Burgeoning opportunities for NZ sportspeople in Asia

New Zealand's sporting connections with Asia are becoming deeper, creating new avenues and opportunities for Kiwi sportspeople. The Foundation's sports adviser Kirsty Sharp reflects on some of the key takeaways from the Foundation's recently published report The Rising Impact of Asia on New Zealand Sport and looks at the future of New Zealand's sporting connections with the region.

One of the great sporting upsets recently was Japan topping a FIFA World Cup group, having beaten former world champions Spain and Germany. Samurai Blue returned home to a hero’s welcome, and the team now has its eye on the 2024 Paris Olympics and the 2026 World Cup. The sporting world should be prepared for more such upsets from Asian teams in the years ahead.

People in a stadium waving Korean flags

Kirsty: "Just as Asia has had dramatic impacts on New Zealand trade, tourism and our food scene in the last two decades, the region is on track to provide exciting opportunities for us in the sporting realm too."

The Asia New Zealand Foundation has published a report, The Rising Impact of Asia on New Zealand Sport, that highlights just how much Asia has become a significant player on the global stage for major sporting events, leading innovation and investment and attracting global talent. Asian countries have hosted numerous major sporting events in recent years, leading them to invest in cutting-edge facilities, technology and infrastructure.

Sports academics Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Tom Kavanagh canvassed the views of more than 120 New Zealand athletes, coaches, administrators, and sport sector leaders for the report. The vast majority of those surveyed (89 percent) said visiting Asia for sport had been a positive experience – and 83 percent anticipated more athletes and teams from their sporting code would be travelling to Asia in the years ahead.

The report highlights the potential for New Zealand sports organisations to work more closely with Asian counterparts and learn from each other. New Zealand’s reputation for its sporting passion and prowess provides plenty of opportunities to collaborate with the growing sport sectors across Asia.

Already, Asia is providing the New Zealand sport sector with a commercially attractive and cost-effective alternative to traditional sporting markets in Europe and North America. And some New Zealand and Australian sporting codes are making the move into larger Asian confederations, rather than remaining in Australasia or Oceania leagues.

This year, New Zealand and Australia will host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the Philippines and Vietnam will be participating for the first time, joining Australia, China, Japan and Korea as the Asian teams (New Zealand is in the Oceania slot). In Auckland, we can look forward to hosting the Vietnam and Philippine teams, and Christchurch will play host to Japan. The team’s energetic fans will visit locations across Aotearoa.

Spectator experience is another impressive aspect of sports in Asia. I’ve witnessed the energy and enthusiasm of fans at the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, and more recently by attending sports games in Korea.

In November, I enjoyed watching the final of the 19th Asian Women’s Handball Championship in Seoul – a dynamic and exciting game that saw South Korea win the championship for the six successive time. Handball has a small but growing following in New Zealand but internationally it is played by some 30 million registered players in 183 countries.

I also attended a women’s volleyball match. Volleyball had been a low-profile sport in Korea until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where the women’s team qualified for the bronze medal match, placing fourth. It now attracts massive crowd interest, demonstrating how quickly sports can potentially grow in the region.

Japanese hockey players practising with a school team

The Japanese hockey team providing a coaching workshop for a student team

South Korea is gearing up to host the 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Gangwon – the first time the event will be held in Asia. The organisers are enthusiastic about the possibility of collaborating with the New Zealand sport sector — one example of where New Zealand can be a strong partner if we choose to do so.

Sportspeople surveyed for the Foundation’s research noted some Asian countries have very different training models to New Zealand to encourage elite performance, and these could be regimented and impact on athlete wellbeing. However, they also observed that Asian sports organisations invest in continuous learning and professional development, identifying potential for Asia and New Zealand to learn from each other.

The Rising Impact of Asia on New Zealand Sport also highlighted ways in which New Zealand can prepare athletes for a sporting world in which Asia is increasingly central. Greater cultural preparation would help sportspeople adjust to the environment, get more out of their experiences and limit distractions so they can compete at a higher level.  The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s own sports programme has been working with national sporting organisations on ways to grow their confidence engaging with Asia.

In the years ahead, sports that are popular in Asia will have increasing impact in other countries, including in Aotearoa. Asian countries are also expanding the boundaries of sport, investing heavily in the development of newer sports like eSports, skateboarding and sport climbing, which are increasing in popularity as urban populations grow.

New Zealand prides itself on its sporting ability and expertise. Asia offers us plenty of opportunities to maintain that reputation in the decades ahead, and to broaden the range of sports we lead in.

Just as Asia has had dramatic impacts on New Zealand trade, tourism and our food scene in the last two decades, the region is on track to provide exciting opportunities for us in the sporting realm too.

A head and shoulders image of the Foundation's sports adviser Kirsty Sharp

Asia New Zealand Foundation Sports adviser Kirsty Sharp

Kirsty Sharp is the sports adviser for the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.