Radio’s love affair with rugby

News News & events

09 Aug 2017

#media #sport #rugby #research

Listening to the sports news on popular radio stations, you might think that sports equals rugby in New Zealand. Sure we love the All Blacks, but what happened to the many other sports that New Zealanders excel in?

Dr Brendan Reilly from the Ara Institute of Canterbury New Zealand Broadcasting School (NZBS) decided to investigate. He will present his findings at the Ara Research Week 14-18 August.

Reilly and NZBS colleague Karen Neill monitored sports news on the two highest rating, youth networked commercial music stations - The Edge and ZM – for one month in 2013. Then they repeated the exercise during the same month in 2016 and compared the results.

Sure enough, rugby dominated. On average, the stations had two sports stories per news bulletin; rugby and rugby league accounted for half of the sports news on the two stations.  

Cricket, netball and football followed, collectively making up 35% of coverage.

So far, so cultural right? New Zealand is a rugby-mad nation, after all. But Reilly asked whether we love rugby because we hear so much about rugby? “Is rugby a universally popular sport with every demographic? Are they reflecting the interest of their target audience? Or are they reinforcing to their target audience?” he asks.

Perhaps rugby gets covered because the All Blacks are so successful? “What gets covered is not about succeeding,” Reilly says. “The Phoenix (football club) for example don’t win at all –and they get coverage. And the Warriors (rugby league team) haven’t made the top eight and they get lots of coverage. Whereas rugby will get a lot of back stories about the preparing for a game, in other sports you have to succeed on the world stage to get any sort of coverage whatsoever.”

And then what about the women? Beyond netball, radio goes silent on women’s sports, despite numerous international accomplishments. “Certainly the female audience are getting rugby pushed down their throats.  If I have a look at The Edge in 2016 it’s completely dominated by male sports and yet both of those brands (with ZM) target females, which doesn’t make any sense at all.”  

Why does it matter? Because, Reilly says, media sets the agenda, and commercial radio does this under pressure to be both popular and entertaining. Other sports get left behind, on air and off air too.

“The bigger issue is that there is a correlation between people being exposed to a sport, becoming interested in it, supporting it and playing it, which leads on to funding issues.”

Media can help a sport to grow – or not. “Sports covered by the media have important ramifications for visibility, leading to increased participation, funding, and the creation of celebrities, which are attractive to sponsors and can also contribute to increased gate takings leading to stronger financial positions for sports organisations running as a business,” Reilly and Neill concluded in their research paper.

“The narrow range of sports reporting is contributing to a generation with a narrow world view, and with the ongoing understanding of the news as a profitable commodity, there appears to be no end in sight.”

Reilly found several drivers behind the lack of diversity in sports coverage.

“Sports news comes from a centralised news service where one news product is pushed out to multiple brands. Being in a competitive market, and money being tight, they are not in position to make specific niche bulletins for individual stations.”

Added to the time and budget constraints is a rugby media machine that seems as highly trained as the players. “The problem with commercial radio is that the beast always needs feeding and you simply haven’t got the time to chase stories. It is vastly easier to go and talk to the rugby media machine, because you always know you’re going to get something.”

Smaller sports just can’t compete with rugby’s beefed-up off field resources.

Reilly tells his students at NZBS to try to address the imbalance. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that rugby or rugby league is a universally popular sport that captures everyone’s attention, look for opportunities, don’t be lazy and look for interesting sports stories.”

So while it seems the All Blacks will retain their dominance on the commercial radio waves, media is a landscape that can change quickly. So perhaps one day we might start hearing more about athletics, canoeing, equestrian, rowing, skiing, swimming and the many other sports that Kiwis also successfully compete in.

Research findings from It’s All Black: Youth and sports news coverage on commercial radio, by Brendan Reilly and Karen Neill.