Clacking through the turnstiles, they were there to greet you: the match-day programme seller. There they'd be, trustworthy in high-vis, thrusting them skywards, hot off the press: Who's playing fullback today? Not that ref so-and-so! Full credit from the grey-moustached union president, adverts for piping-hot pies, it was tucked under the arm, to be fully examined at your seat, on the terraces, grass embankment. It was waved furiously at blatant off-sides, shielded low winter sun, and highlighted the opposition winger's inadequacies.

But those days are dead. The match-day programme at New Zealand sporting events is going, groaning or gone.

Most Super Rugby teams now only produce an "e-programme" – a digital version, available on the franchise website or smartphone app. That's certainly the way now of the Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders.

Other sports too have gone that way – the New Zealand Breakers basketball team, the Blackcaps – they no longer produce physical hardcopy roll-up-and-wave-at-the-sporting-Gods programmes. Same with French rugby, some South African rugby franchises, and even the lower tiers of English football – hallowed fields of tradition and remembrance.

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The digital revolution has come. And sports memorabilia addicts, particularly programme collectors, are mortified.

"The legacy of our sports is being chucked in the mud and trampled on," says diehard Invercargill sports memorabilia collector Carl Wilson.

The 59-year-old fanatic has about 4000 programmes – mostly rugby, but some boxing, motorsport, cricket too. He owns one of the oldest programmes in New Zealand – England vs Wellington 1888. Most precious item? 1905 Originals vs Wales, Cardiff Arms Park, December 16, 1905.

For Wilson, fingering an old match programme is a "sensory experience".

"It's a time-honoured tradition. It's history, part of the fabric of our country," he says.

Fellow collector, rugby-mad Adam Gilshnan, has squirrelled away more than 650 West Coast programmes, dating to the 1920s, preserved in acid-free plastic sleeves. He dreams of establishing a rugby museum dedicated to his local union in his Greymouth man-cave.

"The first game I ever saw – 1982," says Gilshnan, 45, who runs a dedicated Facebook page for collectors.

"West Coast played Counties after Canterbury's [Ranfurly] Shield challenge against Counties when Robbie Deans kicked a 50m penalty to draw the game 12-12. Counties came to the Coast on a Tuesday and we beat them. Bruce Robertson's last ever game for Counties. And I've got that programme, signed. If didn't have it, what would my memories be? I'd have no idea who played that day."

While extremely rare programmes still change hands for thousands of dollars, the market was somewhat flooded with the advent of online trading sites like eBay and Trade Me. But despite programmes not being worth the riches they once were, the attraction hasn't dimmed for the hardcore collectors who are devastated to be losing future additions.

Both he and Wilson say they'd consider producing their own programmes if they disappeared from the sporting landscape altogether. They don't expect full glossy 88-page versions. A simple four-page affair would suffice for collectors.

"It's a tradition and it would be a massive shame if we lost it," Gilshnan says. "Every game I've ever been to, I've picked up a programme. It's the first thing I look forward to when I get to Rugby Park in Greymouth.

The digital revolution has meant the end of the traditional match-day programme at many sports grounds.
The digital revolution has meant the end of the traditional match-day programme at many sports grounds.

"A lot of collectors are upset. Lifelong collections will just stop. Every single programme links to an occasion. Sitting through a rainy day with your mates, the controversy, the result. It's not just a piece of paper, it's something, it means something, to different people for different reasons."

The Crusaders say their digital programme, adopted this season across website and app, allows them to reach more fans. The Highlanders say their e-programme has saved money and resulted in a "higher-value product" for its members and commercial partners.

For the Breakers, who stopped printing programmes after the 2014/15 NBL season, it was all about sustainability, "reducing waste and being more environmentally aware". They say they haven't had any negative feedback.

Neither have New Zealand Cricket, who haven't produced programmes for the past decade, and switched focus to its social media channels. The only backlash came from Barmy Army fans last summer.

Ex-All Black Grahame Thorne has around 1000 programmes and he laments the digital move.

The 10-Test centre "had this thing" where he wanted to collect every programme from matches where the Ranfurly Shield changed hands after World War II. He fell one short - when North Auckland lost to Auckland in Whangārei in 1960. His treasure: a programme from 1960 when Auckland beat Canterbury 19-18 and Waka Nathan scored the winning try. Nathan signed the cover.

"I'm a dinosaur now. It's not the same game I played, whether it's the rules or professionalism, and now with the programmes … the whole thing's gone."

The electronic evolution also poses challenges for museums and trusts who rely on programmes to capture history.

The New Zealand Rugby Museum in Palmerston North creaks with more than 13,000 programmes. Director Stephen Berg is wrestling with the best way to capture digital programmes for posterity.

"Do people really want all their memories and experiences in the world to be encapsulated in a tiny little piece of metal, plastic and glass?" Berg says. "Or do you want some actual physical things to put on the walls, shelves, that you can flick through when you want. It remains to see that trend will continue."

Les McFadden of Canterbury Rugby Union's historical trust, which has thousands of old programmes, is worried how e-programmes can be preserved for the future. But he also says a lot of older rugby fans are missing out.

"It's a shame really, especially for a lot of older people who may not have a cellphone or want to use one at the game."

For collectors like Wilson, sporting organisations have turned their back on the biggest historical aspect of sports memorabilia. Wilson feels let down.

"They've given no consideration at all to the fans," Wilson says. "It's a little bit about the now but it's more about the past. I would fight to the death over retaining programmes. I'd be the last man standing on the beach. It means everything."