Stop investing so much in rowing and give that money to basketball

New Zealand currently invests in Olympic medals when it should be investing in viable careers for our athletes, argues Madeleine Chapman.

“Inspiring the nation through winning on the world stage”

That’s the core value expressed by High Performance Sport New Zealand, the agency responsible for allocating government funding to national sporting bodies each year. Last week they announced a $36m “investment programme” for New Zealand sport in 2019. The big winners, to nobody’s surprise, were rowing and canoe sport, receiving $5.1m and $1.9m respectively. And once again, the big loser was basketball, receiving $150k.

It was frustrating for those in the basketball community, who’ve been vocal about the lack of funding and resources the sport has received for years. But it was salt in the wound to have the funding announced shortly after it was reported that basketball is now the third most popular sport in New Zealand high schools, behind only netball and rugby. It’s also the fastest growing, by far, with a massive 29% increase in participation in the last five years, thanks in large part to the ongoing success of Steven Adams. Ask the average punter and they’d agree that New Zealander Steven Adams is very much “winning on the world stage”. So why the dismal investment from HPSNZ in a sport that is third most popular in New Zealand and second most popular globally, a sport that New Zealand continues to punch above its weight in?

The answer lies in the more detailed description of HPSNZ’s vision.

“Our vision is to inspire the nation through more New Zealanders winning on the world stage at Olympic and Paralympic Games and world championships in targeted sports.”

Winning at the Olympic Games. That’s the final goal. That’s where all the money goes. And if it were 1975, when there was very little success to be found in sport outside of the Olympics, this funding model would make sense. But today, all it means is a heavy emphasis on niche, minority sports that few adults, and even fewer children, compete in. New Zealand performs better than it should in global sports like soccer and basketball, despite disinterest from funding bodies. But they’re not likely to win a gold medal or a world championship anytime soon so their growth is disregarded.

New Zealand began its current funding programme in 2011, emulating funding bodies from Australia and the UK that had turned their focus to medals. That model has since been heavily criticised, with the UK now reviewing their system after ongoing criticism.

Steven Adams isn’t likely to win a championship ring in the near future but that hasn’t stopped his presence in the NBA from inspiring thousands of young New Zealand kids to take up basketball as their chosen sport. And with a government focused on participation, the success – while not always displayable in a trophy cabinet – of these sports in inspiring kids to be active cannot be overstated.

As I write, Adams is playing for the OKC Thunder against the Chicago Bulls. I have tabs open of New Zealand basketballers playing, and succeeding, on their full athletic scholarships at division one colleges. The Breakers are… underperforming this season, but that doesn’t affect the full-time salaries each local player earns, and a history of multiple championships over the past decade.

It’s no secret that Adams has a lukewarm, if not chilled, relationship with New Zealand Basketball. It’s a result of the lack of support, both financial and other, he received as a promising but poor young basketballer. It’s an understandable grievance for Adams, who worked his way to the NBA in spite of BBNZ’s level of support, not because of it. But support comes from the top down, and when the Tall Blacks receive $150k for a 12 month programme, there’s not a lot left for developing the next generation.

Mahe Drysdale wins gold at the Rio Olympics (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Mahe Drysdale is about to enter his 18th year as an elite rower for New Zealand. That’s an impressive career. The most impressive part is that he’s managed to have a successful full-time career for almost two decades competing in an amateur sport.

It’s funny when sports fans yell that women don’t bring in the crowds so why should anyone invest in them, but don’t seem to mind their own tax money being invested in sports that bring in even smaller crowds. And it’s hard to overlook the fact that the three most funded sports (rowing $5.1, cycling $4.4m, yachting $3.8) are all sports that attract a certain demographic that’s wealthy and white (yes I know Storm Uru exists).

It’s easy to see why these sports receive more funding, outside of the ingrained societal privilege that I won’t get into. If medals are the goal, it’s a lot cheaper to fund 15 individual rowers or cyclists who each have a shot at a medal, than to fund 15 players in a basketball squad who collectively can only win one medal. That makes sense, logistically. Except it may not be true.

The irony is that basketball doesn’t actually need that much high performance funding. It needs some, of course, more than $150k, because every national team has to travel and attend tournaments somehow. But most of New Zealand’s best basketballers are already earning a living playing basketball both here and overseas. Playing basketball is their job. Playing for New Zealand is something they do for pride. But when the sport is so under-resourced that dozens of players are overlooked in their development, there’s not a lot of pride to draw from.

For rowers, rowing for New Zealand is their job. And that’s the problem. It’s a sport that requires year-round funding, where the athletes rely heavily on the government in order for them to compete in their chosen sport. In fact, some of our best young rowers have chosen other, more lucrative pathways – like Ivy League scholarships – and rendered themselves ineligible to row for New Zealand.

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New Zealand is now a destination for US college scouts looking for new recruits in their top athletic departments. Full athletic scholarships are being offered to dozens, if not hundreds of New Zealand athletes every year. In sports like basketball, it’s a rare opportunity for young brown kids to receive a full college education at a top institution, without the costs. It’s allowing athletic but poor kids to succeed at school, and set themselves up for more success later in life.

If their basketball develops enough while at college, whether they’re a man or woman, there are opportunities to play basketball professionally all over the world. And when it comes time for New Zealand to compete at a World Champs or Olympics, they’ll be there, having not needed any government funding in the interim. That’s a pretty bloody good return on minimal investment for the government.

And at the very least, if these young athletes don’t go on to professional careers, they may not play for the Tall Blacks, but they’ll return to their communities with college degrees, life experience, and a lot more prospects than when they left. What they won’t do is be paid by the government to continue playing their chosen sport for the next ten years.

Despite what I’ve said here, I enjoy watching rowing. It’s very exciting to see New Zealand win medals at the Olympics. But any sport that requires such top-heavy funding (canoe sports fall into this category too) to stay alive in New Zealand is the exact type of sport that shouldn’t be getting it. Fund the best school rowers (and basketballers), create pathways for them to succeed overseas either at college, professionally, or both, and if they want to compete for their country when the Olympics roll around, support them in that. But don’t become a life support for sports that offer no other avenues of success outside of an Olympic medal.



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