The debate over the future of school competitions as a commercial enterprise shapes as one of the defining moments in New Zealand sport's history. Dylan Cleaver reports on a Government agency which has tied itself in knots trying to keep a sporting icon happy while trying to unmix the "mixed messages" it was sending out in regards to its youth sport philosophies.
As concern that school sport has been corrupted by the twin forces of commercialisation and commodification grows, a seemingly simple question remains elusive: Is school sport community sport or high-performance sport?
"That's a very good question," says Peter Miskimmin, chief executive of Sport NZ.
"That's an odd question," says Martin Stewart, chief executive of Sky TV.
Odd, maybe, but fundamental, surely, to the decision of Sky TV to sign up to a deal that sees the blanket broadcasting and live-streaming of school sport on their platforms under the guise of the New Zealand Sports Collective (NZSC).
According to Tim O'Connor, the Auckland Grammar principal who is among a group of high-profile headmasters who remain disturbed by the "underhanded" manner in which the deal was done, the question is far from ambiguous.
"This is a money-making venture based on the perception of high school sport as high-performance sport."
And that right there, for many who have seen participation numbers fall off a cliff in recent years, particularly in teenage years, and for those who have seen a rapidly increasing number of young sportsmen and women plagued by mental health and identity issues, is deeply problematic.
The blanket broadcasting and commercialisation of school sport under the banner of NZSC was endorsed by the country's sports tsar Miskimmin, despite a shopping list of serious concerns presented by his own staff.
Correspondence released under the Official Information Act shows that concerns about NZSC - which is wholly owned by marketing and promotions firm Waddell + Associates - were raised loudly from multiple departments at the government agency.
In particular, the move to broadcast school sport was seen as thorny.
It appears an impending deal of their own with Sky and Rob Waddell's sizeable influence in the sports sector was enough to convince Sport NZ's leadership to in effect endorse the concept in an interview with the Herald in February.
This has led to a slew of criticism within the sports sector, with the government sports agency's actions labelled as irresponsible by the New Zealand's Athletes' Federation, while school principals who say they were never consulted about the deal remain concerned about the concept's impact.
Although Waddell, a former Olympic gold medallist and current NZ Olympic Committee chef de mission, is the most recognisable name in all this, the story is not about him. As a private citizen with an entrepreneurial bent and a strong personal brand, he has seen a market opportunity and moved to corner it.
The story instead is of a sector at the crossroads and a Government agency that tied itself in knots trying to keep a sporting icon happy while trying to unmix the "mixed messages" it was sending out in regards to its youth sport philosophies.
If that sounds lofty it is because the debate over the future of school competitions as a commercial enterprise shapes as one of the defining moments in New Zealand sport's history and opinion tends to fall into two camps: those that believe it is irreparably fraying the country's community sporting bonds versus those who believe it is a pragmatic response to free-market forces.
"Some say the horse has already bolted with youth sport already on TV and live streamed, but that's nonsense and a cop out," said Heath Mills, who formerly worked in secondary school sports before starting the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association and, latterly, the New Zealand Athletes' Federation.
"It is Sport New Zealand's job to catch the horse and put it back in the stable. Instead they'd rather fawn over high-profile individuals."
While most of Mills' ire is directed at Sport NZ leadership, he believes people in positions of responsibility at Sky TV also need a reality check.
"There are people involved there that should know better. They need to stop being captivated by the stardust and start to recognise some of the unintended consequences of their good intentions in supporting youth sport."
It would be beneficial to understand Sky's top-table thinking around school sport but Stewart would only agree to emailed questions and other than the above reference to an "odd" question, the responses were the very definition of boilerplate.
"I genuinely believe in the mantra that if you can see it, you can do it," Stewart wrote. "Sky has broadcast 1st XV Rugby for more than 10 years and it's widely enjoyed across New Zealand... Everyone who is involved in producing and broadcasting it is aware of the need to treat the coverage of younger athletes with care, and we've been doing that well for many years."
Insiders suggest, however, that Sky management has been surprised at the backlash at what they considered to be a noble "community" gesture.
Many of the unintended consequences referenced by Mills were identified by Sport New Zealand staff who work in both the community sport and integrity space. The documents reveal those concerns included:
•Ownership of content given it is the schools that "essentially own their own content";
•Match fixing due to the likelihood of overseas betting sites posting odds for events;
•Social media vilification of referees and coaches and cyberbullying of child athletes, including moderation of comments sections on YouTube;
•The increasing professionalisation of school sport;
•The likelihood of increased "specialisation at an age range where [Sport NZ does not] recommend it";
•Risks around sponsorship and brand alignment;
•The risks of streaming traumatic medical events, and other general health and safety concerns;
•Age-appropriate commentary of events;
•Body image concerns, including supplementation and doping;
•Gender equity of coverage concerns;
•The ability of young athletes to be able to freely access their own coverage later in life.
Senior staff including CEO Miskimmin labelled the concerns as valid, yet the sentiment which ultimately prevailed was that of appeasement of Waddell.
"It is worth noting that Rob is an important stakeholder of ours given his multiple hats and level of connection and influence within the sector so we want to handle this one carefully," Jennah Wootten, general manager of partnerships and communications, wrote to staff.
Wootten says the "carefully" referred to creating a single line of communication with the former world champion oarsman, yet the optics are impossible to ignore: Waddell was no ordinary salesman.
As for the red flags, many of them will never be fully resolved, Mills said, because they simply can't be.
"All they can do to mitigate against some of their concerns is to hope like hell nothing goes wrong."
The evidence is not promising. After a recent high-profile televised school rugby match, a player from the losing team was subject to social media taunting - including from adults - after an up-and-down match. It was far from an isolated occurence. In the days before televised school sport these players might have been subject to a few schoolyard taunts but that has now been amplified and can have considerable effects on the wellbeing of maturing players not yet mentally equipped for the highs and lows of the spotlight.
"We already have enough kids leaving the youth system with burnout, early specialisation issues, mental-health challenges, identity issues and a lack of balance in their lives," Mills says. "We don't need to be adding to the problem by providing what appears to be a state-supported broadcast platform for more people to trade off and sell kids false dreams."
While the NZSC has signed up more than 50 national sporting organisations, it is clear from the contracts and correspondence that Secondary School Sport NZ (NZSSSC) was the jewel in the crown and chief executive Garry Carnachan was described by a Sport NZ staffer as effectively acting as Waddell's "agent".
(Several Auckland principals have taken "umbrage" at NZSSSC's role though in an earlier interview with the Herald, Carnachan said the partnership aimed to end the "ad hoc" streaming of school sport and ensure the benefits of broadcast went back to schools.)
Although NZSC was presented to Sport NZ nearly fully formed, some at the government agency had hopes of reshaping the emphasis away from kids.
Geoff Barry, the general manager of community sport, wrote: "Fyi, if guys want to influence commercialisation of YP [young people] then they need to be well prepared to meet with Rob."
In a bid to dampen down an overheated school sports environment that was driving teenagers away in alarming numbers, SNZ last year launched a Balance is Better website to match policy philosophy.
A central plank of the philosophy is that young people should enjoy a range of sports and that specialisation - due in large part because of some schools' obsession with winning teams - was counterproductive and driving down participation.
Emails from SNZ staff to leadership, most with names redacted, indicate they were well aware of the "mixed messages" they were sending to the public if they endorsed Sky Sport Next.
In one email to Jennah Wootten on January 23, two months after the concept was launched, a staffer outlined huge concerns about the "integrity framework" of the venture.
"It is clear that this has gaps and evidently it would be the schools that pick up the shortfalls to ensure they are covered," the Sport NZ staffer writes. "[However] schools are at varying levels of best practice when it comes to policy compliance [and] many schools would find themselves lacking in policy/ procedure coverage.
"That is something to ponder and that's before I've got to the substantive issues."
A confluence of factors played into Waddell's hands: fractured governance and ownership of secondary school sport; a broadcasting network desperate to look like a friend to the community; and national sporting organisations lacking money and, just as importantly, the wherewithal to secure commercial deals.
As it stands, a pandemic has taken most of the air out of the ball. Conventional wisdom suggests Covid-19 will eventually die out; the arguments around the commercialisation of school sport are likely to still be festering.
"We own it. There is no way we would see NSOs as owning any form of school sport," says O'Connor. "The athletes remain in our care. The athletes' welfare at every level of school sport remains our obligation and we take that obligation very seriously. That's why we were so alarmed by the behaviour of [NZSSSC] by signing up with Rob and why we believe it was done in an underhand way.
"Of course, they'll think we're being alarmist but I suspect we have a very good reason to feel this way."
O'Connor said current live-streaming of school sport described by Carnachan as "ad hoc" was "crude" and deliberately so, as it was designed as a tool for parents to watch their kids who couldn't be there in person.
"This is the commercialisation of kids sport and that's a totally different scenario," he says.
O'Connor says NZSSSC has no plausible excuse for its role in the saga.
"There are no synergies there at all. That's what has been so disappointing in all this. I would have thought they would have been standing there beside us, the schools, not being in the honey pot itself. I'm really concerned about the road they've taken, having our souls sold for a few dollars.
"Sure they say the money flows back into the schools but I haven't seen any financial structures that indicate that. Show me this venture is not-for-profit if that's the case."
Mills says New Zealand was standing on the edge of a precipice when it came to school sport; that one of the former jewels of the country's sporting system had rapidly become a millstone.
"Youth and school sport should be competitive and can be a wonderful experience but in no way should it mirror professional sport," Mills said.
"I fear that with so many now having a vested interest in commercialising it, coupled with a lack of leadership in the sector, means the issues are only going to get worse."
NEXT WEEK: Part II - How Sky Next widens the gap between rich and poor