Girls just wanna get paid: Calling time on the undervaluing of women's sport

The Black Ferns' World Cup victory showed the skill and athleticism of female players was the equal of their male ...

The Black Ferns' World Cup victory showed the skill and athleticism of female players was the equal of their male counterparts, with some commentators calling it the best rugby final ever, from both genders.

One weekend, two cracking games of rugby. Two rousing hakas; two nail-biting wins; two blistering shows of skill. The difference? One world champion team earns millions, the other is largely passionate women taking time out from day jobs as cops, firefighters and graphic designers.

The Black Ferns' victory against a paid England team at last weekend's Women's Rugby World Cup has earned them unprecedented media and public attention. The team dominated newspaper front pages and, for the first time, the players are being recognised in the street. It seems extraordinary for a team that already had four World Cups to its name – one more than their superstar male counterparts.

And the disparity got people talking. As much as the lack of a professional pay packet, it's the little things that speak volumes about the relative value placed on women's sport. While the All Blacks and Super Rugby teams fly business, the female world champions were in economy.

Then there was the girl who couldn't find a store selling Black Ferns jerseys, and the woman who wanted a full-family set, only to discover they didn't make men's sizes. As if it were inconceivable that blokes could be fans too.

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Coming in the same week as a survey concluding female Kiwi workers are paid 16 per cent less than men for doing the same job, the revelations prompted calls for the rugby powerhouses to be paid. But the Black Ferns' situation is just a symptom of a bigger issue – the fact women's sport continues to be a poor cousin in terms of financial support.


Traditionally, the argument has gone something like this: women's sport is boring – they're not as fit or fast or skilled as the men. Why are they not as fit or fast or skilled? Because they don't get the same sponsorship, training and coaching support. Why don't they get the same sponsorship, training and coaching support? Because they don't have the same television coverage and media profile. Why don't they have the same television and media coverage? Because it's boring and no-one wants to watch them. And round and round we go.

The Black Ferns' win has challenged those assumptions. They're fit, fast and skilled, and the country stopped to watch them play. While Sky TV would not release New Zealand audience figures, 2.6 million British viewers watched the final – almost half the audience for the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.

And it's not just women's rugby. Around the world, professional women's leagues are proving there is interest in women's sport. Australia has its new Aussie Rules competition and Big Bash women's cricket. England has a women's T20 cricket tournament, a female rugby Six Nations and a women's football league.

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Simon Porter, chief executive of sports agency CSM, says while women's sport still doesn't get the attention it deserves, there is a global groundswell building. The response to the Black Ferns' win is unlike anything he's ever seen. And he should know – his wife Hannah is a former Black Fern who won two World Cups, and is now the team's campaign manager.

"I think the public are slowly waking up."

But in New Zealand, progress to capture that wave of interest is lagging.

Twins Sarah and Rachel Eichler both love football and would like to play professionally. While overseas opportunities are improving for women, Sarah says a New Zealand women's pro competition would motivate her to keep playing. PHOTO: MONIQUE FORD/STUFF

On a chill Wednesday night, about 150 beanies and down jackets line up to watch Hutt Valley High and Wellington Girls' 1st XIs fight to be Wellington's top girls' college football team.

This is serious. When a black and gold player hits the turf, "Yellow card" bleats ripple through the Girls' College supporters. "Bloody cheaters", the Hutt Valley crowd retorts.

"Oh my god, oh my god," cry breathless Girls' College players, mid hug-spin, as they take out the match 2-0.

On the sidelines, Rachel and Sarah Eichler are just here for the love of the game – the 14-year-old twins attend Wellington East and play for Wellington United. Rachel reckons it's sad that crowds are smaller at women's games.

"There's not as much publicity about women. We watched a bit of the under-18s World Cup, but you don't know when they're playing."

She thinks opportunities for women are improving, and she could play professionally, if she trains hard and goes to an American club.

Sarah isn't so sure. What if there was a professional competition here in New Zealand, I ask. "Like the Phoenix?" she beams. "That would be cool. Because then you would actually be motivated to keep going with football. Because it would be an easier goal."

There, in a nutshell, are two key reasons women's sport remains a poor cousin in New Zealand.

The Silver Ferns are our second biggest sporting brand, but Netball NZ earns one-tenth what rugby does in sponsorship. PHOTO: PHOTOSPORT

Tennis New Zealand boss Julie Paterson sits down every Saturday with her newspaper and counts the sports stories relating to women. It's a good weekend when there's a 1 to 5 ratio. Often, women's sport accounts for just one in 20 stories. Male and female Olympians get roughly equal billing. Team sports – not so much.

The struggle to fund women's sport reflects unequal media and television coverage and the failure of the sports themselves to market their female players, Paterson says. That then impacts on the ability to get sponsorship, the perceived value of women's sport and the choices of the next generation of players. Which is why she helped set up Women in Sport Aotearoa in March, to push for a better deal for female athletes.

"If you decided, as a business, to develop a new product and you wrapped it in brown paper and put it on a shelf and didn't spend any money on it whatsoever, do you think that product is going to sell? ... There's a bit of a circular argument, of, well, nobody is interested in women's sport. That's actually bullshit. Research shows that people are interested in women's sport, they just can't find it anywhere."

Take netball: the Silver Ferns are the country's second largest sporting brand and netball is our most-played sport. But Netball New Zealand last year earned just $5.2 million in sponsorship, compared with New Zealand Rugby's $55m.

Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie puts the disparity down to unequal media profile. While businesses are realising half the population is female, and they're often make buying decisions, it remains a struggle.

"If you can't be in print and on radio and on TV as much as the person next to you, you're going to find it more difficult."

Former Black Fern and Sky Sport commentator Melodie Robinson has called on NZ Rugby to put its money where its mouth is and investigate a professional women's XV competition. PHOTO: LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

If you're going to pay female athletes, they need a regular gig.

Former Black Fern, now Sky Sport commentator, Melodie Robinson wants New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to consider a professional women's competition – "something new and sexy" – under the Super Rugby banner.

The organisation has a chequered history with the women's XVs game, having axed the domestic competition for a year in 2010. Then Black Fern Farah Palmer, now NZR's first ever female board member, warned the move could kill the game. Even now, only 11 of New Zealand's 26 provincial unions field women's teams.

Robinson says NZR now has great champions for women, but with Australia's Big Bash cricket and new AFL league, New Zealand is "well behind" in opportunities for sportswomen. And the women's game is the only growth area in rugby, so should be seen as a commercial opportunity rather than a cost.

The Black Ferns also need a regular international test window, Robinson says.

"If you don't put money, commitment and time into making these sports grow, nothing will happen. So it is a circular argument. But why don't we just try something?"

New Zealand Rugby's head of women's rugby, Cate Sexton, says the women's game is "a work in progress". Creating her job – and five regional roles – 2½ years ago underlined the organisation's commitment to female players.

Now Sevens is an Olympic sport, attracting Sport New Zealand funding, female players get retainers of $45,000 to $60,000, plus $2000 per international tournament. They have 20 contracted players, compared to 16 for the men. The men's top rate is higher, at $90,000, reflecting overseas competition for top male talent.

Support for the Black Ferns has also risen dramatically, with players now paid $2000 a week when together, adding up to $14,000 to $15,000 this year.

Black Ferns captain Fiao'o Faamausili and Selica Winiata with the Women's Rugby World Cup trophy. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

NZ Rugby is also working to raise the profile of the women's game, including taking a videographer and media manager to Britain to cover the World Cup, Sexton says.

Asked why the Black Ferns travelled economy when the All Blacks and Super Rugby teams travel business, she says the savings allowed greater support in the leadup, and extra days in Ireland to prepare. However, the blokes would never have had to make that choice.

Sexton acknowledges the Black Ferns need better international fixtures – but that has to come from World Rugby. NZR is also considering a professional women's XV competition, she says.

"If you're going to commercialise it there's a fair bit of work to do in that space. I don't see it a long way away, but certainly not in the next year."

As well as getting commercial backing, the challenge is to find a format that works for players who might not want to give up their day jobs, especially if initial earnings are low.

Black Ferns captain Fiao'o Faamausili would not trade her job as a police detective to play rugby fulltime. Instead, she'd prioritise more games, and recognition.

"I wouldn't change what I'm doing right now. I know this is the career that will set me up at the end of it."

Porter says everyone agrees women's sport needs more money, but throwing cash at individuals isn't necessarily the answer. You also need better coaches, better competitions and better international fixtures. But sitting around waiting for money to flow in is also not an option.

"They just have to do it, the likes of the rugby union and NZ Cricket. They're just going to have to front up – a bit of a 'build it and they will come'."

Big hitter Suzie Bates is one of only a few team sportswomen outside netball making a living from her sport, thanks to increased retainers from NZ Cricket and new semi-professional women's leagues overseas. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Paterson holds up New Zealand Cricket as a model of what's possible. After a comprehensive review, the board last November admitted it had neglected the women's game based on cost, and a perceived lack of interest. "We were wrong," they said.

Chief operating officer Anthony Crummy says the organisation realised it was simplistic to say the White Ferns earn less broadcast revenue so deserve less investment. NZ Cricket has since increased the number of women in governance, upped the number of player contracts from 10 to 15 and trebled retainers in some cases, meaning top players now earn $45,000-$50,000, including match fees.

They've extended ANZ's sponsorship to include the White Ferns, started promoting the White Ferns and Black Caps together, and seen an 11-12 per cent rise in girls playing the game.

The international body has also manned up, increasing Women's Cricket World Cup prize money from $200,000 to $2 million, and paying for the White Ferns to travel business class.

Cricket big-hitter Suzie Bates has benefited from those changes, and the nascent global women's leagues.

Having grown up with two brothers, she always played with the blokes and thought nothing of it. But she quickly realised her representative career would be a short one. Unlike the boys she'd played with, she'd have to get a job.

But in the 11 years she's played for the White Ferns, the women's game has changed from a weekend hobby to a fulltime job.

Tennis is one of the few sports offering equal prize money for men and women. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

She's speaking from England, where she's playing in their T20 competition. She also played in Australia's Big Bash, which was so successful in its first three years that player payments have doubled annually, from $5000 to $10,000 to $26,000 this year.

"It came at a cost, but I think they're reaping the reward. By promoting and investing, revenue has come after that. The more the girls are on TV, the more profile the girls get, the more women want to be involved," Bates says.

While she's now making a living from cricket, not everyone is so lucky, reinforcing the challenge of semi-professional sport. Some players have left full or part-time jobs to take up uncertain contracts. If they're suddenly dropped, or their body can't hack 10 months of competition, their income will change dramatically.

As a youngster, Bates's cricketing hero was Nathan Astle – she only realised there was a women's team at the 2000 Women's Cricket World Cup. She hopes the next generation will instead look up to great sporting women.

"It's not rocket science. You've just got to be willing to invest."

 - Stuff


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