Football Ferns, Black Sticks battle for respect

READY FOR THE SPOTLIGHT: Black Sticks players Anita Punt, Cathryn Finlayson, Charlotte Harrison and Samantha Harrison at the team naming in Auckland last month.
READY FOR THE SPOTLIGHT: Black Sticks players Anita Punt, Cathryn Finlayson, Charlotte Harrison and Samantha Harrison at the team naming in Auckland last month.

The battle is on for the hearts and minds of impressionable budding female athletes. Simon Plumb analyses what's at stake in London.

Elite women's sport is on a high in this country - and today the team battle to be New Zealand's Olympic golden girls begins.

Not gold as in the medal. Neither the Black Sticks nor the Football Ferns - the curious monikers worn by our national women's hockey and football teams - will win the biggest Olympic prize of all. The Ferns certainly won't get to climb the podium and the Black Sticks are a long shot on build-up form.

But they both have the chance to grab the country's attention by over-performing, as the Black Sticks did, in Barcelona in 1992. And if they do, with it comes valuable Sport New Zealand funding dollars, potential corporate sponsorship and ongoing broadcaster interest for their national sports organisation (NSO).

For the players, that can make all the difference in staying with their sport at the elite level. Some may even win a professional contract overseas.

It's a big stakes game, even if many of our over-achieving sportswomen are still on small chips compared to their male colleagues.

Netball will be watching closely - and no doubt enviously - as the Ferns and Black Sticks nervously try to seize their opportunity.

In the wake of the Magic becoming the first Kiwi franchise to win netball's trans-Tasman championship, the battle for the hearts and minds of the talented 13 and 14-year-old schoolgirl athletes has never been more intense.

Netball gets the most media, corporate and broadcast backing but lacks a stage the size of London.

Or a host of competitive nations.

After promising lead-up form including a result always guaranteed to attract the attention of the Kiwi public - a win over Australia - the Ferns faltered on that big stage, losing 1-0 to Team Great Britain on Thursday in a match that drew strong media interest.

This morning the women's Black Sticks hit the Olympic fray with a mouth-watering opener against well-matched rivals Australia.

The 2008 Olympic Games was a disaster for the Black Sticks.

After losing all six games to finish last in Beijing, Sparc (now known as Sport New Zealand) slashed the women's funding and threw more cash at the national men's side instead.

Five months later, the women's team had a new coach at the reins in former Australian men's assistant Mark Hager and things quickly began turning around.

The following year at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Hager's side won all four of their group games, beat England in the semifinal and lost a gripping gold medal match against Australia's Hockeyroos.

They would do even better at the 2011 Champions Trophy - hockey's biggest tournament outside the Olympics and World Cup - sneaking a bronze with a last-minute goal and getting one up on the men's team by becoming the first Kiwi side to achieve a podium finish at the prized tournament.

The feats have fired them into this year's Olympic medal reckoning and unless the Ferns were able to shock one of the greatest footballing nations overnight, it's the Black Sticks who look to have the best opportunity to win the women's team sport battle.

There's a lot riding on it for hockey.

Unlike football, which receives millions of dollars from powerful world body Fifa, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) does not have money to dole out to national organisations.

Life for hockey players is also far from glamorous.

Take Stacey Michelson for example. The 21-year-old Black Stick from Whangarei was named world young-player-of-the-year in 2011.

Were she a footballer, that kind of accolade would certainly propel her into a prestigious, professional contract in Europe.

Football Ferns captain Rebecca Smith is one of 13 players in our Olympic women's squad on a professional contract - and one of those, Hayley Moorwood, plays for top English women's club Chelsea.

Amateurism in minority sport is just as tough for the likes of rowing medal contenders Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown too - and it's highly unlikely either the Ferns or the Black Sticks will get close to matching the rowers' achievements in London over the next week.

But, due to the depth of Kiwi rowing, predominantly male crews, it's a sport which does enjoy serious funding.

National body Rowing New Zealand received $6.475 million from Sport New Zealand last year.

Pre-existing 2012 investments, for high performance only, weigh in at $4.32m - more than any other New Zealand sport - with $500,000 of additional investment.

Add to that a $1.3m government loan to Rowing NZ after $2.2m was lost hosting the 2010 world championships at Lake Karapiro.

Taking nothing away from the women's pair, it's the kind of funding hockey can only dream of - although hockey certainly does not go empty-handed when it comes to funding from Sport NZ whose chief executive is former men's Black Stick Peter Miskimmin and who also acts as a national selector.

This year the national women's hockey team received $1.2m in high performance funding.

If that's to continue or improve, achieving golden girl status over the next week will be essential.

Fairfax Media