New Zealand unable to mimic US college sport, says sport and recreation director

Players come together during the University of Auckland's inter-faculty basketball competition.
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Players come together during the University of Auckland's inter-faculty basketball competition.

An inter-university sport competition similar to the United States is impossible to copy in New Zealand, a director of sport and recreation says.

College sport plays a massive role in the United States, where students thrive on getting around their college teams and sports scholarships are a major part of post-high school education.

But in New Zealand no such culture exists. While there are university teams in local Auckland competitions - including a university cricket club and university rugby club - they field very few university students, instead just carrying the name and serving the wider community.

Associate director of campus life, sport and recreation at the University of Auckland, Louis Rattray, said the sporting system in the United States helped to create a tribal mentality towards university and New Zealand simply didn't have the resources or the culture to mimic that.

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"American college sport is it's own beast and it's taken 100 years to evolve to where it is today," Rattray said.

"Every student at a college over there will have their university colours on.

"New Zealand will never get to the standard of American college sport just by sheer weight of population."

When Rattray first came into his role in 2010, Auckland Council and Sport New Zealand partnered on a project called Sport Beyond Schools, looking at sport participation after high school and if there was any drop-off.

"What we realised was that students aren't looking - because of additional pressures of university and now fending for themselves - for structured competition, and traditional sports were no longer their highest priority," Rattray said.

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"Modifying sports is the best way to keep them engaged in sport."

This included variations on traditional sports like football and basketball, with indoor futsal and three on three player basketball becoming more popular.

So rather than a regular competition, like the United States, New Zealand has instead embraced one-off weekend tournaments that are easier to organise and get more participation. Coupled with that are inter-faculty competitions within the university.

These have helped foster an element of competition between the universities, and more students have been getting involved with sport.

However, Kiwi students still don't turn out in droves to support their university, and that's simply a cultural thing, Rattray said.

"I mean look at the Blues as our franchise team, how often do they fill Eden Park? So to expect the college system to do that is totally unrealistic," he said.

​"In a rugby-mad nation, when the Blues are the major identity, and they get a couple of thousand people, that's just the environment we're in. I just think there's an apathy. If you're not participating, it's not really worth going."

Universities were also more focused on academics than sport, he said.

"We have to be conscious that students are here to study first and foremost," Rattray said.

"If we throw too much sport into the calendar, it can actually compromise their academic achievement and we have to balance that quite sensitively."

Lydia Velzian, a current masters student at the University of Auckland, spent time in America at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Virginia and said the contrast in culture was palpable.

"Over in the states it was very different," Velzian said.

"Being a student at ODU was part of who I was. I turned out to watch football matches, baseball matches, joined in the homecoming celebrations, went to the ODU productions, got behind recruitment and charity events and it was even a rarity to see me wearing something other than ODU gear.

"No matter what you're into, there's a lot of opportunity to represent the school at something and get in behind and support it too."

 - Stuff

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