Towards the end of the 20th century the older grounds became unsatisfactory. Improved television coverage threatened attendance. If spectators came to the grounds, they demanded comfortable seats, decent food, alcohol and instant replays on the big screen. The professionalisation of rugby, football, league and cricket increased ticket prices and raised expectations about the quality of the facilities. To cater for prime-time television audiences, night games required lighting. Lancaster Park installed lights in 1996, but even smaller venues such as Seddon Park in Hamilton (in 1999) or Trafalgar Park in Nelson (for the Rugby World Cup in 2011) were forced to follow suit. Their installation often caused debate with the local community.
In the light of the past
The first ground lighting in New Zealand took place at the Basin Reserve on 5 June 1879 when a 16-horsepower engine provided electricity for two lights to allow a game of football between the gentlemen of Te Aro and Thorndon. There was a crowd of 8,000. But first one light failed and then the motor overheated. The game ended in darkness with both teams scoreless.
As professional sport extended the playing seasons, grounds had to adapt quickly to different needs. There were improved drainage systems or, as at Eden Park and Waikato Stadium (formerly Rugby Park), new turf technology combining natural grass with synthetic tufts and a plastic mesh. To allow cricket and rugby to be played at the same venue, portable drop-in pitches were pioneered at Lancaster Park and were regularly used at Eden Park and Westpac Stadium in Wellington.
To cater for spectator comfort, new stands were built ending the standing embankments, creating ticketed all-seating stadiums. New stands and improved bar, food and toilet facilities were built at Invercargill’s Rugby Park, Carisbrook and Yarrow Stadium (2002), and McLean Park (2009). Lancaster Park had four new stands built between 1995 and 2011. The Palmerston North Showgrounds got a new stand and a new name, becoming Arena Manawatu, and Rugby Park became Waikato Stadium after a $38 million redevelopment in 2002. New stands were built at Eden Park in 1992 and 1999, and the park had a major redevelopment for the Rugby World Cup from 2008 to 2010 at a cost of over $225 million.
The influence of corporate funding led all these grounds to build corporate boxes and some received a sponsor’s name – for example, Lancaster Park became Jade Stadium and then AMI Stadium.
The new professional sporting world led North Shore City to build the state-of-the-art North Harbour Stadium in 1997, with a capacity of 25,000, while other communities abandoned old grounds. In Wellington the windswept Athletic Park was replaced, after a debate about various sites, with the more centrally located WestpacTrust Stadium (later Westpac Stadium). Known colloquially as the ‘Cake Tin’ because of its shape and metal exterior, it was eventually opened on old railway land in Thorndon, in January 2000, with a capacity of up to 36,000.
Dunedin, after even more ferocious debate, followed suit. With the 2011 Rugby World Cup looming, Carisbrook was replaced, for rugby at least, by a rectangular covered arena, Forsyth Barr Stadium, which opened in August 2011. It had seating for over 30,000. Cricket moved to the University Oval.
Auckland also saw fierce debate as to whether to replace Eden Park with a new waterfront stadium. In the end the existing park was upgraded.
In Christchurch the move to a new location was not the result of public dissatisfaction but rather a force of nature. The swampy origins of Lancaster Park proved its undoing with the February 2011 earthquake causing major damage to the playing field and the recently-built stands. For one season the Crusaders had no Christchurch ground, but in 2012 Rugby League Park at the Addington Showgrounds became their new home, renamed Christchurch Rugby Stadium, with seating for 18,600. In 2013 there were proposals for a new stadium within the central ‘four avenues’ area, and the redevelopment of Hagley Oval for cricket.