Story: Amateurism and professionalism

New Zealand has a long tradition of amateur sport, which has been associated with the values of fair play and egalitarianism. Professionalism was viewed as morally dubious and took a long time to become accepted. In the 21st century most top sportspeople are able to make a living from their sport.

Story by Geoff Watson
Main image: Australasian National Basketball League (NBL) match, Auckland, 2012

Story summary

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Amateurs play sport for love rather than financial reward. Especially in the past, this was associated with the values of fair play, equality, and respect for opponents and umpires.

Professionals receive payment for playing sport.

Early amateurism

In New Zealand in the 19th century amateurism dominated sport, but prize money was sometimes offered, for example at Caledonian games (Scottish sports competitions).

When the associations for most major sports were founded, between 1880 and 1914, they were almost all for amateur players, though a few allowed prize money. Sportspeople needed to remain amateur to be involved in most competitions, including international events. In New Zealand there were few opportunities for people to play sport professionally, even if they wanted to, and New Zealand was called ‘the most amateur country in the world’.

Rise of professionalism

By the 1970s there was a lot of ‘shamateurism’ (sham amateurism) in many sports, with elite athletes receiving payments secretly. Some, such as star runner John Walker, were paid for appearing in advertisements.

In the 1980s rugby began to be sponsored by large companies, and players of some sports began to be paid. In the 1990s, the rise of sports television channels which paid for the rights to broadcast sporting events boosted players’ incomes.

Professionalism in the 2000s

In the 2000s New Zealand teams played in trans-Tasman professional competitions in sports such as netball, rugby league and basketball. Rugby and cricket had international professional competitions. Paying elite sportspeople high wages was a financial burden for some sports organisations.

Amateurism in the 2000s

Despite the dominance of professionalism in elite sport, most people who played sport were amateurs and the values of amateurism were still important in New Zealand sport.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Watson, 'Amateurism and professionalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2023)

Story by Geoff Watson, published 5 Sep 2013