After months of turmoil, a new normal appears to be on the horizon for New Zealand's sporting landscape
With a new player in the TV market, no Radio Sport and the growth of streaming media, the way that New Zealand consumes sport is likely to change
The New Zealand sporting year normally follows a particular rhythm. While there are some variations caused by world cups, olympic games and America’s Cup regattas, each year has generally followed a familiar pattern, most of which was watched on Sky TV and discussed on Radio Sport.
Then all of that changed.
The changes began in September last year.
The New Zealand sporting calendar is based around rugby. Rugby dominates New Zealand sport in a similar way to cricket in India. As an example, the average crowd at home matches for the Highlanders (the Super Rugby franchise based in Dunedin) in 2019 was about 12% of the city’s population. And that was not a particularly good year. The Highlanders won 6 out of 16 matches and finished in the middle of the table. Despite this, they managed to get more than one tenth of the population to come to the ground to watch them play. That’s how dominant rugby union is in New Zealand.
In September the Rugby World Cup was played in Japan, a very convenient time zone for New Zealand. And yet it did not capture the attention of the nation as much as it normally would have. Because it was not on SkyTV. A new player had arrived in the previously monopolistic NZ subscriber-TV market: Spark Sports. Spark is a telecommunications company that started life as a branch of the New Zealand post office, before being split up and sold off in the economic reforms of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It is one of New Zealand’s largest companies and one of the few companies capable of competing with Sky.
But their product was offered online only. There was no satellite option, which alienated some rural fans. They also suffered some teething problems as their technology did not always cope with the jump in their subscriber base from 8000 to 200000 users.
Radio Sport’s talkback lines were filled with people ringing up complaining about not being able to watch the first few matches. The majority of the complaints could be summed up like this: this is not what I’m used to, and I don’t like it.
Just before the end of the Rugby World Cup, there was another big announcement from Spark — they had secured the rights to New Zealand Cricket.
The talkback lines at Radio Sport lit up again. How could this happen? What will this mean? Will anyone ever hear Ian Smith commentating cricket again? It was all a big shock. The majority of the complaints could be summed up like this: this is not what I’m used to, and I don’t like it.
Halfway through the cricket season there was an announcement from NZME — the owners of Radio Sport. They confirmed that they would not be bidding for the rights to radio commentary for cricket for the 2020/21 season onwards.
The talkback lines at Radio Sport once again were flooded. How are fans going to follow cricket now? For many people cricket was the accompaniment to their summer. It seemed that everyone who painted their house had Radio Sport on with the cricket going in the background. Now that was gone too? The majority of the complaints could be summed up like this: this is not what I’m used to, and I don’t like it.
Then in March a new threat started to emerge. First, a couple of rugby matches were moved from Japan to Australia. The Sunwolves franchise are based in Tokyo, and it was seen as too dangerous to play home matches there, so their matches were moved to Australia.
Then Buenos Aires banned large crowds, so, for the first time ever, a super rugby match (between the Highlanders and the Buenos Aires-based Jaguares) was to be played behind closed doors. Across the other side of the Pacific New Zealand and Australia played a cricket match behind closed doors. It was bizarre.
The Highlanders match was then cancelled, and the players jumped on the first flight home. New Zealand and Australia both imposed quarantine rules on anyone who arrived into the country, and Super Rugby ground to a halt.
People phoned Radio Sport once more with the same, entirely justified complaint: this is not what I’m used to, and I don’t like it.
Less than 3 weeks later, with New Zealand under a very strict lockdown that had ended all sport, a new press release came out, with big news for New Zealand sports fans. Radio Sport was to close down with immediate effect.
People wanted to ring Radio Sport’s talkback lines to complain, but they couldn’t. If they could, they would have had the same familiar chorus: this is not what I’m used to, and I don’t like it.
New Zealand started the nationwide lock-down on 25 March. There has been no live sport in New Zealand at all since that day.
New Zealand has now advanced to the point where Covid-19 has been “eliminated”. That does not mean that there are no more cases of the disease — that would be called “eradicated” in epidemiological terms, but rather that there’s a belief that almost every case is accounted for and the disease is no longer spreading. There have been only 7 new cases in the past seven days and there were only 24 in the seven days before that.
Despite those low numbers, New Zealand remains mostly locked down. There have been a few restrictions that have been relaxed: people can now go to the beach or a park that’s a short drive from their house, restaurants are allowed to offer takeaway or delivery food, provided they are very careful about how they do it, schools are open (although students are still encouraged to stay home, and those who are there are doing distance learning from onsite) and people can now do some leisure activities that had been previously banned - golf, surfing, fishing, mountain biking and hunting.
But there is light on the horizon for New Zealand sports fans. On Thursday the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced the next set of restrictions that would be in place once the cabinet decided to drop the level. Included in that was the news that professional sports would be allowed to be played, but with a total attendance (including players and officials) of less than 100 people. For any televised sport, that means that it will have to be played behind closed doors, but New Zealand Rugby and Netball New Zealand had both already been planning for that exact contingency. As a result, within a few days of the restrictions being lifted, there is likely to be announcements of new sporting competitions.
The cabinet meets on Monday to discuss the next move.
The borders are still closed. There is some talk of an “extended bubble” with Australia, opening the borders between the two countries, but that has not yet happened, and is not likely to do so soon. As a result, the competitions that go between the two countries (the A-League football, ANBL basketball and NRL rugby league) have all had to make decisions about how to progress. The New Zealand Warriors (Rugby League) have moved to the Gold Coast and are currently going through a 14 day quarantine period. The Australian government gave a local airport a temporary international licence to accept the flight, and special permission for the Warriors to play. The ANBL (Basketball) decided to just call off their season and award the title to the Perth Wildcats (who were almost certainly going to win it anyway), while the A-League (football) have said that they will wait until the border is open before they resume.
But, even with all the restrictions and caveats, there is still likely to be sport happening soon.
There’s growing anticipation about what that might look like, especially at the potential of an expanded Mitre 10 Cup in rugby. However, there’s been such a drought of sport that people would possibly be happy to watch almost anything.
With a new player in the TV market, no Radio Sport and the growth of streaming media, the way that New Zealanders consume sport is likely to change. With the Australian competitions likely to be separated, there will be some big changes to what sport looks like. It won’t be what New Zealand fans are used to. But most fans will like getting something rather than nothing.
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