From Rugby to Horseracing: The intriguing history of Sports Betting in New Zealand


Like in most countries, the history of sports wagering in New Zealand is complex. Not to mention has been transformed over the years from its original roots to something that utilises the very best of modern technology.

This blog will attempt to unpack the many-layered history of sports wagering in the land of the All Blacks, including a brief look at how the nation's favourite game of Rugby made its own impact in New Zealand's sports betting history.

Where Did It All Begin?

Given New Zealand was colonised by the British Empire, it's no surprise that horse racing soon became a prominent part of the land's culture. We can date this back to 1835, with the arrival of the first thoroughbred horse in New Zealand five years later in 1840. It's said that soldiers would use their own horses in military barracks to race - their officers would stand in as officials. This recreational activity quickly skyrocketed in popularity with the locals, and these races made a big part of some of the first-anniversary celebrations across the country in places like Nelson, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, and Otago. 

Fast forward to the late 1870s and horseracing had become a major recreational pastime in New Zealand; crowds of up to 30,000 people would attend the events, excited by the prospect of potentially making a fortune by placing a wager on their favourite stallion. And thus, sports betting in New Zealandwas officially born. 

After people saw how well-received the races were, totalisators were quickly introduced, in turn increasing the sport's popularity even further! These machines were crafted to calculate the total sum of the wagers placed on any individual race, before divvying up the winnings to whichever punters have tried their bets with lady luck. Up until this point, the races were largely dominated by bookmakers who spent their time encouraging attendees to part with their money in the hope of cashing out. 

When Was Rugby Introduced in New Zealand?

It's hard to imagine a time when rugby didn't exist in New Zealand, especially when the sport has now become synonymous with the very nation that's produced a team with an all-time winning percentage north of 75%. However, the origins of New Zealand's most popular game can be traced back to the 19th century.

Rugby was first introduced to the country by a man called Charles Monro. Monro had played rugby at Christ's College in London and, after returning to New Zealand in 1870, organised the first game of rugby with his peers at Nelson College. Like in the UK, the game speedily gained popularity, becoming the national sport of New Zealand in the 1880s. At the start, rugby was initially played by the upper classes only. However, the game was soon picked up by other social groups as a way to promote physical fitness - and build all-important character.

While rugby was brought to New Zealand near the end of the 1800s, betting on the sport commenced much later. In fact, in rugby's infancy, betting on the sport was only associated with a few sports betting establishments... it wasn't until online sportsbooks became front and centre that rugby betting became a popular leisure pastime. 

Speaking of these initial betting establishments, they offered keen rugby fans the chance to place wagers on upcoming matches; betting options included Prop Bets, Futures/Outright betting, Fixed-odds betting, and Over/Under betting. Today, there are various betting odds available online and various sportsbooks where enthusiastic fans can determine their wagers using detailed insights and predictions. 

Did Sports Betting in New Zealand Face Any Obstacles?

It sure did. Near the end of the 19th century, various groups from the Protestant Church started to pressure New Zealand's government to ban betting. The result? The Gambling Act of 1908. This act effectively prohibited all forms of betting apart from horse racing - however, punters could only place bets at the race track and not if they didn't actually attend the race. 

As aforementioned, the country was absolutely mad for horse racing when it was first introduced, so naturally, people still found various ways to get around the law... largely through bookies helping them out on the side. Since bookies were banned from operating on race tracks, many set up shop under a false front. This might have meant renting out rooms to connect with other bookies and insiders at the track - they used telephones and radios to communicate in private. Secretly setting up allowed bookies to place wagers on behalf of their customers from a remote location, effectively opening up a massive underground business. 

Regulating Sports Betting in New Zealand

Very soon, the government realised that sports wagering continued despite the enacted Act - not to mention they were missing out on some substantial revenue! So in 1951, they formed the first Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) to try and regulate the industry. The founding of TAB marked the ceasing of illegal bookies' influence on sports wagering in the country.

In the years following, various amendments to the laws were made, and in the 1990s, the first casinos in New Zealand were opened, followed by the TAB eventually permitting fixed odds and sports betting in 1996. While the New Zealand Racing Board arguably holds the monopoly on sports wagering in the country. Initially, about 50 percent of all sports betting in New Zealand centred around rugby... meaning its citizens could profit from some of the country's best teams like the All Blacks all while watching the nation's most passionate and engaging game of sports.