Last Friday I went to the Crusaders-Waratahs game at AMI. My season seats are three rows back on the ten yard line behind the opposition bench. Three rows is high enough to see but close enough to hear- and almost feel- all the action. The stadium is small, compressed and therefore engaged even when, as is almost always the case, it is never completely full. For the Crusaders- Blues match earlier the stadium was almost full and the atmosphere was similar to a test match- or Carisbrook in its heyday in the early 1990s.
Night games in winter are always going to be an issue in New Zealand- and especially so in the South Island. Yet the compressed nature of AMI stadium, the steep stands on each side and the stadium's positioning out of the direct blast of the easterly make it a much more pleasant and engaging place to watch rugby than the old Lancaster Park/Jade/AMI home of crusaders rugby. Even when it rains, the overhang of the roof means I have yet to be soaked watching a game at the new stadium. Likewise, because there is no blasting wind nor whistling breeze, coupled with compressed seating, the cold is never really an issue. In fact I would argue that is it is the perfect size and shape to watch rugby in New Zealand. If we are honest, Canterbury and the Crusaders are never now likely to attract more than 17000 fans to any game in winter, especially night games. Yet even more so, Super rugby in New Zealand, especially in a city of the size of Christchurch, is unlikely to attract test-match size crowds. we just don't have the population and with Sky, increasing numbers are now what can be termed virtual fans watching at home or in pubs.
The next night I was down in Dunedin and watched the Highlanders defeat the Blues in the Forsyth Barr Stadium. I took the whole family because the attraction of a covered stadium made them feel that they could cope with the cold of a night game. Yet, ironically, because of the position of the take a kids seats near an open wind-tunnel exit, I was colder in a covered stadium than I have been in the open stadium in Christchurch. That said, if the seats could be gained closer to the middle of the field then we would have been much warmer. But we need to remember that a covered roof may keep off rain but not necessarily keep out cold winds.
The stadium itself is very impressive- and vast. It is also somewhat impersonal. There was a good crowd, but the stadium still felt- and sounded- half empty. There also seemed an expectation that the crowds needed constant entertainment to keep them engaged in such a vast space. So we had various types of performances and performers both prior to and during the match along the sidelines. This was not so much rugby as an entertainment spectacle.
And then there was the Zoo. For some reason the take a kids seats are, on the town end, very close to the Zoo and all its antics. The positioning of students away from where the game is often played means they will of course resort to making their own entertainment when play is at the other end of the field. What is interesting is how they have costumed encourager's- in chicken suits, in a skeleton suit- and some young man who should have been wearing much more under a lycra body suit. I couldn't help thinking that it is the positioning of the Zoo at one end of the field that necessitates much of its behaviour. Because it is difficult to see play at the other end in a stadium of this size and the screens are not really large enough. One of the joys of the bank at Carisbrook was that you were close to the play on the field and could see well. The Zoo is not for those who want to watch rugby- and that is its problem.
All that said, I would go south to watch a test match there- if I could get seats closer to the centre of the field. For when it is full it would become a much different place. But the acoustics when it is half full are woeful and so a curious disengagement occurred- even though the Highlanders won.
Of course the debate in Christchurch is whether we need a covered stadium. On my experiences I would say definitely not. It will be an expensive half-full ( at best) experience for all games except the odd test match. What we need to do is actually only host small-capacity test matches at AMI and more so keep AMI long-term for rugby. We don't need a new stadium- and we don't need, can't fill and can't afford, a covered stadium. With only 1 million people in the South Island we can only support- at best- one expensive covered stadium and now that Dunedin has got it we need to support that and not try to compete.
In today's world of competing options for that disposable entertainment dollar, a covered stadium isn't going to draw in bigger crowds- nor is it going to necessarily result in a better experience of rugby to watch- or even a better type of rugby played. It is a winter game that unfortunately has become- at super level, primarily a night game too. The issue is actually the prevalence of night games and that is not going to change because of broadcasting demands. Rugby is still a central sport to New Zealand culture- but for many it is now something to be watched in TV and not in person. A covered stadium isn't going to change that.