Story: Sports and leisure

Page 4. Organised sports

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Playing or watching?

It is often said that New Zealanders love sport, but in fact the same has been said of other Western societies such as Australia and the United States. There is some evidence that as participants New Zealanders are indeed more active than people of comparable countries. One-third of young people aged 5–17 are involved with sports clubs, and one-fifth of adults. But the evidence for spectator enthusiasm is less convincing. Certainly in any month 83% of adult New Zealanders (90% of men) watch sport on television, and a third will attend a game – more than go to the movies.


Golf is by far the most popular participation sport for men (attracting over 25% of adults) and the second most popular for women. There are almost 400 golf courses in New Zealand (the highest number per capita in the world). Yet with rare exceptions (such as the visit of Tiger Woods in 2001), the game attracts few spectators.


Amongst women’s sports, netball is pre-eminent both in terms of participation (the most popular sport among adult women) and public interest. This has been encouraged in recent years by extensive television coverage and the success of the national Silver Ferns team, who were world champions in 2003.


Tennis is the second most popular sport for male participants and the third for women.

Rugby union

Some sports have enormous spectator appeal, but rather fewer players. The most significant example is rugby union (usually known as rugby). Introduced to New Zealand by ‘old boys’ of English public schools, it was first played in an organised way in 1870 in Nelson. By the 1900s rugby was attracting spectators. The success in England and to a lesser extent in Wales of the 1905 All Blacks (as the national team became known from their black uniforms) firmly established rugby as the ‘national game’.

Today rugby is played by 11% of adult men; it is the fifth most popular sport for males. A small number of women play, and the New Zealand women’s rugby team has won the Women’s Rugby World Cup five times. Māori and Pacific Islanders are strongly represented among players, but for other New Zealanders the game does not even reach the top 15 sports played. However, very large crowds attend 'Super Rugby' games (previously 'Super 12' and 'Super 14'), which are played by teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, and test matches against other major rugby-playing countries.

In 1996 rugby became a professional pursuit. It has spawned a major leisure industry characterised by extensive television coverage, commercial sponsorship and stars who are well paid. 

Football, rugby league and other winter sports

Football and rugby league are two other winter sports with some professionals, and both have New Zealand clubs playing in Australian club competitions. More recently basketball, introduced from the United States, has also entered a team in the Australian competition. This has a strong following among people in their teens or early 20s. Hockey is another relatively popular sport played by both men and women. Touch rugby has high participation (especially among Māori), but little spectator appeal.

Games for young and old 

Football is the most popular organised sport among young people. Golf and bowls are most popular among the retired age group. 


The major organised summer sport is cricket. With the fourth highest participation rate, the game does not attract the spectator support of rugby matches, except for the occasional international one-day match. But it remains an important measure of national achievement, widely followed on television.

Olympic sports

Some sports attract relatively few participants, but have achieved a considerable following in New Zealand through international successes. This is especially true of Olympic sports. For some 40 years, from Jack Lovelock’s win at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, to the success of Peter Snell and Murray Halberg in 1960 and 1964, to John Walker in 1976, New Zealanders prided themselves on their middle-distance running prowess. The first woman to win gold in track and field was Yvette Williams in the long jump, in 1952. She also won four Empire Games gold medals.

Winning ways 

As at July 2004 New Zealand was listed in the top 10 of 100 countries for all-time summer Olympic medals. The ranking was in terms of medal numbers per one million population. This placed New Zealand ahead of Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and Germany. 

Since then, gold medal success for New Zealand’s top sportsmen and women has been in events such as rowing, windsurfing (boardsailing), canoeing, equestrianism and yachting. The country’s most successful female Olympian is windsurfer Barbara Kendall, who has won gold, silver and bronze, as well as three world championships. At the 2004 Olympics, the rowing pair of Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell won gold, as did the cyclist Sarah Ulmer and triathlete Hamish Carter, with teammate Bevan Docherty claiming the silver.

Of these sports the only one with significant participation is yachting. In Auckland many enjoy sailing on the Hauraki Gulf. The sport attracted passionate national interest with the success of New Zealand boats in the America’s Cup, which they won in 1995 and retained in 2000. Racing for the America’s Cup on Waitematā Harbour in 2000 and again in 2003 briefly identified New Zealand with yachting on the international scene.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Sports and leisure - Organised sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2015