Comment: The Super Rugby clash at Eden Park was a critical and sporting success but still the undermining of women’s sport persists, writes Ashley Stanley

The media coverage was solid. The players’ build-up looked professional. And the end product on the afternoon was free-flowing and skilful. 

But after the hype of the event waned the following week, Chiefs and Black Ferns midfielder Chelsea Alley posted an honest and raw reflection around what it took for the players to get to Eden Park that evening and the continuous commitment from female athletes to take the field. 

Reading about the dedication and sacrifices in juggling their reality is one thing, but actually living it is a completely different story. 

The majority of responses to Alley’s Instagram post were supportive, reaffirming and heartfelt.

But of course, there were some comments, one in particular from a male rugby player, that missed the mark. As well intentioned as comments and the people making them can be, it doesn’t take away from how ignorant and harmful their views are in keeping the status quo intact. 

The comment was nothing new and reflected one of the most entrenched beliefs around women’s sport. It was the old debate: ‘If you don’t sell out stadiums and have much interest in your games, then don’t expect to be compensated like the men’. 

This kind of thinking presents a couple of flaws. One, it’s condescending, to say the least, to think Alley and women in sport don’t understand basic economics, when it is thrown in their faces on a daily basis.

And two, justifying the disparities in salaries, (support and resources) completely ignores historical factors that explain where the women’s game and sport is, to this day. 

So, let’s rewind a bit so we can understand the causes – and their ongoing impact.

The game of rugby was brought to Aotearoa New Zealand more than 150 years ago by English settlers and was one of many tools in the process of colonisation. It was used in a way to disguise power relations and inequality between settlers and Māori – a facade to ‘level the playing field’. 

From there, rugby started to pick up across the country and grew in popularity; unions and structures were formed in New Zealand society around the sport that reflected traits and values that settlers deemed important such as winning, upholding masculinity and control.  

And as you can see today, the leisurely pastime turned into New Zealand’s national sport. Investment in terms of unions, entities and influential people’s time, effort, money and resources have been poured into the men’s game ever since. 

In comparison, the first recorded women’s rugby game (with altered rules) occurred 20 years after the game was introduced in New Zealand. In 1915 the original match between females involving tackling was played as entertainment at half time during a men’s game. But it wasn’t until more than 60 years later, in 1980, that the first women’s provincial game was played. 

Being discriminated against based on gender (and ethnicity) has deliberately been intertwined in New Zealand’s (rugby) history from the beginning. Women trying to play rugby were met with hostility, blatant lies around health and wellbeing effects and sexism.

And yet, with all these past injustices and their impacts that are still prevalent in the sport today, the women’s game and players are not only expected to provide the same quality of rugby as the men, but they have to prepare for training and matches the same way too – even though most of them work full-time and/or study.

On top of their hectic schedules, the Blues and Chiefs women’s players somehow mustered up the energy to do it all with a ‘grateful’ smile in the lead up, and no financial compensation for their time. 

Like any business, continuously investing in it over time is the key to growth, scaling and evolution. Reinvesting gains will in theory see more returns and the cycle repeats and gets bigger – public interest grows, crowds increase, and more money is circulated.  The men’s game has had this for over 150 years. 

But the women’s game is somehow meant to deliver the same results with next to no investment, over a similar period of time. 

Please explain to me how that adds up? It doesn’t.

Prime Minister Jacinda Arden mentioned this point in her keynote address at the Captains Lunch last week – a Women in Sport Aotearoa and Trans-Tasman Business Circle event that brings sport and business communities together. She shared a similar, simplified analogy to compare the state of men and women’s sport in general. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Captains Lunch at Eden Park with Women in Sport Aotearoa CEO, Rachel Froggatt (left), and Women in Sport Aotearoa co-founders and co-chairs Sarah Leberman (second from left) and Julie Patterson (right). Photo: Getty Images

She’s not alone in trying to explain some of the reasons for the severe differences. Football Fern Ali Riley recently did the same on the popular ‘I am athlete’ podcast with former NFL players like Brandon Marshall and Chad Johnson, who had similar views. 

People only have to look to the full-time women’s rugby sevens programme to see what is possible, what potential can be turned into when female athletes are consistently invested in.

The skill level and style of rugby has improved significantly since sevens became an Olympic sport at the 2016 Rio Games. 

There is a caveat though, for women’s rugby, when considering the transition from an amateur game into a professional era.

As Chiefs captain and Black Fern Les Elder pointed out in the press conference that evening, mirroring the men’s model is not going to be sustainable for the sport as a whole. Arguably, it’s not working for them either. 

The life-sport balance that grassroots rugby provides is lost in the professional game. So the opportunities to design another way in the women’s space is paramount to make sure the best of both worlds is retained when women’s rugby progresses further. 

That goes right across the board, too. With the burst in popularity and growth in women’s rugby, all levels of the game are trying to adjust and keep up with the demand at pace.

None more so than Auckland’s club rugby scene, where the scores between teams have been more than 100-point differences. 

Even with passionate personnel working tirelessly in the background to carve out a sustainable pathway, the game is trying to catch up with over a 100 years of underinvestment in the span of five years or so. Like the top level in women’s rugby, the grassroots game will be formed and shaped with time. And the right decision makers and funding in the room. 

But how do you get people to invest in the early stages of women’s sport? Boldness in business. 

Economically, women’s rugby and sport provide the lowest risk because the barriers to entry are generally not going to affect an organisation’s bottom line too much – at this stage. But it will stand to make the biggest difference over time. So making the first step to support and invest now will prove favourable in the long term. And if planned well, benefits can be experienced in the short term. 

If you need more convincing, the other common belief around men’s sport supplementing women’s programmes can also be broken down further.

Men’s sport may be responsible for the bulk of the income on sporting organisations’ financial statements, but the men are also the highest expense. Even before the global pandemic hit. 

Costs outweigh income for rugby and most sports, including cricket and football, in New Zealand. So even the men’s version rarely makes any profit for their sports. Therefore the idea of selling out stadiums to determine the value of women’s sport doesn’t necessarily stack up on the business front either. 

Despite the negative attitudes towards women’s sport, there are some signs of positive movement in this space.

The sold-out Captains Lunch at Eden Park is one of them. If only half of the 400 crowd signed up to get more information around the three women’s World Cups coming to New Zealand in the next two years, alongside the IWG Women and Sport conference, then that will be a great outcome.  

Minister of Sport and Finance Grant Robertson at a sold out Captains Lunch at Eden Park. Photo: Getty Images

The postponed Rugby World Cup 2022 sponsorship packages are yet to be relaunched but the $5k price tag for a corporate box at the Eden Park games and 100 tickets donated to schools for the Cricket World Cup next year is a steal. 

The increase in women’s sport media coverage in New Zealand from 11 to 15 percent over 10 years is not ideal but it’s better than the rest of the world and is heading in the right direction. 

Separate research finds 53 percent of adult New Zealanders see “gender equity in sport” as an important social issue, which is promising.

And the first Super Rugby women’s game in the middle of a pandemic presents future opportunities. 

But as big as these small changes may seem, we need more investment and changes in beliefs if we want to see visible improvements for the young girls and women in our lives. 

We don’t need people to point out the glaringly obvious current state of women’s rugby and sport; we need people to acknowledge how we got here and support us to shape a better future – for everyone.


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