Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Sports venues

by Jock Phillips

As sport became more professional, sports venues did too. While early spectators had to stand up to watch their favourite game, in the 2000s they can sit in comfort in a fully enclosed stadium.

The first city sports grounds, 1850 to 1914

Grounds for playing

Settlers from the United Kingdom brought traditions of playing games outside, and quickly established parks for this purpose. In 1855 the Canterbury provincial government set aside Hagley Park in Christchurch for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. In the late 19th century schools established playing fields and local councils began providing sports grounds for their communities. In the 21st century they still do so. For example, in 2013 Wellington City Council was responsible for 45 parks. Many had changing rooms and fields for winter sports such as rugby, football or hockey; and some had prepared cricket pitches in summer.

Venues for watching sport

During the 1860s and 1870s provincial and international games in cricket, and occasionally rugby, attracted spectators, and they required other facilities such as grandstands. Initially games were played on public reserves such as Hagley Park or Latimer Square in Christchurch, and the Domain in Auckland. Caledonian (Scottish) societies in some communities established grounds that could accommodate spectators for their Caledonian games (as in Dunedin), often held on New Year’s Day.

However, cricketers could not charge spectators to watch important games because the Public Reserves acts of 1877 and 1881 made it illegal to do so on public grounds. Cricketers began to establish private grounds.

A versatile place

Cricket was always the Basin Reserve’s main use, but, as was true of other city arenas, its central location and grandstand allowed for a huge range of activities. Sports, including rugby, league, football, hockey, athletics, boxing, cycling, softball and baseball. There were also public events such as a balloon ascent by Captain Lorraine (1899), a Māori carnival (1900), the 1908 Dominion Day, Archbishop Redwood’s Diamond Jubilee (1934), VE celebrations in 1945, Father Patrick’s prayer meeting (1954) and a concert by opera singer Malvina Major (1994).

Basin Reserve, Wellington

The first place to establish a private cricket ground, even before the Public Reserves Act 1877, was Wellington. The 1855 earthquake lifted a shallow lagoon, the Basin, by 2 metres. Two years later, frustrated at continually losing their grounds to new buildings, cricketers persuaded the provincial government to reserve the Basin as a cricket ground and public park. Fundraising by cricketers and work by prisoners from Mt Cook Gaol prepared the ground. The first game was played in 1868, and the first grandstand, organised by the Caledonian Sports Association, was built that same year. In 1896 rugby left the Basin for Athletic Park in Berhampore.

Carisbrook, Dunedin

Dunedin was the next to obtain a ground for spectators. International cricket games had been played on the oval in 1864; but cricketers wanted their own paying facility. So in 1874 the Carisbrook Cricket Club leased some swampy land from the Presbyterian Church, and in 1880 set up a company which drained it, enclosed it and built a grandstand. The first international game followed in 1884. Rugby was invited in to help pay the lease; and the first major rugby game was Otago versus New South Wales in 1886. The entrance fee was sixpence for men, and a seat in the stand was an extra sixpence – women were allowed in free to improve the men’s behaviour (a practice that continued until 1928). In 1907 the Otago Rugby Football Union took over the lease and developed new stands.

Sporting swamps

Remarkably, the four major traditional cricket grounds in New Zealand all began as swamps. The Basin Reserve became a swamp after the earthquake had drained the lagoon. Carisbrook was originally offered ‘to anyone who had need of a patch of swamp’1, and was later known as ‘Lake Carisbrook’ in which the Otago team played ‘aquatic rugby’. Lancaster Park was also once boggy, which partly explains its damage in the 2011 earthquake. Eden Park was originally Cabbage Tree Swamp.

Lancaster Park, Christchurch

In 1880 the desire to charge for admission led three Christchurch cricketers, Frederick Wilding, William Pember Reeves and Arthur Ollivier, to purchase land from an English absentee investor, Benjamin Lancaster. They set up the Canterbury Cricket and Athletic Sports Company to develop the newly named Lancaster Park. A cinder track (made of volcanic stones) was laid, the ground enclosed and cricket began in October 1881. The first international rugby game came the next year. From 1911 the Canterbury Rugby Football Union joined the cricketers as joint owners, followed in 1919 by a Victory Park Board, on which sat representatives of the city and other sports.

Eden Park, Auckland

In 1902 the Kingsland Cricket Club took out a lease on Cabbage Tree Swamp and drained it. Three years later the Eden Cricket Club bought the land, and in 1910 sold it to the Auckland Cricket Association, which had been looking for a ground in preference to the public Domain, where they could not charge an entrance fee. The rugby union, having moved from the Domain to the Auckland Showgrounds, signed a lease in 1913. The following year two stands were erected, and the first rugby and international cricket games were played. In 1926 the rugby union joined the cricketers as joint owners.

Other early grounds

Larger provincial cities also established charging grounds for the major sports before the First World War. They included:

  • Rugby Park in Invercargill, which was first used for cricket in 1886
  • Trafalgar Park in Nelson, known initially as the Mudflat Recreation Ground, which opened for rugby, cricket and cycling in 1888
  • Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, regarded as one of the most scenic grounds in the world, which was developed from 1889 for cricket
  • Cook’s Gardens in Whanganui, which was developed as a charging venue in 1896 after complaints from cricketers about the lack of good pitches, and in cooperation with the athletics and cycling club
  • McLean Park in Napier, which was purchased as a memorial to prominent local politician Donald McLean in 1905, and was at first used primarily for athletic and Highland (Scottish) games.

Development of the major stadiums, 1920 to 1990

Increased spectatorship

From 1920 there was growing spectator interest in competitive sports, especially rugby. This was due to:

  • the success of the All Black rugby team, especially on the 1905–6 and 1924–25 tours to the United Kingdom
  • tours by international rugby and cricket teams
  • increased leisure time, especially the Saturday afternoon holiday, which most people had by this date
  • the development of radio, which heightened interest in sports
  • new domestic competitions such as rugby’s Ranfurly Shield and cricket’s Plunket Shield
  • improvements in transportation, such as buses, trams and cars, which made it easier for spectators to travel to games.

The result was a demand for new grounds, and for larger grandstands at existing grounds.

New grounds

The significant new grounds developed between the wars were:

  • Hamilton’s Rugby Park, which opened with a new stand in 1925 (although nine years later the roof collapsed), followed in 1950 by Seddon Park, a village-green setting for cricket (Hamilton thus joining Wellington and New Plymouth in having separate grounds for rugby and cricket)
  • Lansdowne Park in Blenheim, which opened in 1930 with a rugby game between the British Lions and combined team representing Nelson, Golden Bay, Motueka and Marlborough.
  • Rugby Park in New Plymouth, which became a rugby ground in 1931 and was later re-named after passionate local rugby supporter and businessman Noel Yarrow
  • Carlaw Park, close to Auckland’s Domain, which became a legendary ground for rugby league from 1921.
  • Gisborne’s Harry Barker Reserve, a cricket ground from 1948
  • Okara Park in Whangārei, which became Northland’s main rugby ground in 1965, replacing the notoriously muddy Rugby Park
  • Mt Smart in Auckland, which opened as a sports stadium in 1967, was the site of the athletics events at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and became the home of the Warriors rugby league team
  • Queen Elizabeth II Park in Christchurch, constructed for the 1974 Commonwealth Games
  • Owen Delany Park in Taupō, which opened in 1983 and was used for both rugby and cricket.

After the Second World War there followed:

Irishwoman’s stand

At both Carisbrook and Eden Park there was a long tradition of stands outside the official admission area but with good views of the ground – known as ‘Scotsman’s stands’. Most were outlawed in the 1960s, but Monica O’Sullivan’s ‘Irishman’s stand’ – which had been first built on her property at 1 Cricket Avenue, next to Eden Park, in 1956 – lasted until the 1990s. O’Sullivan, a stalwart Irish Catholic who reserved seats for the Marist brothers, printed tickets, numbered the planking seats and served refreshments – a choice of beer or tea served from her best china.

New stands

Between 1920 and 1990 facilities at sports grounds, especially grandstands, were improved. In response to international rugby tours, new stands were built at Carisbrook and Eden Park in the 1920s and 1930s; and there was another burst of such improvements at most grounds in the 1950s and 1960s. By then the big grounds normally had embankments to accommodate standing patrons. Eden Park – which had hosted the Empire Games in 1950, and was the site of New Zealand cricket’s lowest test innings (26) in 1955 and then first test win the next year – hosted a huge crowd of 61,240 for the fourth rugby test against South Africa in 1956.

The large grounds were used for a range of sports, from rugby and cricket to football and marching. They were also used for various events such as receptions for royalty, religious gatherings or rock concerts. They became assets for the whole community.

Professional stadiums since 1990

New demands

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.

New facilities

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.

New grounds

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.

Other sporting venues

While large stadiums with seating for thousands remain important to the sporting identity of New Zealand cities, there are many other venues for high-performance sport.

Some are natural places – beaches for surfing, mountains for skiing and mountaineering, rivers or lakes for rowing. Others, such as roads for cycling tours or motor rallies, are not specifically designed for sports but are used for them from time to time.

Human intervention

Some natural rowing venues required a fair bit of engineering. Kerr’s Reach, a popular venue for canoeing and kayaking on Christchurch’s Avon River, was formed in 1950 by widening the river. Lake Karāpiro on the Waikato River, the site of the 2010 World Rowing Championships, and Lake Ruataniwha near Twizel, the other major rowing venue in the 2000s, were created by hydro-electric power schemes in 1947 and 1981 respectively.

Race courses

There are many specially constructed venues to provide for the particular needs of different sports. The earliest were race courses which required a long flat circuit as well as grandstands close to the finish. As early as 1854 the Canterbury Jockey Club erected a stone grandstand for its course at Riccarton, in Christchurch, probably the country’s first such building. In 2013 there were 33 courses for gallops in the North Island, and 23 in the South. They ranged from large city courses like Riccarton to community courses such as Kumara, which hosts one meeting a year. There were another nine courses used purely for harness racing.

Golf courses

The most popular speciality sports facilities are golf courses, which range from short 9-hole courses to full 18-hole courses of an international standard. In 2013 there were just over 400 courses in New Zealand. Some were municipal courses with low green fees. Others were luxury courses designed to international standard, such as Kauri Cliffs in Northland and Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.


In the 19th century cycling took place at the main grounds such as Lancaster Park and the Basin Reserve. In the 1920s the need for banked tracks led to the construction of velodromes and by 2013 there were 19 such tracks in the country. This included two indoor wooden tracks of international standard at Invercargill and Cambridge.

Motor-racing circuits

When motor racing began in the early 20th century races were held on beaches. They soon moved to racecourses and airfields such as Wigram near Christchurch (from 1949), Ohakea in Manawatū (1950) and Ardmore near Auckland (1954). Later special motor-racing circuits were built; there were seven in 2013. There were also some 30 speedway circuits, but an equal number formerly used have closed.

Tennis courts

Many communities have tennis courts, but there are only a few courts that cater for large numbers of spectators. Stanley Street (known in 2013 as ASB Tennis Centre) was established in Parnell in Auckland in 1920. It is the site of the two international tournaments that take place in New Zealand: the women’s ASB Classic and the men’s Heineken Open. Lancaster Park was the site of the 1911 Davis Cup final in which Australasia defeated the United States. In the early 1920s land was purchased in Christchurch as a tennis centre and named Wilding Park after New Zealand’s Wimbledon champion, Anthony Wilding. It had 39 courts but was severely damaged in the February 2011 earthquake. Wellington has the Renouf Tennis Centre, which has six indoor courts and 12 outdoor courts.

Bowling clubs

The first bowling green was opened in Grafton, Auckland, in 1862. By 2013 there were some 600 such greens in New Zealand, to be found in most small towns and suburbs throughout the country.

Swimming pools

Swimming pools are widespread community assets supported by local authorities and schools. Pools of an Olympic length and with extensive spectator facilities are fewer. New Zealand’s first 50-metre pool was the Olympic Pool in Newmarket, Auckland, the venue for the 1950 Empire Games swimming events. By 2013 most provincial cities had at least one pool of that length.

Indoor arenas

By the early 2000s the growing public interest in and professionalism of netball and basketball had led communities to build large indoor arenas. Most had seating for at least 4,000 people, which became a requirement for hosting professional teams. The largest such arena was Auckland’s Spark Arena, seating up to 12,000, which, along with the North Shore Events Centre, hosted the New Zealand Breakers basketball team. Other arenas included Stadium Southland, Arena Manawatu and TSB Bank Arena in Wellington. Such venues were also used for events such as concerts and trade shows. Some, such as the Queenstown Events Centre (1999) and Arena Manawatu, were co-located with large sports stadiums for rugby and cricket.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Sports venues', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 September 2013