One in five winter sports games is cancelled every year in Auckland, leaving players disappointed and clubs frustrated. But new ideas are emerging to get teams back on the pitch.
Every Saturday, Sharon Sweeney Lauder gets up at the crack of dawn to check whether her daughters’ soccer games have been cancelled.
“There’s no point getting the girls up and dressed in their uniforms for nothing,” she says. “It’s incredibly frustrating. Why can’t they get the draining right? Why should I have to check every single week to find out if their game’s been cancelled?”
Her daughters, Aisling, 9, and Erin, 7, love soccer but whether they get to play each Saturday depends entirely on the previous week’s weather. One year the girls went 10 weeks without a game.
“They know if it’s been raining hard all week that the grounds will be flooded and they won’t get to play this week,” Mrs Sweeney Lauder says.
The impact of so many sprig-booted feet on the waterlogged soil prompts Auckland Council grounds managers to call off 20 per cent of all games, so that the grass playing surface will not be ruined for the rest of the season.
The annual problem is threatening to get worse as playing numbers increase and the city runs out of more sports fields in long spells of wet weather.
Now council officials are considering a range of solutions, from ground-sharing between codes to different playing surfaces – potentially good news for frustrated players, parents and organisers.
The hundreds of volunteers who run Auckland’s junior sports games also dread the phone calls from parents when Saturday’s match is cancelled because it rained during the week.
“The mums ask, why are we closed? It’s a winter sport, so why aren’t we playing?” says Evelyn Brooker, who heads Auckland Rugby League’s junior management committee. The league has more than 300 teams of players under 16 this season and a further 200 in upper grades of competition.
“It’s the little kids that always miss out and they are the ones we are trying to keep in the game,” Mrs Brooker says.
“We started on the first Saturday in April and already we had to cancel a Saturday on most parks.
“It’s hard for the little ones. When they go north across the harbour bridge other kids are playing soccer and rugby games.
“On this side we have not enough sand fields for training during the week and for playing on Saturday.”
The amount of rain this season has Eastern Suburbs Football Club chairman Chris Ruffell worried that the club’s 1000 youngsters will not get to train more than five times this year.
“I believe the level of cancellations is the single most important factor in kids giving the game away,” he says.
“It’s not unusual for our club to miss four or five of 16 scheduled games in a season because of ground conditions or weather.
“People are sick of cancellations.”
Three council grounds offer 11 full-size fields but this season the club is spending $8700 to hire floodlit netball courts which will to allow 300 children to train. Parents will pick up the tab.
Mr Ruffell says the sand carpet No. 2 pitch at Madills Farm in Kohimarama is “knackered” after five years of hard use.
The long-term answer was to go a step higher – install an artificial pitch.
“It should be done now because it gives a perfect surface and can be used regardless of weather.”
Auckland Football Federation has 30,000 players and the number grows 3 to 5 per cent a year.
“We foresee a doubling of this sport in 20 years and the need for either more fields or better use of the existing ones through more artificial or sand fields,” says federation chief executive David Parker.
“We have a machine running at over 95 per cent capacity and when it breaks, it breaks big. So when we get bad weather, there’s nowhere else to move to.”
Some grounds were not used for up to seven weeks during last year’s wet winter.
“Capacity is Auckland football’s number one issue.”
The College Rifles rugby club in Remuera has led the way in tackling the problem.
It has put in two artificial fields at a cost of $2 million, with a $750,000 subsidy from the council.
“It’s been successful because it’s never closed and the surety of use has brought bookings from all codes – soccer, Auckland rugby reps, tag, touch and lacrosse,” says club chairman Derek Rope.
“We need one more urgently, with 620 under-13s for rugby.”
The club’s efforts to ensure every child gets a game includes having 28 sides under seven playing on Friday nights.
Auckland Council parks staff get more complaints about the 20 per cent cancellation rate than any other issue.
Council local and sports parks manager Mark Bowater says the tally of 700 sports fields (spread across 224 parks) is at least 10 per cent short of meeting current demand to kick or hit a ball around.
The population has grown by 1.6 per cent a year in the last decade and under 25-year-olds make up 40 per cent of Auckland’s population – 52 per cent in some areas.
“The challenge is to match supply with demand, particularly for winter sport.
“Our aim is 100 per cent field playability but it means we must invest more in strong turf cover and manage its use.”
He warns that creating new fields in the areas of highest demand will be expensive, as flat, well-drained sites are also the targets of housing and commercial property developers.
The few land acquisitions under consideration are priced at $5 million to $6 million per hectare.
Fortunately, he says, the council has “land banked” areas in Manukau for economic development as the people moved in.
“But across the region, it’s about increasing capacity of the fields we have.”
Mr Bowater says providing a sand carpet drainage surface costs $200,000 to $250,000 but it doubles the playing capacity of a soil-based field, which is estimated at 10 hours a week.
Artificial turf pitches cost up to $1.5 million but they in turn could triple the playing time of a sand carpet field, allowing up to 60 hours of games or practices each week.
A cheaper alternative under study is to replace the rye grasses of soil-based fields with warm season couch grass – favoured in Australia for a hard-wearing surface.
The merging of councils in Auckland is allowing managers to take a regional look at getting more use out of fields and to assess the playing needs of the population for the next decade.
The assessment will guide the department’s request next year for the council’s 10-year budget to provide for a steady capital works programme to catch up with demand.
Parent pressure will go on the local boards to allocate more than this year’s regional budget for new and upgraded fields.
It was $25 million, nearly as much as the $30 million fields maintenance bill.
Meanwhile, the two football associations, four rugby unions and the rugby league association have been told to expect reallocations of fields between codes to get more players on.
Clubs which have spare capacity while their neighbours are overflowing may find they have to follow the old rugby rule – “use it or lose it”.
Whether it’s artificial turf or sharing fields, families whose lives revolve around weekend sport are hoping for changes soon.
Mrs Sweeney Lauder says Aisling and Erin often don;t see the point of training for games that are likely to be rained off.
“When it’s dark and it’s dingy and it’s cold, they can’t be bothered to put in the effort if they don’t get to play on Saturday.
“All they want to do is to play football, but they can’t.”
20 per cent
of winter sports games in Auckland are cancelled each year
You can get:
10 hours playing time per week on traditional soil-based field
20 hours per week on a sand carpet drainage surface (cost: up to $250,000)
40-60 hours per week on artificial turf (cost: up to $1.5 million)
Auckland’s worst-affected sports fields
Shepherds Park, Birkenhead
McFetridge Park, Glenfield
Becroft Park, Forrest Hill
Bay City Park, East Coast Bays
Taharoto Park, Takapuna
Shoesmith Domain, Warkworth
Stanmore Bay Reserve,
Silverdale War Memorial Park,
North Harbour Marist
Seddon Fields, Western Springs
Keith Hay Park, Mt Roskill
Phyllis Reserve, Mt Albert
Michaels Ave Reserve, Ellerslie
Madills Farm, Kohimarama
Glover Park, Glendowie
Seymour Park, Royal Oak
Western Springs Outer Fields
Shore Rd Reserve, Orakei
Ellerslie Domain, Ellerslie
Fowlds Park, Western Springs
Bledisloe Park, Franklin
McLennan Park, Papakura
Rogers Park, Howick
Seaside Park, Otahuhu
Riverhills Reserve, Howick
Lloyd Elsmore Park, Pakuranga
Football and rugby
Papatoetoe Recreation Ground,Papatoetoe
Walter Massey Park
Football, rugby, league
Paparoa Park, Howick
Mountford Park, Manurewa
Parrs Park, Glen Eden
Crum Park, Titirangi
Brains Park, Kelston
Singer Park, Glen Eden
Fred Taylor Park, Westgate
Waitakere City Stadium, Lincoln
– Source: Auckland Council
– additional reporting by Amelia Wade
– NZHerald.co.nz – By Wayne Thompson, additional reporting by Amelia Wade