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Sports and leisure

by Jock Phillips

New Zealanders have always been good at making their own fun – pottering in the garden, reading, walking in the hills or heading for the beach. But they’re also happy to pay for pleasures such as dining out, taking a flutter on Lotto, going to the movies or the theatre, or to professional rugby matches. Whichever way it comes, Kiwis enjoy their time at play.

Home and city

In 2002 the average New Zealand adult male worked just over 40 hours a week in paid employment, and women worked just over 36.5 hours. By 2013 most workers received at least four weeks’ paid leave and 11 statutory holidays each year. Despite the burdens of domestic duties, most New Zealanders have considerable time for leisure interests.

Home-based leisure

Since many New Zealanders still aspire to the suburban family life, much time is spent around the home. Playing games with children, watching television or DVDs, and listening to music are hugely important interests.

Globally, New Zealand has one of the highest reading achievement rates, and reading is a top leisure activity. In 2000, 44% of New Zealand adults had purchased a book in a sample four-week period, and 39% had visited a public library.

Mag mad

Kiwis are the second highest consumers (after the UK) of print magazines. 58% say they buy regularly, and in 1998 they bought at the rate of 27 per person. In 2004 the most read magazine was the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.

Computer and video games are popular, and in 2006, two-thirds of households had access to the internet at home.

New Zealanders have a proud tradition of do-it-yourself home maintenance, and since their major investment is in their house, much energy is spent on improvements – from interior decorating to structural alterations.

Gardening is one of the main physical leisure activities for women and men. In 2000, 60% of adults had gardened during the year. There is a keen interest in landscaping, design and planting, and native shrubs and trees are popular. Many people grow their own herbs and vegetables. In spring and summer there are garden tours, shows and festivals around the country.

Out of the home

New Zealanders have paid money to be entertained for over a century (with travelling theatres and, since the 1920s, the spread of movies). Since the 1980s there has been a big increase in urban-based leisure activities. This is partly because of a legislative change in 1980 which allowed some Saturday shopping; hours have been progressively extended since then. In addition, as the number of families with both partners in full-time work increased, the weekend became the only time when they were free to shop and cruise the city. Shopping has become a major weekend leisure activity. Young people like to meet at shopping malls or bars and clubs, go dancing or to the movies, ‘hang out’ in their cars, or visit friends.

Eating out

Eating out is a popular way to relax or socialise. Commercial food outlets range from multinational chains such as McDonald’s (the first outlet opened in Porirua in June 1976) to a huge array of ethnic restaurants, many of a South Asian variety. In addition there was a major expansion from the 1990s in coffee bars, both in cities and provincial towns. Wellington’s image changed from the grey civil-servant town to the swinging ‘coffee capital’ – it now has more cafés and restaurants per capita than New York.

Ready-made meals

In 2001 the average household was spending $28.80 a week on restaurant meals and ready-to-eat foods – the biggest slice of the weekly food budget. A survey found that 83% of Kiwis (aged 10 plus) had eaten fast food in the previous month. Fish and chips was the most popular fast food (61%), followed by McDonald’s with 43%.


Liquor laws have changed considerably over time. For half a century after the First World War, the six o’clock closing of pubs restricted bar life to frantic swilling of beer, almost solely by men, in the hour after work. When this was abolished in 1967, pubs changed their ambience to become more comfortable and interesting; women became more frequent customers and the nature of drinks changed. Wine consumption, which had been 8.6 litres per head in 1975, rose to 19.6 litres in 2003. In 1999 the minimum age for drinking was lowered to 18. This has been accompanied by an increase in liquor consumption by young people. Musical gigs and dancing on licensed premises have also become part of youth culture.

City culture

As the number of educated people rose, city culture grew, with more New Zealanders enjoying galleries, museums, live shows and foreign movies. The first film festival was held in Auckland in 1968 and has been followed by festivals for music, writers and the arts throughout the country. The inner city has come alive with cultural offerings.

In an average month, almost one-fifth of adult New Zealanders visit a museum or exhibition. Just over one-quarter go to the movies. One in five listen to the classical music radio station and nearly half to the non-commercial Radio New Zealand National network programme.



Gambling has long been part of the New Zealand way of life. In the 19th century people would bet on cards and on athletic competitions. But the most popular form was gambling on the horses; the first race meeting was held in the Bay of Islands in 1835.

Opposition from Protestant churches led to increased restrictions at the end of the 19th century, and from 1910 bookmakers were banned from horse-racing meetings. Apart from games of two-up among the armed forces during both world wars, and pakapoo (a form of lotto) among the Chinese community, until the 1980s gambling was largely confined to lotteries and betting on horses. From 1932 the art union lotteries were run by Hammond and McArthur under government regulation, and in 1961 the Golden Kiwi lottery was introduced. As for betting on horses, that too was taken over in 1950 by a state-run agency, the Totalisator Agency Board or TAB.

Total success

George Julius, son of an early New Zealand Anglican archbishop, invented the world’s first automatic totalisator, used for racing and sports betting. He originally designed it as a mechanical vote-counter, but adapted it for the race course, even though he had never been to one. The first order for the machine was for Auckland’s Ellerslie Racecourse in 1913. Ten years later, Julius was knighted in Australia for his contributions to technology.

The wheel turns

The 1980s saw dramatic changes. First the game of Lotto, based on a weekly draw of numbers, got under way – to huge public interest – in July 1987. In the early 2000s the game was regularly played by 67% of the population, and 400,000 New Zealanders watched the weekly draw on television every Saturday night. In 1988 electronic gaming machines (‘one-armed bandits’ or ‘pokie machines’) were made legal for sports clubs, chartered clubs, Returned Services Associations and hotels. Finally in 1989 Parliament approved the introduction of casinos, and by 2003 six had been introduced – one each in Christchurch, Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton, and two in Queenstown. The effect of these changes was to reduce the relative spending on racing.

In response, the TAB moved into offering gambling on other sports besides horses. In 1987, horse racing took some 85% of the total gambling spend. By 2000 this had dropped dramatically. New Zealanders were looking elsewhere to place their bets, in the following proportions:

  • Gaming machines – 35%
  • Casinos – 26%
  • Lotteries Commission games (Lotto, Instant Kiwi, Daily Keno) – 21%
  • Racing and betting on sports, including rugby and cricket results – 18%.

Informal sports


In the early 2000s, 68% of New Zealand adults and children aged over five spent at least 2.5 hours a week in physical activity. More time was spent in self-directed physical activity than in organised competitive sports. At the simplest level, this took the form of walking to work or jogging through suburban streets. In 2000, 72% of New Zealanders walked for exercise or enjoyment during the year.

Play time

Kiwi kids love to get physical. Almost all boys aged 5 to 15 (93%) and nearly as many girls (91%) take part in sport and active leisure. During school hours, more girls (70%) than boys (67%) are involved in such pursuits.

The bush

The proximity of bush and hills to New Zealand’s major population centres has encouraged a tradition of walking and tramping in national and forest parks. An extensive network of tracks and huts, many maintained by the Department of Conservation, has encouraged people to venture into the hills. Some of the walks, such as the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, the Milford Track and the Heaphy Track, have been given ‘great walk’ status and attract thousands of international visitors. Other New Zealanders go into the mountains to hunt pigs, deer and goats. In wild areas close to cities, mountain-biking became popular in the 1990s.


The number of serious mountaineers is smaller, and until the 1930s many were foreign visitors led by professional guides. Since then New Zealand mountaineers have conquered all of the country’s major peaks. After the Second World War, skiing also attracted people into the mountains, and by 2000 the country had 13 commercial ski areas and 11 club fields. Snowboarding was almost as popular as skiing.

Water sports

Water is another attraction for the active New Zealander. For much of the 20th century the beach was a favourite place of relaxation and physical activity, and the classic setting for the summer holiday. Beach recreation takes many forms – from lazing in the sun and playing informal beach cricket to swimming, boogie boarding, surfing and windsurfing.

The beach also attracts surfcasters, snorkellers and divers. Areas such as the Bay of Islands and Mercury Bay have become world-famous for deep-sea fishing. Many New Zealanders fish from boats.

There are 270 public swimming pools in the country – nearly every town has one, and about 95% of New Zealanders can swim. Most children are given swimming lessons at primary school and about 15% belong to one of the 240 swimming clubs. For adults, swimming is mainly a leisure activity; only 7% belong to a club and 3% swim competitively.

Lakes and rivers are also sites for swimming and water sports such as waterskiing, kayaking and yachting. Fishing for rainbow or brown trout has achieved popularity worldwide, especially since huge trout were caught in Lake Taupō in the early 20th century. The South Island’s east coast rivers offer salmon fishing, while netting whitebait is another authentic Kiwi pastime. In 2000 a quarter of adult New Zealanders (more men than women) had fished during the year.


Exercise or aerobic classes in commercial gyms have also become important for New Zealand city-dwellers, with over a quarter of New Zealanders attending these during the year.

Extreme sports

In the 1980s a variety of ‘extreme’ sports emerged or became more popular – rafting, kayaking, jet boating, mountain biking, snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain climbing, gliding, paragliding and skydiving. Visitors from around the globe are attracted by the prospect of ‘adventure tourism’ in scenic locations. They test their nerves with bungy jumping, sky jumping and zorbing (rolling down hills strapped inside an inflatable plastic sphere).

Organised sports

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', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 September 2015