Growth in participation
Improved transport and communications and the steady growth of city populations ensured greater continuity and wider participation in New Zealand sports from the early 20th century.
International success, especially the 1905–6 and 1924–25 All Black rugby teams in Britain, and the racehorse Phar Lap’s success from 1930 to 1932, ensured the dominance of a few major sports such as rugby and horse racing across all classes.
For New Zealand boys, playing rugby became a mark of national citizenship. A survey in the 1925 New Zealand official year-book reveals that rugby was the most popular sport, as measured by club membership. It was followed by horse racing, tennis, bowls, golf, athletics, cricket, hockey, swimming and soccer (association football).
The basic ‘pyramid’ structure of New Zealand team sport saw players progressing in decreasing numbers from school to club to provincial to national teams. This structure dominated for much of the 20th century, as obstacles to sporting participation were gradually overcome.
Factors that helped make sport more accessible included: shorter working hours (particularly the establishment of a non-working Saturday from 1945); greater access to secondary schooling after the Second World War; improved transport networks and especially the significant expansion in the number of private cars.
Individualistic non-team sports such as hunting, mountaineering, skiing and tramping benefited from easier access to the outdoors for an increasingly urban population. The new transport options became sports in their own right, as forms of motor racing grew in popularity from the 1920s.
Basketball and softball gained momentum from the presence of American servicemen in New Zealand during the Second World War.
There were some significant regional variations in sporting activities, reflecting different origins among the settlers. In Otago and Southland, and at Waipū in Northland, there were strong Caledonian Societies encouraging Highland Games. The Cornish style of wrestling remained popular in areas such as the West Coast of the South Island where Cornish farmers and miners settled. The ‘ten pound Poms’ who immigrated after the Second World War brought an interest in association football – strong in areas like the North Shore where they settled in large numbers.
When rugby league became established in the early 20th century it attracted followers from the working class, especially in Auckland and mining communities in Waikato and the West Coast. Sports such as wood-chopping, shearing and horse-riding took off in rural communities, often with the encouragement of local agricultural and pastoral (A & P) shows. Yachting was strong in Auckland with its magnificent harbour.
Bowls, boxing, cycling, golf, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse, pigeon racing, polo, rifle shooting, swimming, tennis and other sports also had dedicated followers, and periodically attracted substantial public interest for their championships or when leading exponents visited from overseas.