Having played her part in the unprecedented success of the Rugby World Cup, Kiwi Katie Sadleir has come home to speak at the world’s largest women in sport conference this week, on the importance of male allies in female sport, she tells Merryn Anderson.

As Katie Sadleir addresses an audience of over 1200 at the IWG Women and Sport conference in Auckland today, she can be proud it was partly her legacy that led over 150,000 people to stadiums to watch the Rugby World Cup. 

And while she knows the tournament won by the Black Ferns on Saturday has been a seismic leap forward for the game, she also knows it didn’t just happen overnight. 

Kiwi Sadleir is now the chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Games Federation, a position she’s held for a year, after her five year stint as the general manager of women’s rugby at World Rugby. 

And while she’s no longer professionally involved in rugby, Sadleir has still closely followed the groundbreaking Rugby World Cup 2021. 

“People who hadn’t watched women’s rugby before, they’ve been watching it, they’ve been excited by it,” she says. 

Sadleir was part of a team who developed strategies to close the gap between the top and bottom-seeded teams, and she was delighted to see some of the small margins at the tournament. 

“Both from the on-field performance of the teams and then thinking about the tournament as a whole, it really has stepped up, which you’d expect over four years from the last World Cup,” she says. 

“The branding, the engagement, the way the competition has been profiled globally is really, really encouraging for the future of the game.” 

A world record 42,579 fans came through the gates of Eden Park on Saturday to watch the Black Ferns beat England’s Red Roses – breaking the mark set at the opening game a month ago. 

But Sadleir insists it didn’t just happen overnight and a lot of work went into ensuring the tournament lived up to its potential. 

“When I got onboard, I spent a lot of time going round the major unions and minor unions, just listening to what people’s ambitions and dreams were for the women’s game,” she explains. 

Rugby sevens had made its debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics and people were talking more about the women’s game. 

“I came into rugby at a really interesting time, in terms of a transformation of something that was going in the right direction. But I was going in to fast-track that, and had five amazing years,” Sadleir says. 

“You’re seeing some of the trends that are happening, seeing the number of women who are now in CEO positions or presidents of unions. It’s just unprecedented from where we were from rugby’s perspective six years ago. I think we’re seeing some great changes in the right direction, but that’s not to say there can’t be more.” 

Sadleir grew up in Canada, and moved to New Zealand for her last year of high school. She competed in the 1986 Commonwealth Games when she was 21 in solo synchronised swimming and won a bronze medal. 

Having a background in high performance sport, Sadleir’s experience made her appointment as chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation very special. 

Katie Sadleir flew home to NZ for 24 hours to witness the Black Ferns make history on the opening day of the Rugby World Cup. Photo: World Rugby/Getty Images

Sadleir came on board for the 2022 Birmingham Games and is already looking to the 2026 Victoria Games, but also the Commonwealth Youth Games next year in Trinidad and Tobago. 

“It’s about more than Games,” she says. “We are acutely aware of the importance of using sport to drive social change around the world.

“I am a firm believer of whether it’s personal leadership, community bonding, economic development and pride or just connecting the Commonwealth for that magic period of time.  

“One of our absolute clear ambitions is to make sure the Commonwealth Games is relevant, exciting, enticing and engaging for young generations.” 

More medals were handed out to women than men at the Birmingham Games, a movement Sadleir supports. 

“One of the things we’re really proud of that distinguishes us from perhaps other multisport events is our absolute passion for inclusivity and diversity,” she says. 

Birmingham also had a unique schedule, with finals of women’s cricket, netball and hockey all on the last Sunday of the Games. 

“We looked at lessons from previous Games and other multisport events where sometimes you go and watch these events and on the last day of the event, there’s all male events, so it kind of gives the fan the perception they’re saving the best for last,” Sadleir explains. 

“While I don’t have a title that’s ‘woman chief executive’, I am a woman chief executive on a global international organisation that is absolutely committed to gender parity.” 

Sadleir (right) and Commonwealth Games Federation president Dame Louise Martin brought the Birmingham Commonwealth Games to the world. Photo: Getty Images

Sadleir will speak at the IWG Women and Sport world conference – the world’s largest gathering to advance gender equity and equality in sport – on the first of four days today. She’s on a panel discussing male allies and their importance for women’s sport, so many of who worked alongside her at World Rugby. 

“It’s a really refreshing programme and I think it will really stimulate the globe in terms of looking at issues facing women’s participation in sport and recreation,” Sadleir says. 

“Between cricket, rugby, football and IWG, New Zealand has certainly made its mark in terms of leadership in women’s sport – there are so many women in leadership positions in New Zealand sport.

“It’s a huge conference with a huge opportunity to have a global impact. What happens this week will probably set the scene for many people in terms of their own careers and what they take back and what they do in their homes around the world.” 

*The IWG World Conference on Women & Sport runs in Auckland this week, a hybrid event with in-person and online attendance. 

Merryn Anderson is a sports writer for LockerRoom. She has a Bachelor in Communications from the University of Waikato.

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