As New Zealand interests evolve, have we reached peak rugby?—UPDATED

Judging by the numerous rugby-related office discussions and the blanket media coverage—from the above board chat on outlets like Radio New Zealand to the below board banter inside a giant scrotum as part of the Alternative Commentary Collective’s Champagne Rugby, you could be forgiven for thinking the nation has a collective ‘code boner’ over the Rugby World Cup at present. But is rugby losing its lustre in New Zealand? And is there a limit to the All Black appropriation? 

Many New Zealanders aren’t interested in rugby, of course—and, as Dana Johansen wrote, some of them often make a point of showing that they’re not interested. And it seems to be a growing club. According to Nielsen, top level interest in rugby among all 10+ is declining, from 51 percent in 2005 to 34 percent in 2015 to an estimated 25 percent in 2025. 

Rugby was at the top of the list when it came to ‘leisure interests’ in 2005 and 2010. But it’s been taken over by walking in 2015. Yes, walking. 

Leisure interests infer some kind of active involvement, however, which is why walking and other comparatively low-impact activities like swimming/diving and camping/tramping seem to be moving up the rankings. It’s hard to imagine those in New Zealand’s large baby boomer cohort lacing up the boots in their autumn years (although kudos needs to go to some of the long-toothed Kiwi politicians for their feisty encounter with the French). And New Zealand is also becoming increasingly multicultural, as Pencilsword pointed out on The Wireless, so that will also have an impact on what New Zealanders like to spend their time doing. 

“Our sport and leisure choices have changed. We have rekindled our love of the outdoors and there is an increased focus on personal fitness,” says Kate Terry, head of consumer and media insights at Nielsen. “Walking, camping and working out has grown in popularity as many traditional sports such as rugby, league, cricket and netball slipped back.” 

Even so, sport remains very important to our nation, says Terry, and doing and watching are very different things (it seems unlikely that we’ll be gathering around the TV with friends to watch the final of the Walking World Cup in the coming years). According to Nielsen, four of the five highest rating sporting events since 2011 have been rugby games, with the America’s Cup the other. And sports websites get plenty of traffic (we’ve asked NZME and Fairfax whether web traffic to its rugby-related stories has increased since the cup began and will update the story if they respond). 

UPDATE: NZME’s Rugby World Cup project manager Trevor McKewen, who spent 12 years as the head of sport at Fairfax, said the traffic has been very high since the tournament began, particularly in the morning after the games have been played, although readers seem to be sticking with the website through the day as well. He was unable to share any specifics on audience increases but in all his time working in online media he says he’s never seen anything like the traffic following the Japan vs South Africa game when people woke up, heard the result and went searching for content. Traffic after All Blacks games has also been unsurprisingly high and the Wales vs England game also lured the clicks and prods. Unlike the Cricket World Cup, it doesn’t have a rugby hub, as that is not allowed under what he says are draconian accreditation rules from World Rugby. 

Sky knows very well that there is still plenty of interest in watching rugby and, like many other broadcasters that see the dollar signs in sporting rights, it paid big bikkies to extend its rugby rights deal with New Zealand Rugby to 2020. But, not surprisingly, the hemispherical challenges of a tournament being held in the UK means the live ratings are down on the last Rugby World Cup. 

The live broadcast of the New Zealand vs. Namibia game was the fifth most-watched programme on September 25 for the 25-54 demo, however. And many more will be watching the replays for the games that are played in the middle of the night. Plus, Sky is more concerned with subscriber revenue than ad revenue and big events like the RWC generally lead to an increase in subscriptions, something it will be hoping for after its recent financial results showed subscriber numbers had declined by 1.6 percent. Sky was unable to share any details when asked if it had noticed an increase in subscription numbers and said it will provide an update at its AGM in October.  

There’s no doubt there’s still plenty of interest in rugby. But given the steadily declining level of interest, is it a smart choice as far as sponsorship goes? As Lynda Brendish wrote in NZ Marketing, sponsorship isn’t just putting logos on hoardings anymore, decisions about what to sponsor can’t be based on what the CEO enjoys, and activation needs to be factored into the cost of the sponsorship. The All Blacks are still a huge drawcard for brands, although it’s a big investment and it’s a very cluttered space, which is why Spark pulled out a few years back and looked for clear air in other areas like basketball, music and gaming. ASB has activated its sponsorship in an interesting way, with its business banking campaign focusing on what the coaching staff can teach businesses; Steinlager has the benefit of consistency (and while this year’s ‘We Believe’ campaign is solid, it doesn’t have the hook of 2011’s); and Jockey says the association definitely works for it (both for consumers and retailers). 

Sponsorship is, traditionally, about alignment. But with Dan Carter selling heatpumps, Ben Smith selling beds, Corey Jane selling automotive products, Kieran Read selling plumbing supplies and any number of other rugby players selling any number of other unrelated products, that argument doesn’t seem to stack up when it comes to rugby. These days it’s more about getting attention in an effort to stand out (something Richie McCaw got plenty of for Beats with our favourite ad of the past few rugby-rich months). And that can be seen in the number of licensed products that are now available. As TVNZ asked last week, when will it all end? We’ve got All Blacks nappies, All Blacks Kettle Korn, All Blacks poker sets, All Blacks chocolate, All Blacks bath ducks, All Blacks baked beans, All Blacks milk (come on Fonterra, go all the way and make the milk black too), All Blacks deodorant and even an official weather forecaster of the All Blacks. What’s next? Tampons? Toilet paper? Catheter bags?  

Judging by the ambushery, however, brands that don’t have an official connection to either the All Blacks or the Rugby World Cup still want a slice of the rugby action. M&Ms is calling itself the ‘snack for the game’ in its current outdoor campaign; ANZ is ‘Dreaming Big’ again, this time with Stephen DonaldWendy’s launched a black burger (and a cheeky loophole-embracing ad); New World, like ASB’s coffee campaign, is playing with eggs; Moa launched its special Four More Years brew; and Vodafone, Samsung, Harvey Norman and probably a few others have all used the classic ‘Big Game’ euphemism in their ads. So while tastes may be changing, rest assured, there will always be commercial parasites attempting to sink their teeth into anything that has a degree of popularity. And with media continuing to fragment, being able to guarantee a big audience in one place at the same time is an increasingly valuable commodity.  

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