Sports commentator Scotty ‘Sumo’ Stevenson has suffered personal tragedy with the death of his beloved wife Claire Silvester. He opens up on heartbreak, a new life as a solo parent to two boys, and men’s health. He’s also returning to our screens, with a new role at TVNZ.
A former All Black wrote a lovely message to Scotty “Sumo” Stevenson on the first anniversary of his wife Claire Silvester’s death. “Good people attract great people,” offered Wyatt Crockett. “You’ll always have special people on your side brother! Love you, mate.”
Stevenson – “Sumo”, as the world knows him, by deed of his once-but-no-longer bulky frame – has always seen the good in people, epitomised by the way he conducts himself in the rugby commentary box and on the sideline.
It may be unorthodox – possibly even frowned upon by some old-school broadcasters – but he is genuine friends or close to many of the players he’s critiquing. He is most certainly never cruel, operating by a mantra that he’s always answerable to a player’s mother.
Stevenson’s compassion came to the fore in the heartbreaking final months of Claire’s life as he looked after her full time.
The TVNZ senior producer suffered a seizure in late November 2020 and was diagnosed with brain cancer in the following weeks. She died in February last year, aged just 50.
“She was a beautiful woman in every way,” says Stevenson. “I was very privileged to be able to care for Claire in the last few months at home. It will be forever the privilege of my life.”
It’s been 16 months since Claire’s death, and until now, Stevenson has not spoken publicly of his and his wider family’s loss. He and Claire have two boys, now aged 14 and 12.
Claire, he says, was an “incredible mum” and a woman of “formidable intellect”.
“It’s been a huge adjustment. We didn’t have a long time together from the initial seizure to her death, and there was a lot going on at that time. A lot of changes and a lot of things to get accustomed to, and a lot of hope that was shattered along the way.
“Brain cancer robs you of the person you love. Fortunately, it doesn’t come with pain.”
Claire was one of New Zealand’s most accomplished television producers, held in high regard across the industry. After her death, the newsrooms at TVNZ and Three sent each other flowers; she had dear friends in both workplaces.
“I think that just spoke a lot of the mana that she carried within the industry … far more than I ever did. I live in her reflected glory, I think, most of the time,” says Stevenson.
“I look back on Claire’s diagnosis. She was obviously feeling the effects of those tumours before that, while producing Q+A, while producing TVNZ’s election coverage, while running a household, while raising two kids.
“It gives me goosebumps about the load she carried.”
Stevenson says he feels “blessed” to have his sons alongside him. As he’s adjusted to being a solo dad, grief has come in waves.
“We’ve just found a way of working together, but you’re learning every day. You’re learning how to process certain things that you maybe put on the shelf for a while. You learn how to sit in those emotions.
“You learn how to recollect with a certain level of comfort that you were able to square some fears away before the end.
“And ultimately, you’re the one, you’re responsible and there are big shoes to fill.”
Claire, he said, would do things that “were just out of my league”. The pair were introduced by a mutual friend; it was love at first sight – for Stevenson, at least, he smiles.
“I was away a lot at work and Claire was full-time working, raising children, running our household. Losing her and having to try to fill those gaps is a stark reminder of a woman’s capability; it’s formidable.
“It’s a huge hole but you just try your hardest to emulate how she was and to react to situations how she did. And love your kids the way she did.”
Love and mateship. They are common themes – a backbone – of his story.
We are meeting today, over lunch, to talk men’s health, rugby, sport, media, families.
He speaks adoringly of Claire’s wider family, who have been an “unreal” support for him and their sons in a time of deep devastation for themselves. “I knew her for the briefest time, but they’ve known her their whole lives.”
His own mother, he says, has also been a “rock”.
“I’ve been really lucky to have a great community around me.”
Stevenson has not spoken publicly until now, partly because, he says, everyone has issues or problems they are confronting.
“I guess I try to work my way through issues as privately as possible with a close group of friends. There are a lot of people out there hurting all the time about different things.
“Obviously, privately, we cherish our memory and we try to honour that memory as well as we can.”
Stevenson is already at the bar of Esther restaurant in Auckland’s QT Hotel – sharing a coffee and conversation with hotel manager Doron Whaite – when I arrive for lunch. “You’ve brought your notebook!”
We’ve known each other for many years – through work, events, and a couple of very close mutual buddies. On occasions, we’ve enjoyed a beverage or two.
Stevenson is a deep thinker, especially around his analysis on the business of sport and the impact of administrators. He has been one of a handful of broadcasters and journalists – alongside the likes of Suzanne McFadden and Dana Johannsen – who have led the charge in championing more coverage of women’s sport in mainstream media.
Despite time away from work, Stevenson’s popularity and connections have not diminished. Before and after lunch today, he’s engaging with restaurant patrons and executive chef James Laird. He has a genuine connection.
It’s been an eventful morning for Stevenson – he’s just come from TVNZ, where it was announced he’s returning next month in a role spanning commentary, writing, and presenting.
The state broadcaster has picked up many of the rights held by Spark Sport, which closes on June 30. Stevenson started at Spark in 2018, leaving Sky Sport, to join the fledgling sport streaming service.
It was a huge coup for Spark and a bold step for Stevenson – but one that did not start well.
He still bristles at some of the news media coverage (including that of the Herald) of the technical woes – out of Spark’s hands entirely, he reiterates – at the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“I remember that first game, I was calling the game and it wasn’t till afterward that we learned that there’d been a bit of a hiccup. I was just so devastated for the people back home.
“I was so devastated for that [Spark] team; we knew at the time that the issue wasn’t actually Spark’s technology. It was a pipeline issue.
“It was really hard to wear it when you’re in a three-by-three Japanese hotel room, you’re feeling quite alone. And in those days I was far more engaged in social media than I am now. It was relentless.”
He describes the impact of social media criticism more generally as an “emotional loop”.
“It’s probably the worst place to find yourself. Your day would be going along fine and then you’d read something. It’d be some criticism, generally anonymous.
“You’d stop, look at it and think, jeez that’s harsh. That would just take you down a little bit and you’d go from surprise to sadness to anger and then you’d get yourself back on track.
“Now if that happened a few times a week, well, you’ve been taken off-course and if that happens over the course of a number of years, it doesn’t matter how accustomed you get to it, or how thick-skinned you think you are, you are being sent on the brief emotional loop over and over and over again.”
It does nothing, he says, except distract you from your own aspirations.
Stevenson last tweeted in July 2021.
“The longer I’ve been off it, the more I’ve realised that it’s not relevant.”
Stevenson is an ambassador for this year’s Men’s Health Week, which starts on Monday. He’s known Men’s Health Week overlord Mark Sainsbury for years, from their earlier period at TVNZ when Stevenson was starting out.
“The discussion around mental health now, I think, is embedded. We understand the importance of talking about those issues and at least raising awareness of those issues.
“It’s the physical health, too, having been on a bit of a rollercoaster myself in that respect.”
In 2018 – after returning home from the Winter Olympics in South Korea – he was unhappy about his weight, and took up running.
He lost up to 30kg, and in 2020 completed the 85km Old Ghost Ultra on the West Coast. Tears streamed down his face at the end.
After a period where he was not as active, he’s now back running six days a week, racking up a total distance of around 60km. He’s planning to do the Old Ghost again in early February.
“By no means am I making a statement about how wonderful I am because I’m out running. It’s just my therapy. I love getting out. For me, fitness is freedom.
“I’ve got a couple of people that I’m responsible for and you start thinking pretty hard about being around a little bit longer and not being so cavalier and taking some personal responsibility for those things.
“The whole concept of Men’s Health Week is not about rattling buckets, it’s not to raise money. It’s just basically to check in with each other and say, ‘have you been to a doctor lately? Have you had your moles checked?’
On the Men’s Health Week website, he’s filled out the “What’s Your Score” survey.
“It’s a handy tool and it does make you think, ‘you know actually, I haven’t gone and had that particular test for a while. Maybe I’m at a certain age now where that should be something I’m looking at on a more regular basis’.
“It reminded me that I didn’t get my mole check last year. So that’s been booked in, having grown up in the sun on the beach and, you know, the father who had melanoma as a younger man.”
Stevenson is in charge at our lunch table, by full agreement, taking care of the order – bread, anchovies on bruschetta, baked saganaki and, for a main, one of the most delicious, melt-in-mouth ribeye steaks I’ve enjoyed in a long time.
Stevenson started rugby commentating on TV in 2009, a Ranfurly Shield game between Wellington and Wairarapa Bush. Earlier, as a 10-year-old in 1987, he was inspired by the commentary of Keith Quinn at the inaugural World Cup.
“I talk about these people for a living and that’s a privilege. For some people, their entire professional careers might have your voice attached to it, whether they like that or not.
“It’s not about me. It’s about when these players are 50, 60 ‚70 and they’re grandparents themselves and they’re showing their kids.”
He wants to be satisfied he’s done the moment, and the player, justice.
He can have robust discussions with players, and coaches, as he prepares for a call. He wants to know what’s going through their heads, any niggles or issues.
He is friends with some of them, yes, but also in a position to have a relationship that doesn’t inhibit his commentary.
“I’m intrigued by athletes. I’m intrigued by their personalities because I’m not a professional athlete.”
He’ll try to focus on the positive – the player who broke three tackles, for instance, rather than the trio who missed their mark. Or the cricketer who took the catch, rather than the one who played the loose shot.
That’s not to say he’ll ignore the negatives.
“There are times where of course that might have been a daft play or that may have been a mistake but we’re sitting in the comfort of a commentary box behind glass, away from the crowd, away from the rain, watching people dealing in microseconds under high-pressure situations and all we’re doing is opening our gobs. They’re the ones out there trying their guts out.”
He recalls one occasion when he described Sevens star Tim Mikkelson as having toes for fingers. Mikkelson’s mum was in the grandstand at Waikato Stadium that day and gave Stevenson a little tap “in the nuts” with her umbrella.
She knew, she said, that her son didn’t have a great game – “but you didn’t have to say that”.
“It dawned on me very early in my career that there’s only one group of people that watch every game.
“It’s not coaches, it’s not the players. It’s the players’ mums, they are watching every minute of their babies whether it’s cricketers, hockey players, rugby players, footballers. They’re watching everything and they’re the ones who pick up on the things that you’ve said critically about their children.”
Stevenson adored Spark Sport, and its disruption of live-sports coverage. He is genuinely puzzled about arguments over the cost, and why Kiwis weren’t challenging the incumbent – Sky – to lower its prices, given it had lost a lot of sport in a freshly competitive landscape.
“I think in the fullness of time, people will realise what there was. It was a real shift for people in how to consume sport. Streaming platforms can work here – there’s room here for more than one shot.”
He is thrilled about returning to TVNZ, and the opportunity that people will be able to watch major free-to-air sport again. Among the rights that TVNZ will inherit from Spark is cricket.
“We’re still old enough to remember a time when a million people tuned in on TVNZ to watch a netball test.
“I know that [TVNZ sports and events general manager] Melodie Robinson, in particular, is just so passionate about engaging that audience again, perhaps an audience that hasn’t had the wherewithal to spend $100-$150 a month on satellite TV.”
Sports and a new generation of kids will benefit, he says.
Stevenson has a keen analytical mind on the business of sport. “Professional sport is a rights business. It’s all about marketing and even selling jerseys, selling image rights, selling broadcast rights.”
He reserves some of his strongest opinions for rugby – he is worried, for instance, that New Zealand Rugby has lost goodwill and community connection.
He is a vocal critic of the Silverlake deal; cannot see a long-term viable future with a firm that does not have, in his opinion, the game’s best interests at heart.
“I have some sympathy for New Zealand Rugby trying to be all things to all people, but without a love for the game, without a connection for the game, you’ve got nothing to sell because you’ve got no market to sell it to.
“So respecting that market and communicating with that market and telling the story … that’s where the ecosystem needs just maybe a little bit of grease here and there.”
The performance of the Black Ferns, in winning the Rugby World Cup inside a packed Eden Park last year, has not been an opportunity necessarily seized – yet – by New Zealand Rugby, he opines. It’s a growth area of the game, he says.
While many people focus on pay within women’s rugby, he says more attention needs to be on resourcing overall, including ensuring programmes and pathways are in place. There is a huge opportunity, he says, to capitalise on the popularity of the Black Ferns.
The RWC final “felt like people were back watching rugby for the right reason”, he says.
“It didn’t feel like an over-commercialised proposition. It didn’t feel like a stage-managed thing.
“It felt like something pure and wholesome and, and the crowds behaved accordingly. There were different fans. That final … I’ve been to some great events but that, that was truly special.”
He compares it to an All Black test, which, he says, “is a pretty fraught experience”.
“There’s a lot of expectation on getting bang for buck and the expectation on the team performing.
“It’s an expensive proposition and with that comes a low-level menace at times which for many people is not that enjoyable. But the crowds at those women’s games, I think just completely changed the paradigm.”
For many years, he’s felt the Black Ferns and the Māori All Blacks were the steak knives given away when you bought the Ginsu knives (the All Blacks).
But he says those teams are a package all unto themselves. “They shouldn’t be the steak knives. There surely is investment out there and commercial sponsorship revenues out there that just want to target that area. If there’s not, there should be, it’s well worth it.”
After lunch today, Stevenson will head home to his boys and prepare for the evening ahead, including dinner – he’s long been an accomplished cook.
Boys don’t need to be complicated, he says.
“Boys need to know that they’re loved. To know that they’re safe and to know that there’s something processed in the pantry and that’s about it, you know.
“We have our moments,” he says of his solo-parenting regime. “To use a rugby analogy, with co-parenting, kids are looking for the gaps all the time, right? Like rugby, it’s an evasion sport. When it’s a solo parent, it just becomes a collision sport.
“To get their way, they’ve just got to go through you. So, you get to choose whether you want to be the brick wall or you want to be the Zorb where they can bounce off you and you don’t feel the impact at all.
“If you try to be the Zorb as much as possible instead of the brick wall, it makes you a little bit more of a relaxed household. You figure these things out, trial and error.”
I’ve been watching Louis Theroux’s latest series on Neon and was struck by a question he asked Bear Grylls around how much faith plays in his life after the death of his dad at an early age.
I ask the same of Stevenson, in light of Claire’s death.
“Not in an organised religious sense but I think there’s a faith in the universe to deliver.
“That universal faith where, if you need it, people will come through for you. They do, and from surprising quarters sometimes.
“You’ve got to have faith in yourself to be able to get through those moments. We have a very firm belief in trying to do the right thing and do the right thing by other people.”
Next month, Stevenson will return to TVNZ and the workplace where his wife forged so much of her own great work and friendships.
“You know, the Spark Sport team was so kind to us as a family and to me in particular, during Claire’s illness, and TVNZ were exactly the same.
“They just couldn’t have done any more. To have had the support of both organisations, just meant the world to us. It made us feel very fortunate actually – that we worked for organisations that had huge moral values and just genuine human kindness.
“I love TVNZ. It’s a very special place and it’s filled with very special people.”
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