A small revolution in our suburbs: the sports hub phenomenon
With Kevin Jenkins
Christchurch’s new sports hub Ngā Puna Wai is set to open in stages over 2018–19, with track and field facilities due first in May this year, followed by hockey in July. Big-ticket metropolitan projects like Ngā Puna Wai of course stand out, but meanwhile there’s also a quiet sports-hub revolution going on in the suburbs, writes Kevin Jenkins.
One of my incarnations involves turning out from time to time in a red and black jersey for the Pōneke rugby club’s veterans outfit, the undefeated Pōneke Pies (undefeated because every game’s officially a draw). Apart from those occasional appearances in the scrum for the Pies, I’m also the Pōneke club chair, and from that seat I’ve seen an encouraging new grass-roots trend.
Across the country, hundreds of sports clubs and community groups are getting together in clusters to share both the costs of upgrading facilities and the dull but indispensable minutiae of administration. It’s a new sports hub phenomenon that’s having some success adapting Aotearoa’s traditional club and community scene to 21st century life.
Clubs and communities in Aotearoa
New Zealand’s club tradition is part of a social pattern going back to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, where a flurry of clubs and societies developed as traditional social links broke down and new urban identities emerged. By the mid-19th century this club/society culture had also spread throughout the English-speaking world, including in Aotearoa. The first case of organised sport here may have been a game of cricket in the Bay of Islands in 1832 (almost certainly including Māori). The first organised sports club was the Wellington Jockey Club (1842), while the first organised sports competitions came later in the 1860s.
As the country progressively urbanised in the 20th century, the number of clubs grew markedly, with individuals often belonging to a number of clubs. This new network and culture that contributed so much social glue to our new urban lives also included a vast physical infrastructure of single-purpose recreational buildings — many built after the second world war when building codes allowed for weekend working bees using materials scrounged from building sites.
But jump-cut to the 21st century and some traditional codes are fading in popularity. In the professional sports era there’s a shift away from playing to watching. Meanwhile, those who do get outside often prefer new pursuits like competitive frisbee, part of an explosion of alternative sports.
Now the physical assets that our clubs built up over decades are often liabilities. The local bridge club can’t afford to bring its clubrooms up to the current building code. There’s the local rugby club whose clubrooms have a multimillion-dollar insurance valuation but in reality could never be sold because, sitting on town belt land, they can’t be repurposed.
Clubs aren’t about buildings of course. On the other hand, good, fit-for-purpose clubrooms enable a vigorous, self-sustaining club culture. At the Pōneke Football Club, one of Aotearoa’s oldest rugby clubs, we’ve followed the example of some other clubs and worked with other locals to develop a new multi-club sports facility. We’re confident this new community and sports-hub model will not only help our own club thrive, it will also help sustain a large piece of Wellington’s wider club and community scene. It’s a way of adapting the traditional club-and-clubrooms model from the world of Don Clarke and A&P shows, bringing the best aspects of it into the new era of Reiko Ioane, Netflix and Uber.
How Pōneke did it
The Pōneke club was founded in 1883. My three kids have all worn its red-and-black jersey, and my wife and I have both been junior club coaches. It’s a club based around heart and family, and our clubrooms at Kilbirnie were built by our own members over several decades.
In recent years we found, like other clubs, that our player numbers were declining and fewer people were participating in our social activities. We also found ourselves with a building insured for $4 million that we could barely afford to maintain, let alone refurbish to today’s standards. As an asset the building was also very ‘lazy’, used for only a few hours a week.
We convened a group of Pōneke stalwarts with business skills to have a proper look at the problem and at what our options might be to ensure Pōneke prospers for another 135 years. Long-time junior coach and treasurer Ross Jamieson put his hand up to lead.
We realised a large pool of other Wellington clubs were grappling with the same issues and we worked with them to develop a new multi-club solution. We secured over $2 million from community trusts and the Council, and combining that with our own savings, we developed what are now possibly the best clubrooms in Aotearoa. Six other clubs now have a permanent home in the new facility — softball, swimming, diving, American football, triathlon and darts. The new office facilities also offer possibilities for sharing services like databases and social media.
When they’re not being used for core sport and community activities, we can also rent out the facilities to other community and commercial users. Our goal was to create a vibrant, welcoming community space — potentially 24/7.
To manage the new facility we formed a new incorporated society called ‘Toitū Pōneke’. Te Āti Awa advised us in choosing the name, which combines the ideas of standing together (tū) and activities, arts and knowledge (toi).
For the Pōneke Football Club the new arrangement means we retain ownership of a multi-million dollar asset built up over more than a century, but we’re freed from the distractions of property management, including the hands-on management of catering, the bar, events, and cleaning. The result is that a potentially stranded, ageing asset has been reshaped into a world-class multi-purpose facility suitable for different sporting codes, as well as for corporate events and dinners and a range of community occasions.
Perhaps it’s taken us all too long to recognise and respond to the developing destruction of a great store of capital in our sports and community sector. But each generation has to come up with its own solutions. It’s wonderful to see the different codes themselves — and councils too sometimes — being innovative, rising above parochialism, and working together to keep the best of New Zealand club culture.
This article was first published in The Spinoff on 1 April 2018.