ACC founding members (from left) Jeremy Wells, Mike Lane, Leigh Hart and Matt Heath (Image: Archi Banal)
ACC founding members (from left) Jeremy Wells, Mike Lane, Leigh Hart and Matt Heath (Image: Archi Banal)

MediaMarch 14, 2022

‘Like a clandestine P lab in the newsroom’: The incredible true story of the ACC

ACC founding members (from left) Jeremy Wells, Mike Lane, Leigh Hart and Matt Heath (Image: Archi Banal)
ACC founding members (from left) Jeremy Wells, Mike Lane, Leigh Hart and Matt Heath (Image: Archi Banal)

It started as a joke in a caravan on the sidelines of the cricket. Now they’re still in a caravan, but the ACC is no joke – it’s one of the boldest innovations in Aotearoa media.

For those of a certain age, the platonic ideal of a sports broadcaster is and probably always will be Brian Waddle. The voice of cricket, a wonk of the game, passionate but a little dour, he called well over 250 matches before RadioSport abruptly fell apart in the chilling weeks following Covid’s arrival in the autumn of 2020.

In some ways, though, that was making official what had already been manifest for a few years. RadioSport and Waddle, for decades the centre of the sporting culture in this country, had been overwhelmed by an unruly group of comedians and fans who only did commentary as a side-hustle and worked out of a reconditioned 1960s caravan.

The Alternative Commentary Collective is a loose grouping headlined by Hauraki radio hosts like Leigh Hart, Matt Heath and Jason Hoyt who provide, as the name suggests, an alternate audio commentary stream for cricket and a growing raft of other sports. It’s morphed into a fast-growing, wildly innovative new media brand that has grown, as its leader Mike Lane puts it “like a clandestine P lab” at media conglomerate NZME, to the point where it is now a major point of emphasis for the business.

The group debuted in 2014 and was initially presented as a way for some passionate ex-TV comedians to lad about over the game they loved. But with phenomenal speed the product gathered a passionate fanbase and functionally replaced Waddle in the minds of many younger cricket fans.

This was all the more shocking because the ACC shared a parent company with RadioSport, and Waddle was not shy about his contempt for the upstarts. What happened next was even more bizarre: in an uncanny parallel to the way Jeremy Wells (himself a core part of the ACC) went from parodying Mike Hosking to replacing him on Seven Sharp, the ACC have functionally replaced Waddle and the now-defunct RadioSport as the biggest sports property at NZME.

The ACC is remarkable for so many reasons. It represents a homegrown and highly authentic example of the power of fandom, but while most innovations of this nature elsewhere (think The Ringer or, more bleakly, Barstool Sports) have grown independently, the ACC did it within a major corporate entity which actually owned the broadcast rights. A lot of its content, particularly in the early years, was highly offensive to the mythic “middle New Zealand”, but because it was on iHeart radio, it was beyond the reach of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. And, as Lane put it in an interview for my podcast The Fold, “you can’t accidentally come across the Alternative Commentary Collective – you’ve actively got to seek it out”.

Part of why it has been successful is also key to why it could grow quietly – it’s fully decentralised, existing almost entirely on other people’s platforms like podcast providers and social media, which meant it was relatively cheap to run and could exist for years before it even had a full-time employee. It also came into the highly conservative world of sports and sports media, and through charm, an intense fanbase and a powerful bond with players, forced sports bodies to put up with its antics when their instincts would have told them to run.

Now Lane is tasked with running it full-time, and has filled out a range of podcasts, partnered with Spark Sport, brought in outstanding sports journalists and broadcasters like Dylan Cleaver and Scotty Stevenson, and completed a range of highly impactful brand partnerships with the likes of Fonterra. Essentially, the outsiders have become the establishment, while still remaining pretty much as strange and confronting as they ever were. How on earth did it happen?

Follow The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

It began in beige

To understand Mike Lane and the ACC, you have to understand the Beige Brigade. Lane co-founded it with his friend and fellow ACCer Paul Ford in 1999 as a way of expressing their love for the sport of cricket in all its strangeness. They seized on the notoriously ugly beige uniforms the New Zealand cricket team wore in their ‘80s zenith. Our drab uniforms danced in Lane’s mind, seemingly speaking of something both fundamental to this country’s character – last picked, always left off the map – and the then-reliable mediocrity of the late 90s-era Black Caps.

They got some more unofficial uniforms made up and began selling them, sending the first $100 they made as a koha to NZ Cricket, whose CEO Martin Snedden thanked them for it – and cashed the cheque. This would set off a complicated relationship with the sports body as the Brigade grew in power and influence. Over the next decades they would sell thousands of units of bootleg merch, and with it become to the New Zealand team what the Barmy Army are to the English side. Beige became a marker for a particular type of sports fan: obsessive, a particular sense of humour, likes their beer, almost all men. Most of all, the Beige Brigade grew out of the peculiarity of cricket itself.

“It is a strange game, played by very strange people, and followed by even stranger people,” Lane told me recently on The Fold. “You look at the characters that get spit out of cricket, the Mark Richardsons of the world. Odd people… you’re part of a team, but it’s still a very individual sport. You spend days on end in the field by yourself or batting by yourself or with one other person. It takes a lot to be a cricket fan, you’ve got to invest a lot of time.”

The Beige Brigade also showed the entrepreneurial and commercial instincts of Lane and Ford. They extended beyond the uniforms into tours, becoming an unofficial but very well-tended fan club for the Black Caps and for cricket itself. They did so well that they could invest the profits into a museum’s worth of arcane memorabilia, including the underarm ball and an Alfa Romeo which Richard Hadlee won for his performance in an ‘80s test series. He kept it rather than selling the car and splitting the proceeds with his team mates, which almost tore the team apart, and is exactly the kind of incident which you while away the time discussing on the grassy banks watching a test match slowly unfurl.

The ACC circa 2015 (Photo: Supplied)

The paradox of sports media

It’s that chat which the ACC formalises and recreates in its products – the easy, digressive conversation you can have when watching a match which takes five days to play out, unlike the tight confines of almost all other team sports.

“We knew what we wanted and what our friends wanted,” says Lane. “And that was to follow the cricket, ball by ball – I still want to know what the score is, I still want to know, the state of the game and a little bit of insight – but I’m actually not bothered by all the stuff in between. So you go into the game with your mates, you sit on the embankment, you engage with the game every now and then. But really, you’re catching up with your mates telling yarns, telling stories.”

As with the Beige Brigade, the ACC attracted a huge audience very quickly. It was only able to do this thanks to changes in technology which meant you could distribute live audio without the expense and regulation of a radio frequency. But it also came along at a time when there was a generational shift in tone, largely driven by the same technology which made it possible in the first place. The dominant reality of the ’90s, when most of the ACC creators were teenagers, was boredom – media was created by and for their parents’ generation, and was largely dry and conservative.

The surreal alternative culture which spawned TV shows like Eating Media Lunch, Back of the Y and Moon TV, the stars of which coalesced into the ACC, was intermittent and only on late. Sports only very rarely let itself smile, on shows like Sports Cafe and The Crowd Goes Wild, but the closer you were to the game itself, the more buttoned up it became.

This was driven by the conservatism of society and audiences, but also by the unresolvable tension between sports bodies and the platforms like Sky TV and RadioSport that bought the rights to broadcast their games. The bodies didn’t want to be criticised, and the old boys on the board wanted their games – to be clear, adult men running round after a ball! – to be taken incredibly seriously.

The irony was that in so doing they made young people tune out in droves, and emptied stadiums of fans who found better things to do with their attention once the internet gave them a choice. The Beige Brigade and the ACC were passionate fans who understood and enjoyed the fundamental silliness of sport, and found expressing that did not prevent enjoying the transcendence of the unscripted drama sport can create. In fact, it enhanced it.

The main crew. (Photo: Supplied)

What the ACC figured out

This insight was a profound one, and entirely missed by the mainstream sports media that “saw us as more of an annoyance than a threat,” says Lane. “That was good for us, being the underdog”. NZ Cricket actually funded the first season of the ACC, having nothing to lose due to the dismal performance of the Ross Taylor-as-captain era team. Since then relations have run hot and cold, the organisations sometimes competing for commercial deals, but cricket and even rugby has lately figured out that while they might wince at much of the ACC’s content, it energises and activates fans in a way the bland marketing of the organisations themselves never could.

While he’s a funny commentary presence himself, Lane’s strength is what he brings to the business of the ACC. His friend and colleague Matt Heath says Lane has “unlimited energy and ideas. He is a force of nature. A great salesman not just to clients but to commentators like myself who sometimes need coercing… We have travelled the world talking shit because he has organised all of it and got it funded.”

Media mostly only exists where you can bridge the gap between a product and the ability to pay for its creation, and Heath and the ACC are very fortunate that Lane is such a savvy commercial operator. The now ubiquitous captain’s hats, a tribute to the “steady the ship’” nickname the ACC came up with for Kane Williamson, “began as a client activation for Fonterra”, says Lane. That they could partner with the country’s largest corporate – representing the dairy farmer, the ultimate in New Zealand conservatism – shows just how successful the ACC has been.

Yet for all the innovation, there is also enough which is familiar and ultimately conservative in its own way about the ACC. Even with recent forays into netball and other sports, it’s still overwhelmingly male, and largely Pākehā, almost exclusively so in its early years. The humour is often brilliant and surreal, but also super blokey. The reference points and culture were forged in the ‘90s and ‘00s. In that respect it feels out of time – but that’s also a huge part of its appeal to an audience, being a place where political correctness has not gone mad, a safe space for transgressive sex jokes and the expression of self-mocking mateship.

Lane says they are changing, and some of the boysiness has toned down, but that they still “get quite a few complaints”. That’s almost inevitable, given the endless hours filled by comedians for whom the appeal, beyond the sport, is the “creative release” allowed, versus the constraints of commercial radio. And he’s right to say that “you can just not not listen”.

The all-male ACC lineup, 2020 (Photo: Supplied)

Where it is now, and where it might go

In September of last year, Lane finally left his role with Hauraki to become GM of the ACC. It was a long time coming, but you can already see the fruits of the new focus. There are more podcasts, a renewed deal with Spark Sport and a hugely successful broadcast of the Black Clash, an innovation from sports marketing firm Duco which has quickly become a huge ratings winner for TVNZ. This probably also represents the biggest opportunity for the ACC, which has dabbled in events but has a major opportunity to go vertical and start creating more stunt-like sports festivals, or taking over stands within games to have their own family unfriendly atmosphere.

It’s inevitable with this scaling that some of the early chaos is dialled back (which is probably not a bad thing) and the very specific and lewd humour is less present in products outside the core stable. It was founded in the last era in which large all male lineups of anything would not be a commercial dealbreaker, and clearly has more work to do if it is to meet the demands of modern society and newly-sensitive corporates. But there is no sign that it’s losing fans or its edge: despite the difficult post-pandemic sporting environment, the podcast downloads more than doubled year-on-year, and their social audience is up 30% over the same span.

NZME CEO Michael Boggs says the ACC is “on its way to becoming one of New Zealand’s leading sports entertainment brands”, which probably understates where it sits right now. The power of fandom and bringing humour to sports is only rising, and as our sports bodies grapple with ageing fanbases the ACC’s power to bring in younger audiences grows more existentially important by the day.

For Lane, keeping the focus on entertainment as much as sport is what they always aim for. “We’re actually just fans who love it,” he says, “and [sports bodies] have slowly realised that it’s a really good thing for sport.”

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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