket has a worthwhile future at Westpac Stadium.