In a move to help New Zealand’s top sportswomen into careers once their playing days are over, SKY TV is opening its doors to our current crop of female stars.
Ruby Tui wants to do this right.
She knows that she and her “old Black Ferns sister” Honey Hireme are about to become trailblazers in the field of sports broadcasting in New Zealand.
Both Hireme, the dual international playing league for the Warriors in the NRL women’s premiership this season, and Tui have just been contracted as regular commentators in the SKY Sport team. They’ll both juggle television work with their high-profile playing careers.
“I think it’s really important that Honey and I get this relationship right,” Black Ferns Sevens star Tui says. “Not just for us, but for future sportswomen.
“We’re trying to move things forward for female rugby players and for other sportswomen who can give their insight into what they do – insights that we just don’t hear enough of. We will be the first of many, I believe.”
The others aren’t too far behind. In fact, the rabbit-warren like hallways of SKY TV’s Auckland headquarters may soon be teeming with female sports stars, who are given the chance to build skills outside of their playing spheres.
The “crusade” is the brainchild of SKY’s new chief executive, Martin Stewart, who wants to give jobs in his organisation to a multitude of sportswomen.
“We’re looking to bring in female athletes who are training and playing now, and give them jobs which will allow them to do things with us – but work in a flexible way that also allows them to train,” he says.
“Hopefully it will lead them into a career when their playing days end.”
Most of those women will be on the other side of the camera – learning to become camera operators or working in the graphics, production, finance or communications teams.
SKY’s new sports relations manager, Cathryn Oliver (whose role is also to champion women’s sport), has been talking to the CEOs of sports around the country to find sportswomen who could be guided into new careers alongside their sport. She’s not yet certain how many will be recruited.
“We’re looking at where we can offer suitable roles for current female athletes that will empower them,” she says.
“We know that high performance athletes have a great ethos – they’re dedicated and they work hard, no matter what they do. And it will also benefit our staff having current sportswomen sitting alongside them.”
Tui, who has a degree in media, is a vocal advocate for elite sportspeople having parallel careers.
“I believe 100 percent that your personal development off the field makes you a better player,” she says. “People can sometimes put all their eggs in the footie basket, but you’ve got to be challenged off the field for your mental health, and to grow completely.”
This boost for women in sport comes as SKY this week inflated its sports coverage from four to 12 channels, including a 24/7 sports news channel.
Englishman Stewart, a talented runner at school, has an interesting past with sports organisations – he was CFO of the Football Association in the UK, and was on the board of the organising committee for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.
But women’s sport is particularly close to his heart.
At this year’s Halberg Awards, Stewart sat next to former Black Ferns captain Rochelle Martin, who explained that she’d also worked as a firefighter during most of her international rugby career.
He sat next to White Ferns captain Amy Satterthwaite at the New Zealand Cricket Awards. “I asked her how many of the Ferns are full time, and she said maybe four or five,” he says.
“And that all really got me thinking about ‘So how do we make a difference for sportswomen?’”
SKY Sport recently put funding behind the Kiwi Ferns, so they can play more fixtures this year, and Stewart hinted at some involvement with the Warriors women this season.
“I have to be honest – if you looked at it from a purely financial investment, you wouldn’t do it. But that’s not a reason not to do it,” Stewart says. “The reason to do it is nobody will reach their potential unless the investment is there.”
On the eve of a major season in sevens rugby, Ruby Tui knows she faces a balancing act in the next 12 months heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“My rugby is still my absolute priority,” Tui says. “But SKY is letting me go forward and give this duality a crack.
“It’s a really exciting first step in the right direction in terms of getting an insight into the life of the Black Ferns – and being able to talk to the rest of New Zealand, and the world, about it.”
The talking part comes naturally to 27-year-old Tui. All through her high school years on the West Coast, Tui was a “good yarner”.
It led her to Canterbury University and a degree in media and communications. That was where she discovered rugby – her student accommodation was next door to rugby fields, and it meant she didn’t have to pay for a bus to get to training.
“Then I went and followed my rugby dream, and put media on the back-burner,” she says.
A couple of years ago, she got her first opportunity to get behind a mike at a regional sevens tournament.The Black Ferns Sevens had just arrived home from a tournament in Dubai, and were sitting in the crowd, when the SKY Sport broadcasting team asked for someone to help out with side-line comments.
“All the girls pushed me forward because I’m the big yarner in the team,” Tui laughs. “I did what came naturally, and which turned out to be not too bad.
“That’s how it started and now it’s taking off. It’s taking me to Perth next week, so I’m pretty excited.”
Tui will commentate on the two Black Ferns tests against the Wallaroos – the first is Saturday week – alongside Rikki Swannell, who last year broke new ground calling play-by-play commentary on Sky’s Super Rugby coverage.
“Rikki is amazing. You respect people who go that nth degree to get accurate information,” says Tui (Swannell is renowned for her highly-detailed commentary notebooks). “So I feel really lucky that I get to work with her.”
Tui will also be part of the panel discussion for the upcoming All Blacks tests, and will commentate on both the Farah Palmer Cup and some sevens rugby over the summer.
Her preseason training on the field with the Black Ferns Sevens starts in just over a week – “two months of repetitive sprints” – before the world series kicks off in Colorado in October.
Although one of the doyennes of the Sevens side – entering her eighth international season – Tui expects to suffer from butterflies before she goes on air.
“But that’s one of the cool things I can bring from the rugby field. Nerves are a natural part of anything to do with pressure, but it’s how you manipulate those nerves and train your brain to treat it like excitement and hype that gets you up,” she says.
“I’m paid to deal with that on the rugby field. And it’s a little less physical on camera, so it shouldn’t be too bad. I don’t have to go out and tackle or fend someone else. I just have to talk about my favourite thing in the whole world.”