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Amateurism and professionalism

by Geoff Watson

New Zealand has a long tradition of amateur sport, and it 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 2000s most top sportspeople are able to make a living from their sports.

The rise of amateurism

What is amateurism?

Amateurism is a set of ideas about sport that emerged in the 19th century, especially from Britain’s public schools and universities. The central idea was that people should not receive any material reward for taking part in sport. Amateurs were expected to play fairly and with flair, always behaving respectfully towards umpires and their opponents. During the second half of the 19th century amateurism evolved from a set of ideas about how sport should be played into the dominant ideology of athletics and many team sports. In effect, it determined the conditions under which the working and middle classes were allowed to participate in sport.

What is professionalism?

Definitions of professionalism varied considerably. However, in the 19th century a professional was generally defined as someone who made their living from sport. Some stricter interpretations extended the definition to anyone who accepted money or prizes when taking part in sport. In practice the distinction between amateurism and professionalism was often blurred. Some administrators maintained that sportspeople could be reimbursed for legitimate expenses and remain amateur. Interpretations of what ‘legitimate expenses’ were differed between codes and administrators. In Britain amateurism was applied differently in different sports. Football (soccer) had separate competitions for amateurs and professionals, whereas rugby union outlawed professionalism altogether.

Amateurism emerges in New Zealand

Debates about amateurism in New Zealand were influenced by developments in Britain. In the early years of European settlement amateurism was not rigidly enforced in New Zealand. Prize money was openly advertised in early provincial anniversary celebrations. In events such as Caledonian games, prize money was still offered until at least the early 1900s. By the 1850s, however, the ethics of amateurism was being discussed in newspapers. During the 1860s some people suggested that watermen (who made their living by transporting paying passengers in rowing boats) ought to be excluded from Christchurch’s Heathcote Regatta because their profession gave them an unfair advantage over people who worked in sedentary jobs.

Amateurism in New Zealand

Founding of sports associations

Between 1880 and 1914 amateurism became the dominant mode of sport in New Zealand. At least 16 national sports associations were founded during this period and most of them – including athletics, cricket, hockey and rugby – were amateur. Even rugby league, often labelled a professional game, was founded as an amateur sport in New Zealand.

However, prize money in sport did not vanish entirely. The New Zealand Cyclists Union (later renamed the League of Wheelmen) was formed in 1892 to organise events for ‘cash amateurs’, in opposition to the strictly amateur New Zealand Cyclists Alliance. Another organisation, the New Zealand Athletic Union, founded in 1905, oversaw a variety of events involving prizes. Golf also accommodated both amateur and professional players. Despite these pockets of professionalism, amateurism became the dominant form of sport in terms of participation and media coverage.

No roses for Yvette

The inflexibility of strictly defined amateurism is highlighted in the career of the 1952 Olympic long-jump gold medallist Yvette Williams. A rose breeder planned to name a rose after Williams, and there were plans to use her image on a health stamp, the proceeds of which funded children to attend health camps. Both ideas were abandoned because it was feared they might compromise Williams’s amateur status.

Sport for all

Despite its connections to class privilege (since wealthy sportspeople could better afford to train and play for no income), amateurism became linked with egalitarianism in New Zealand. Because many New Zealanders were prepared to give their time freely to amateur sport, amateurism provided access to sport for all classes. Amateurism was also promoted in New Zealand schools and benefited from the support of local government, which often provided grounds and facilities at a relatively low cost. The combination of voluntary administration and local government support made sport available to almost everyone.

Problems with professionalism

By contrast, some councils viewed ‘professional’ sports, as rugby league was sometimes deemed, unfavourably and were reluctant to allow them to use their facilities. Maintaining amateurism was also seen as essential to maintaining links with British and Commonwealth sporting organisations. There were concerns that if New Zealand was isolated from imperial sport by rejecting amateurism, it would be denied meaningful competition. Tours to and from Britain were, financially speaking, very important for sports such as rugby.

In some respects, the amateur versus professional debate was largely an academic one in New Zealand. In Britain professional sport was an established fact, but few in New Zealand believed professional team sports were financially sustainable. Also, amateur regulations were not always strictly enforced. Many rugby league players were quietly re-admitted into rugby union, despite supposedly breaching their amateur status.

‘The most amateur country in the world’

With a few exceptions, New Zealand sport was overwhelmingly amateur until at least the 1970s. A. E. Dome, manager of the 1924 Chinese Universities football team, asserted that New Zealand was ‘the most amateur country in the world’.1 Many New Zealanders took considerable pride in the fact that their amateur athletes, such as Yvette Williams and Peter Snell, could and did beat the very best in the world. Such triumphs reinforced New Zealand’s self-image as a healthy society where sport was available to all. Social policies such as the 40-hour working week and restricted weekend trading hours indirectly supported amateurism because they left Saturday free for sport (which was not widely played on Sundays until the late 1960s).

    • Evening Post, 17 July 1924, p. 13. Back

Rise of professionalism


By the 1970s some sports such as 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 chairman 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 In 1984 she ran in the first women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles and four years after that she ran at the Olympics in Seoul.

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 for victory in 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 willing to pay more money for television rights than most free-to-air networks. 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 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 its newly formed Super 12 competition, which later became known as Super Rugby. Based on five regional franchises, which could import 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 Warriors, who were admitted into the New South Wales Rugby League’s premier competition in 1994. Other sports that benefited included basketball (the New Zealand Breakers), football (the Wellington Phoenix) and netball, which participated in the ANZ Championship, comprising five Australian and five New Zealand teams.

Male sportspeople have been the main beneficiaries of professionalism but women have made some gains. Players in netball’s ANZ Championship are paid, with franchises offering substantial salaries to elite players.


Growth of professionalism

Stadium naming rights

The growth of professionalism coincided with increasing commercial involvement in sport. For example, some companies purchased naming rights for sports grounds, including Christchurch’s Lancaster Park, which became Jade Stadium in 1998. Some hallowed sporting arenas, such as Wellington’s Athletic Park, were replaced with more modern facilities while others were transformed into family-friendly all-seater stadiums (stadiums where everyone is seated). Sports events were increasingly seen as commercial propositions and local governments competed against each other for the rights to host events and sporting facilities.

Cricket strike

In 2002 the recently formed Cricket Players Association (CPA), a union representing first-class players, organised a strike to reinforce its claim for a pay increase. National and provincial players had been paid since the 1980s, but the CPA believed payments were too low to retain top players. From October 2002 its members refused to play matches until new contracts, granting a large pay increase, had been settled. After six tense weeks the strike began to collapse and the CPA accepted a lower pay offer.

Trade unions for players

Despite the fact that at the time the influence of trade unions was diminishing, players’ associations emerged in cricket and rugby. They used collective bargaining to significantly improve player payments and working conditions. Sometimes this process has resulted in industrial action. A players’ strike threatened to derail New Zealand cricket in 2002 and at one point the All Blacks threatened to withdraw from the 2003 Rugby World Cup in a dispute over bonus payments.

Financial challenges of professionalism

Professionalism has posed significant financial challenges for many New Zealand sports. Concerns about financial sustainability prompted the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (later called the New Zealand Rugby Union) to review its competitions. In 2005 it adopted a two-tier competition with a professional/semi-professional competition at the top level and an amateur competition, which has become known as the Heartland Championship.


The Cricket Players' Association negotiates individual contracts for New Zealand's 100-odd professional cricketers. In 2011 the country's top 20 players were paid between $72,000 and $177,000 for a six-month season. They also received $7,325 for each test match.

Social impact of professionalism

The emergence of professionalism in New Zealand sport reflected wider changes in society. Economic liberalisation, initiated by the 1984–90 Labour government and continued by the following National government (1990–99), promoted the idea that people should pay for the services they used, and individuals were entitled to receive whatever the market was prepared to pay.

However, many people were dissatisfied with the changing sporting world. Some complained they felt disenfranchised by corporate involvement in sport and asserted players were no longer loyal to their provinces. Talkback radio became a forum for venting such views. Professionalism also had an impact on schools, some of which established sports academies to provide pupils with a pathway into a sporting career.

Survival of amateurism

In the 2000s, although professionalism has significantly changed the New Zealand sporting landscape, amateurism is far from a spent force. The overwhelming majority of sporting participants in New Zealand are amateur, and ‘amateur’ values of fair play and voluntary service remain firmly entrenched in New Zealand sport.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Geoff Watson, 'Amateurism and professionalism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 January 2020)

He kōrero nā Geoff Watson, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013