Spectators and revenue
As populations grew and became concentrated in cities and larger towns, sporting organisations were increasingly able to generate revenue by charging spectators in those places to attend top-level competitions.
During the 1920s there were many grandstands built at major grounds, and by the 1950s the largest stadiums, such as Eden Park in Auckland and Lancaster Park in Christchurch, could accommodate more than 50,000 people.
Tours by international sporting teams and talented individuals drew large crowds and awoke public interest. These included Indian hockey teams in 1926, 1935 and 1938; a Chinese football team in 1924; an English women’s cricket team in 1935; tours by the South African Springbok rugby team in 1921, 1937 and 1956; and regular visits by the English Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team.
In smaller towns numerous smaller grounds and sporting spaces were established by both sports bodies and local councils, who sought to provide recreational opportunities for their own expanding populations.
Improved transport, especially cars, allowed spectators to travel some distance to watch important club and provincial games on Saturday afternoons. Money from spectatorship and from emerging commercial sponsorship (breweries and cigarette companies in particular) enabled a larger number of provincial and national teams to travel within New Zealand and overseas.
Watching the Boks
The 1956 Springbok tour of New Zealand was probably the high point in mass attendance at sport in New Zealand. People slept on pavements outside the gates, desperate to get in first and grab a good vantage point. Around 31,000 people watched Waikato defeat the Springboks in the first game. (Hamilton’s population was just over 40,000.) In Poverty Bay, around 20,000 watched them play. (Gisborne’s population was 22,000.) And 61,240 crowded into Eden Park for the fourth test in Auckland.
Sport and radio
From the 1920s live radio broadcasts of sport, especially cricket, rugby and horse racing, further consolidated public interest. While some administrators worried that sport on radio would discourage spectators from attending games, the reverse was the case. Radio commentary encouraged more people to go along.
Rugby commentators like Winston McCarthy and horse-race callers like Dave Clarkson became household names. The popularity of wrestling during the 1930s, including visits from a number of overseas stars, was a notable example of a sport that boosted its following from radio coverage. From the 1940s audiences were able to hear live broadcasts from major events overseas, and follow the fortunes of New Zealand touring teams.
The introduction of sport on New Zealand television from the early 1960s brought about more fundamental changes. From 1967 All Blacks test matches were televised, and satellites allowed live international sport, including the Olympics, to be viewed in New Zealand from 1972. Colour television arrived in time for the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.
Not only did television bring New Zealanders closer to top-level sporting performances, but it gave a much wider audience to previously minor sports such as snooker (from the 1970s) and basketball (from the early 1980s). It also generated a substantial following for America’s Cup yachting from the late 1980s among people who otherwise had no experience of yachts.
Television has also changed spectator habits, in that the dedicated still tend to go to games while less committed followers can satisfy their interest from home.