FOLLOWING THE MONEY: THE DEBASEMENT OF SPORT (PUB. 14 MAY 2008)
Sport fascinates me. Not in the way it fascinates many New Zealand males (I don’t spend my weekends glued to Sky Sport), but more for the important place it occupies in our culture. And what’s been particularly fascinating in recent years is the way that has changed.
I grew up with the notion that sport was largely about parochialism and local pride. The hometown team played against teams from other localities and fans turned out to support “their” side. It was inextricably bound up with local identity.
This strong sense of geographical allegiance explains why, as a teenager with no particular interest in rugby, I was still proud of the my home province's dominance of Ranfurly Shield rugby during the late 1960s and considered it a thrill to watch Kel Tremain and his teammates repel a challenge from Southland at McLean Park, Napier.
Parochialism still drives team sport at local level and can be very intense. In the provincial town where I live, you can’t find a parking space anywhere near the rugby ground on the day of the local club competition final.
But at the national and international levels, sport has been transformed. It is now a branch of show business, with the emphasis on the “business”. Money and professionalism have moved top-level rugby and cricket into a realm far removed from the traditional New Zealand model.
Players now follow the money. In Super 14 rugby, and increasingly in the domestic provincial championship too, the market rules.
Mobility is the name of the game off the field as much as on. Players chase contracts wherever there’s an open chequebook and an opportunity to step up onto the next rung. And so you get anomalies like Ali Williams, long an Auckland stalwart, turning out for the Canterbury Crusaders. Or Rico Gear, originally from Poverty Bay, flitting from Auckland to Bay of Plenty to North Harbour to Nelson Bays/Tasman before washing up at Canterbury.
Regional loyalties seem to count for little. The same is now also true in top-level netball, where Irene Van Dyk, for example, has made her home in Wellington but since 2003 has played for the Hamilton-based Magic.
In cricket, wealthy Indian clubs compete for the services of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans keen to sell their skills to the highest bidder.
Inevitably, the lure of big money in the professional arena is exerting its baleful influence on the All Blacks. Pride in the black jersey is not always strong enough to offset the temptation of a lucrative contract in the Northern Hemisphere. The result is a steady procession of All Blacks through airport departure lounges, and the recent spectacle of the Rugby Union scrambling to devise contractual arrangements that will allow Dan Carter to earn prodigious sums in France without jeopardising his All Black status.
Equally inevitably, the Ranfurly Shield – the symbol of an era in which provincial pride was everything – is losing ground, crowded out of the rugby calendar by competitions that offer more attractive commercial rewards.
All this seems to undermine what I have always considered to be the fundamental dynamic of sport. If geographical allegiance has traditionally been the key factor underpinning support for teams, why should crowds turn out to cheer for a side consisting largely of outsiders – hired guns, in effect? As a friend of mine says, “It’s hard to support a team that’s full of imports.”
(Oddly enough, “English” football teams such as Liverpool and Chelsea still command fanatical hometown support despite having far more foreign players than locals. I can only attribute this to English eccentricity, which defies rational explanation. Even more baffling is why some tragic New Zealanders are passionate followers of English teams despite having no parochial connections to them, but that’s another story.)
The other consequence of the intrusion of big money into sport is that a widening gulf has opened up between amateur and professional.
When not required for the national side, All Black greats used to turn out on Saturdays for their clubs. This had the double benefit of inspiring their teammates and attracting spectators, including kids eager to see their idols close up. But this great egalitarian tradition of New Zealand rugby has all but been destroyed by the All Blacks’ relentless professional commitments, which in turn are driven by the demands of sponsors and broadcasters determined to maximise the return from their investments.
Wellington sports journalist Joseph Romanos recently wrote about the marked decline in the number of secondary school boys playing rugby and suggested that the game’s supply line was slowly being shut off. College rugby, he said, was struggling desperately.
He put forward several possible reasons, including kids being intimidated by much bigger opponents and the lure of alternative codes such as soccer. On a more general level, people have simply been over-exposed to rugby as the season – again driven by commercial imperatives – has steadily expanded to take up much of the year.
Whatever the reasons, the dwindling popularity of rugby at school level raises the question of whether rugby is in danger of becoming primarily a spectator sport, played by a remote professional elite, rather one than one of mass grassroots participation. Such seems to have been the fate of American football, and closer to home, Australian Rules.
For the timebeing, club rugby still seems to command a strong following. But with provincial unions floundering financially and the national rugby body seemingly more focused on the international professional game than its domestic grassroots, one wonders how long that will continue.
Even a firm believer in the virtues of capitalism, as I am, can see there are other values besides the financial ones that now seem to rule rugby. And even someone who only ever wore a rugby jersey reluctantly, as I did in my school days, can still value the game as a defining aspect of our national culture and identity, and regret its debasement.