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Official Review by Stephen Gillam, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Westpac Stadium (as it can now once again be called) is the home ground of the A-League's Wellington Phoenix. Due to the Phoenix's formidable record on the ground, playing on the name of the club name, and due to its circular shape and yellow seats that kind of look like flames if you imagine hard enough, its colloquial name is the Ring of Fire.
The last review of Westpac Stadium, covered its ability to host Rugby World Cup fixtures. But with the football season having approached us, I was itching to get back to the kind of atmosphere that involved more than sitting quietly and watching the game. The match I went to was against the Central Coast Mariners on a Friday evening.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
With the IRB no longer having a say in how the menu looks, the catering company has been able to bring back their standard business plan.
And while that plan is an improvement on the World Cup's menu, it's still fairly overpriced stadium food at the end of the day. $8 will get you an alcoholic drink, and anything less than $5 is the kind of snack mainly made worth it by your trip at half time so you don't have to watch the stadium's entertainment.
Anything of more substance, and they do serve burgers and fish & chips which are to a decent standard, will look closer to $8 again.
Smaller vendors, that sell coffee and donuts and the like, are scattered around the stadium.
Bonus points were awarded for the kiosks actually installing eftpos machines this time.
In my opinion, football is better to watch if there is some distance between the pitch and the players. To the purists, this does detract from the feel of the game and creates a sense of separation, but for me it gives a better view of the game (including off the ball play and watching how formations play out).
Westpac Stadium is designed more like a cricket ground, but that has its own pros and cons about creating an atmosphere.
The crowd, however, is what makes Phoenix games special. Yellow Fever, the franchise's fan club, have an array of chants (most of them stolen from Europe admittedly) and are passionate enough about the club to make the games more vibrant to attend.
Westpac Stadium is placed in a very commercial part of town, and right by the city's transport hub. The Trax bar (so called because it's tucked in by the train station) is extremely close and a nice place, but seldom open beyond the early evening. Otherwise, there's The Occidental, a pub that takes a bit of locating but has a nice atmosphere and is good for catching later games on television.
Also in by the train station is Railway Metro New World, a supermarket that's often open late and can be a good venue to pick up drinks and snacks if you want to head home after the match but still don't want to turn in for the night just yet. Or if you feel like shelling out to a large corporation, there's a McDonald's close by.
So despite a fairly boring set of options, the stadium scored reasonably high here because of its vicinity to the city's night life. If you keep going out of the gate and walk down Waterloo Quay (the only street in Wellington with about four lanes) or Lambton Quay for about 15 minutes, you should find yourself on or near Courtenay Place. And as they say on MTV, this is where the magic happens.
This is where there are loads of night clubs (or discos), pubs, restaurants, fast food outlets, a sports bar and there's also places of less honourable intent if that's your thing (and I'm not here to judge). If you're staying in Wellington and want to enjoy the city after a night-time game, you can easily do that.
Depending on what kind of scene you like when attending a football game, you have two main choices of where to sit. If you're after a more entertaining atmosphere, the Yellow Fever zone (ask when you buy the tickets) is extremely close to the gate and the seats are cheap. The fans choose to remain standing and spend almost all 90 minutes singing and chanting.
Provided you don't mind the occasional chorus that crosses a few lines of good sportsmanship and human decency (not to the point of hooting, mind you), you can easily have a great time. Chants range from the basic "Come on Phoenix!" to the more amusing vuvuzela impressions or songs that complain that the club's jerseys are too bright.
When the Phoenix are in the lead with 10 minutes to go, the Yellow Fever have a tradition of taking off their shirts for the last 10 minutes. This is, of course, optional particularly with Wellington's proud culture of cold winds, but don't be too stunned if you see it happen.
If you want a more relaxed atmosphere to watch the game in a less rowdy fashion, I suggest paying for a seat closer to the middle of the ground. Of course, this will set you back a small amount extra and requires a little more walking, but you get a much better view of the game and you can still get an enjoyable atmosphere from the fans.
If you're staying in the Wellington city area, buses can drop you off across the road from the stadium, or if you're in the "Greater Wellington" area (as far as an hour north in Paraparaumu or Waikanae) then you can get off the train at Wellington Station and you're pretty much at the gate.
Parking in the stadium and the nearby streets is expensive and often very hard to find a place to park. I recommend either walking to the stadium or taking some form of public transport, both of which are easy to do in Wellington.
Foot traffic is all directed through one (admittedly very large) causeway and gate. Usually this isn't a problem but when the crowd amounts to at least 20,000 you should be prepared for some congestion and slow walking, particularly if you're in a large group.
As one who loves the more traditional football atmosphere I was always going to be joining the Yellow Fever. That ticket set me back $20, but the higher-end seats don't tend to cost (much) more than $40.
In my opinion that's dirt cheap for a professional sports match, and while the football isn't as good as what you see in Europe, I had no qualms about parting with what I was probably going to be spending on cheap beer anyway. If you have the day spare and the money available, the experience is generally well worth it.
The big screens are well placed for easy viewing, and there are small TVs scattered around the place if you're buying food while the game's on (or doing something of the like). Security has to use common sense when it comes to evicting fans, and I think they do that very well.
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