Story: Amateurism and professionalism

Page 3. Rise of professionalism

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By the 1970s some sports, including athletics, had become dominated by ‘shamateurism’ (sham amateurism). Under-the-table payments to elite athletes were commonplace. In 1976 the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association (NZAAA) negotiated a deal in which their Olympic (and therefore strictly amateur) 1,500-metre champion John Walker was paid to endorse Fresh Up, a fruit drink. ‘We wanted upfront payments, not brown envelopes in the changing shed,’ said NZAAA chair Ian Boyd.1

Dollars for doing the distance

Anne Audain openly accepted $10,000 for winning a race in Oregon in 1981 because ‘I had travelled the European track circuit and had seen all the under-the-table money the men were getting.’ Audain said the prize money ‘gave me another 11 years in a career I thought was over.’2 She ran in the first women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, and in the 10,000 metres at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

In 1981 three New Zealand runners took part in a 15-kilometre race in Portland, Oregon. One of them, Anne Audain, openly accepted $10,000 in prize money. She was immediately banned for life from amateur competition but kept running on the professional circuit. The NZAAA and other official bodies soon lifted the ban, and Audain was reinstated in time to win gold at the 1982 Commonwealth Games.

‘Pre-professional’ rugby

Between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, New Zealand witnessed a ‘pre-professional’ era in sport. Advertising became more prominent in rugby. A New Zealand firm, NEC, was allowed to sponsor rugby’s Ranfurly Shield in 1985 and Kokusai Denshin Denwa, a Japanese firm, was the principal sponsor of the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. This event – which was won by New Zealand, the host country – demonstrated the commercial potential in rugby, and by the early 1990s most international players were earning at least a living wage. Organisations such as the All Blacks Club (established in 1993) were formed to facilitate commercial opportunities for players.

‘Trial’ of Andy Haden

In 1984 the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) threatened to expel All Black Andy Haden from rugby for, among other things, allegedly advocating professionalism in his 1983 book Boots ’n all. Haden, assisted by barrister Stephen Temm, successfully defended himself before an NZRFU council meeting in September 1984. The so-called ‘trial’ of Andy Haden highlighted the growing tension between players and administrators over amateurism.

League, cricket and netball

These changes were influenced by a surge in popular support for rugby league, particularly the New South Wales Rugby League’s premier competition. Several All Blacks, including Matthew Ridge, John Gallagher and John Kirwan, changed codes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In cricket, players such as Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe became high-profile personalities, and by the early 1990s New Zealand Cricket was contracting its leading players. Netball also attracted sponsorship from companies such as Nestlé.

The impact of sports television

Internationally, the emergence of subscriber television in the early 1990s, with channels devoted solely to sport, radically changed the way people watched sport. It also significantly increased players’ incomes, because subscriber television organisations were able to pay more money for television rights than most free-to-air networks could afford. It was not only the ‘traditional’ team sports that attracted commercial interest. Basketball became very popular during the 1980s, with local talent supplemented by high-quality American professionals such as Benny Anthony and Kenny McFadden.

Super Rugby and cricket competitions

From the mid-1990s the elite competitions of rugby, cricket and (a little later) netball became professional and contracted to subscriber television. The catalyst was News Corporation securing the television rights for rugby in 1995. Revenue from this deal enabled the NZRFU to contract the All Blacks and players for the newly formed Super 12 competition, which later became known as Super Rugby. With five New Zealand regional franchises which could attract players from other regions, this competition represented a significant change in rugby.

From 2002 New Zealand Cricket contracted players in both its international and domestic cricket competitions.

Australasian sporting market

Complementing these developments, an Australasian sporting labour market emerged with the admission of New Zealand teams into Australian competitions. This trend began with the Auckland (now New Zealand) Warriors, who were admitted into the New South Wales Rugby League’s premier competition in 1995. Other sports that benefited included basketball (the New Zealand Breakers), football (the Wellington Phoenix) and netball, which participated in the ANZ Championship, contested between 2008 and 2016 by five Australian and five New Zealand teams. In 2018 the Auckland Tuatara became New Zealand’s first professional baseball team when they were admitted to the Australian Baseball League.

Male sportspeople have been the main beneficiaries of professionalism, but women have made some gains. Players in netball’s ANZ Premiership are paid, with franchises offering meaningful salaries to elite players. Since 2018, the White Ferns squad have been on contracts from New Zealand Cricket.

  1. Quoted in Roger Robinson, ‘Roger on running: when money came into running.’ Running Times, (last accessed 15 October 2012). Back
  2. Quoted in John Meyer, ‘1981 Cascade Run Off: the race that changed the sport.’ Running Times, (last accessed 15 October 2012). Back
How to cite this page:

Geoff Watson, 'Amateurism and professionalism - Rise of professionalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Geoff Watson, published 5 Sep 2013