New Zealand Rugby League introduced the ‘Be A Sport’ programme to encourage positive supporter behaviour and provide more enjoyable rugby league experiences for our community – from players, referees, coaches and officials to fans and spectators.

Adapted from an Auckland Rugby League programme, Be A Sport was launched in all seven NZRL zones’ junior programmes in 2017 and expanded into further grades this year.

Be A Sport’s ethos has quickly become a cornerstone of Canterbury Rugby League’s campaign to eradicate antisocial behaviour from the game, attract new people to rugby league and make people want to stay in the sport.

“From our perspective, Be A Sport helps change the culture and environment for our visitors to the park and the players on the field,” CRL Club Capability Manager George Lajpold says.

“It’s also designed to help recognise that the people we have officiating games are volunteers.”

Recruiting and retaining referees is one of the greatest problems facing grassroots sport – and rugby league is no exception.

The biggest obstacle to new refs picking up the whistle and current refs remaining in the ranks is abuse from the sidelines. One of Be A Sport’s foundational principles is that this behaviour is unacceptable.

“One of our real concerns – and that of the sport in general – is that people see a game of NRL and expect the same level of officiating at club level right down to the six-year-old grade,” Lajpold explains.

“Part of the Be A Sport campaign is to say that these are young people still learning the sport, it’s an environment that should be full of positive experiences, and recognising that young people are there to have fun.”

Lajpold says that creating a safer and more welcoming environment for referees is critical to the code’s crusade to bolster numbers, and to the health of rugby league in general. Without refs, you don’t have a game.

“At the moment rugby league, as well as a number of other sports, are going through a process of trying to lift the profile of refereeing and let everyone know that they’re there to support our sport.

“They aren’t there to have a huge influence, but they want to create a quality experience for our players and they are an integral part of our game.

“We want everyone on the sideline to have a clear understanding of what the referees are trying to do on the field – which is to create a better experience for players and supporters.”

Canterbury Rugby League is working alongside clubs to curb behaviour detrimental to creating a positive and safe environment for players, officials and fellow supporters.

Each club appoints two ‘Team Champions’, who are identifiable by Hi-Vis vests marked with the ‘Be A Sport – Just Support’ message. Where behaviour is not appropriate, Team Champions are to follow the steps as described on the BAS guide sheet.

“One of the key things about Be A Sport is that antisocial sideline behaviour should normally be dealt with by the club where that person is from,” Lajpold says.

“It’s not a confrontational thing – it’s an opportunity for a club member to stand alongside the spectator, ask what’s happening for them around the game and remind them of what constitutes appropriate sideline behaviour.

“And it’s a positive thing to see clubs take more responsibility for their own supporters’ sideline behaviour. It’s a collective responsibility – it’s not just CRL’s responsibility or a club’s responsibility on their own.”

Lajpold says the response from the clubs to the Be A Sport programme’s initiatives has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s been pretty cool. From a juniors perspective every club has taken it on board.

“When you see the Hi-Vis vests down at Canterbury Park on a Saturday or at a seniors game on a Saturday, those are the Be A Sport Team Champions – they’re the ones that are there to help create a positive environment and manage any inappropriate behaviour.

“It’s been well-received, and Canterbury Rugby League is quite open to going into clubs and having conversations with parents and club members and people in the community around what their sport is, the principles that go with it and what we’re trying to achieve in this space.”

Another key component of the Be A Sport programme is creating an alcohol-free and smoke-free environment on the sideline at games.

“In the past rugby league has perhaps been seen as a sport where that’s a regular thing, drinking alcohol on the sideline, which often leads to antisocial behaviour,” Lajpold says.

“What we’re saying from rugby league’s perspective is that actually we need to start changing our culture so people want to start coming to our games and have a positive experience while they’re there.”

While supporters responsible for antisocial behaviour at rugby league games are very much in the minority, it only takes one negative incident to ruin a day out at the footy for many.

The Be A Sport programme is one of the most effective tools at Canterbury Rugby League’s disposal to decrease those negative instances by promoting positivity, inclusivity and respectfulness.

“The main thing to understand is that everyone that’s involved in rugby league, coaches, managers, the person with the whistle in the middle of the field, are volunteers and they’re also developing in the game and learning,” Lajpold enthuses.

“We have a 31 percent turnover rate of people leaving our sport every year, and part of that is because of the experience they receive when they’re at the game on the sideline.

“The Be A Sport initiative is part and parcel of us saying that as a group we need to look at the culture that’s been there in the past, changing the negative aspects of that and creating a more positive one.”