The new sporting order

James Roberts, Head of Strategy at Lassoo Media & PR, looks at the changing sports viewing habits of Kiwis and what they mean for advertisers.

It’s no secret that Aotearoa is a nation heavily influenced by cultural influences from outside our own shores; in fact, we have very few that we can universally agree on being our own. This, a consequence of being a young nation, still trying to realise our true sense of identity. 

One of our traditionally universal symbols of cultural identity – Rugby Union – seems to be on the wane. Most of us who are on the wrong side of forty can probably remember how Rugby Union permeated every fabric of society growing up; packed grounds at Ranfurly Shield games where feverous hordes of fans shouted “Caaanteerbuuury” or “Auuucklaaand’ in the sunshine at Eden or Lancaster Park (RIP).  There was no team at high schools that mattered more than the first XV and we all congregated to watch All Black games en masse. Now we look at stadiums which appear to still be practising social distancing. 

Perhaps the first sign of this decline was in 2003, when TVNZ was under pressure during the World Cup due to under-delivering on audience expectations despite cumulatively being viewed by 45.7 percent of the country1. Since then, the decline of this cultural beacon has continued, with interest in Rugby Union falling from 41 percent of AP 5+ in 2011 to 28 percent in 20202. A glimmer of hope for Rugby Union shone through last year, with the Black Ferns attracting more than three times the viewers in the RWC final than a typical All Blacks game did during an average prime time game3.

It is easy to write this off as an access issue, with the claim that ‘subscription sport’ is killing interest in our rugby, and while this is potentially right, there may be more to the story.

With the rise of digital interconnectedness across the world, outside cultural influences have become closer and more accessible. Rugby Union now competes for attention with global sports, the vast majority requiring a subscription, which raises questions about accessibility being the barrier. Is it possible that we, as an evolving nation, are embracing international sport, especially American ones, as a way to break away from our existing cultural associations? Are we starting to embrace the confident, bolshy attitudes of the athletes that we would typically chop down as tall poppies? Have we realised the appeal of the highly polished pageantry that America sport offers? Or is it the year round schedule of almost daily games and analysis, the rich culture of draft and trade predictions, and athlete news?

Whatever the causes, there are signals that suggest we are reaching a tipping point where interest in “other” is surpassing our mainstream sports. According to AC Nielsen, cumulative interest across the main four American sports (Basketball, American Football, Baseball & Ice Hockey) for Males 18-34 is greater than the number of people who are interested in Rugby Union4. This should be both an alarming and enlightening number for marketers trying to target hard-to-reach younger male audiences.

Switch on NZ’s home of U.S. Sports, ESPN, and you’ll quickly realise that a growing roster of brands are catching on, but many household names are still missing and it’s hard to understand why. Nielsen’s data indicates that between 29 Jan- 25 Feb this year, 479,600 Kiwis aged 5+ tuned in to watch ESPN5, providing an excellent opportunity for advertisers to reach young males without the premiums associated with other sporting environments, yet often appearing in solus breaks. The network has also modernised, becoming buyer friendly by shifting to a CPM model, and for now the live streams are bonus to advertisers on ESPN broadcasts.

So while rugby pundits aims to figure out why it’s losing audience at pace6, our clients here at Lassoo are embracing the new cultural shift to US sports and are seeing some great results with this previously hard-to-reach and growing audience. 

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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