There are many reasons why the Western Province and Stormers rugby teams could continue to play their rugby at Newlands, their home for more than a century. The three most frequently cited are that Newlands is the historic home of South African rugby, its walls draped in the old traditions of the game and the memories of rugby legends, great moments and fierce rivalries. The second is that a switch to the newly-built Cape Town stadium would be financial folly; Western Province Rugby already owns Newlands, while they would have to rent the facilities at Cape Town stadium from the City of Cape Town. And the third, why change something that’s not broken?
Proponents of the move often counter with reasons of their own: The facilities at the new stadium are far better for the players and for the fans. Newlands, tucked into a suburban neighbourhood, can be a traffic nightmare; in contrast, Cape Town stadium has rapid public transport connections to the central train station and is close to the large Waterfront with its ample (if expensive) parking. The capacity of the new stadium is also larger, the spectator experience much better and, the clincher, beer is allowed inside the stadium. Compared to Newlands, the player facilities are also world class. And to put it bluntly, Cape Town stadium is also much more impressive than Newlands (see picture) and represents the spirit of the new South Africa and the future of Cape Town.
So here’s why I think WP Rugby should move. First, tradition and history are important, but we should refrain from using it to arrest progress. Yankee Stadium, home of the New York Yankees since 1923 and arguably one of the most revered (and cherished) stadia in the United States, was closed in 2008 after the new Yankee stadium was built. The old stadium was demolished in 2010 and is now a city park called Heritage Field. Arsenal, one of England’s oldest football clubs, moved in 2006 from Highbury, where they had played since 1913, to the new Emirates stadium. It wasn’t that these clubs had not valued their history, but what they realised was that if they wanted to remain at the top of the game, so to speak, they had to move forward.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is the belief that, because Western Province Rugby owns Newlands, the financially sensible thing to do is to remain there. This line of argument, though, neglects to consider opportunity costs. Let’s say a conservative estimate of the value of Newlands is roughly R300 million. If Newlands were to be sold, Western Province Rugby could potentially earn up to R30 million annually from investing these funds. Such returns, I suspect, could easily pay for rent of the new stadium, given that all stadium maintenance costs and other related expenditures would now be removed from WP’s budget. (A side note: this requires the City of Cape Town to reconfigure the new stadium to ensure that WP Rugby can accommodate all their stakeholders, principally members and suit holders. This seems to be happening, as the new Business Plan for Cape Town Stadium suggests.) The point is: owning doesn’t imply that there are no costs; the foregone income may be much higher than the current benefits of ownership.
But I’m actually not in favour of selling Newlands completely, because I think there is value to be had from the current history and tradition. Yes, I am in favour of Stormers and WP games being played at the new Cape Town stadium and thus the money to do this must be found somewhere. So here’s my proposal: redevelop Newlands. Reduce the seat capacity to a maximum of 10000. Convert all of the current suites and upper levels into A-grade offices, conference facilities, hotel rooms and perhaps even condos. Continue to use the pitch for practice sessions. What Stormer supporter would not like to look from his office window and see the team practice for this weekends game? Why not remodel the Jan Pickard stand into the four-star Jan Pickard Hotel, where each room has a view of the field? Or, for those really avid supporters, let them buy a bachelor or two-bedroom apartment with a living room view onto the famous Newlands grass. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to an early captain’s run on a Friday morning? The multi-use of stadia is becoming a global phenomenon: I’ve been to a shopping mall inside Benfica’s Stadium of Light, which housed not only a supermarket but several retail shops and cinemas.
A smaller Newlands will also allow WP Rugby to host other events like derby schools rugby or the final of the club championships, which usually doesn’t draw more than a few thousand. And if we are really inventive, why not build a permanent roof and use the stadium for temporary exhibitions, music concerts, or even other sport codes: imagine a ten-thousand seater sports arena for an ATP tennis tournament, or world-class gymnastics or boxing events.
Redevelop Newlands into something that will more than compensate WP Rugby for hiring Cape Town stadium for all Currie Cup, Super 15 and international rugby matches. More people, more fun, more beer, making more financial sense. At least for the next hundred years.