(For a match report on Sunday night’s final in Sydney, click here )
It’s been a right royal time for women’s sport to shine with the hosting of three World Cups in Aotearoa New Zealand over the past 18 months. Here’s my five takeaways looking back, to look forward.
We love a bandwagon
Whether it’s the Black Ferns, Football Ferns, the Wahs or even the Matildas, gosh we Kiwis love jumping onto a good thing.
We jumped onto the Black Ferns last year and after the Football Ferns scored that historic win over Norway in the opening game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup (FWWC), we were all about ‘our Ferns’.
What came next was a groundswell of support for the tournament and the numbers show over 700,000 fans attended matches in New Zealand, which is an extraordinary result crushing FIFA’s fears New Zealand would let the side down.
The reported audience for the Matildas versus England World Cup semifinal peaked at a staggering 11.15 million, smashing all previous television viewing records.
It’s fitting the previous record was for watching Cathy Freeman claim the 400m gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, in the same stadium packed with 75,784 fans to watch the Matildas.
Cometh the hour, women’s sport
Retaining fans who have altered their beliefs because of the bandwagon effect must be prioritised for the NZ Cricket, NZ Rugby and NZ Football to retaining fanbases with no major events on the near horizon.
A number of people commented to me that the FIFIA ticketing system was confusing, so I suspect those who gave up first crack could have added to the attendance records.
For Kiwis who love a walk-up on the day, having no box office at the grounds was a lost opportunity to the games that weren’t sold out.
Generational difference how we see players
Our kids (Max, 7, and Poppy, 5) were fortunate to experience all three World Cups on our shores because of their sports-mad parents, and it’s been an awesome opportunity to view the events through their unfiltered eyes.
My husband and I chose to support the tournaments by going as a family and supporting our Kiwi teams.
At the Cricket World Cup in March 2022, as I hosted a corporate event at the innings break, the kids went out on the pitch running round like crazies.
They thought they’d be playing on the rugby field at half-time as they skipped into Eden Park to watch the opening match of the Rugby World Cup. And what’s been really cool to see is for them, there’s no comparison about this so-called inferior product.
They didn’t see gender. They saw athletes. They saw Cricket, Rugby and Football.
“My favourite is Gossie, Mum,” Poppy told me referring to Sarah Hirini. “But you know I really love Wubie’s hair,” referring to her other favourite, Ruby Tui.
The cascade of these tournaments has created a cultural shift – not only for the younger fans but also those stuck in the wood fans as a consequence of the bandwagon.
The litmus test for my husband was at his weekly (very un-mainstream) martial art class and his fellow male students were talking about the Black Ferns with the same passion and vigour as they would the UFC.
Whether it was Sophie Devine’s 108 against West Indies in the opening game of the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup, Stacey Waaka running circles around her midfield opponents or Jacqui Hand’s cross to Hannah Wilkinson any football player dreams of, they saw magic.
We saw women’s sport.
And when someone asked if you watched “the game”? The overwhelming majority knew what you were talking about.
Whether kids watched at home or live (loaded up on flavoured shave ice) what we have is the wero (challenge) to see the same as kids see. And support it with the language we chose to use.
The power of the collective
In all the World Cups, the players were fighting against each other on the field but fighting for each other off the field.
The 2022 pay equity agreement of the United States women’s team has been the benchmark – not just for other federations but for other industries.
The long embraces between competitors after the whistle in the FWWC have been a talking point.
Yes, there’s the disappointment of the result, but it’s more than that.
It’s knowing that the other player and team have not had the chance to amplify their impact going further into the tournament.
To inspire more young girls and boys to the games they love.
To be taken as seriously as their male counterparts – in performance support, in commercial opportunities, in the visibility of their game.
We’ve come a long way from the Football Association (FA) saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
It’s hard to believe that the same FA that banned women’s football for 50 years from 1921 to 1970 disallowing women’s football on the grounds used by its member clubs now supported the Lionesses in the final.
But as Australian captain and superstar Sam Kerr said as the Matildas lost 2-1 to England in their semifinal: “We need to increase funding across the board.”
Sport as a platform for social change
The twirling of poi is poignant.
It shouldn’t really be a big deal, but when the ICC approved the use of Te Reo Maori in stadia to indicate a FOUR or WHA on the big screen, it was a major first for future hosts and their indigenous peoples.
We have happily paraded the intensity and beauty of haka and waiata for many years at our sporting events and these World Cups have gone a step further.
We have signalled we can celebrate Māori culture through poi and show there’s a place for all in sport and life.
The tournaments (along with the IWG Women and Sport Conference) have also promoted important discussion around equity to take place – whether it’s been pay equity, how to get more women into coaching, support roles and leadership, or basic elements to community sport like having female toilets.
Former Prime Minister Jacinda Arden admitted when New Zealand was successful in the bid to co-host the FWWC, first thoughts went to fixing the toilets or in some cases installing women’s changing rooms.
Not the best look to have our manuhiri, our visiting teams, have to use male toilets and be subjected to that ghastly urinal smell.
The facilities upgrade is part of the legacy of these tournaments, with a $19 million investment from the Government to help 30 facilities around New Zealand.
Sport NZ research shows by the age of 16, there’s a 17 percent gap between male and female participation in sport and recreation in Aotearoa. And by the age of 17, this increases to 28 percent. Ensuring basics like having a safe space to get changed and go to the bathroom are simply non-negotiable in 2023 as a barrier to participation.
In the lead-up to the final Equalize event (presented by New Zealand Story) in Tāmaki Makaurau last week, I was asked why Hollywood actress Natalie Portman was on the card.
Portman, Julie Urham and Kara Norton own Angel City – a Los Angeles-based women’s football team playing in the National Women’s Soccer League, who are captained by Football Ferns captain Ali Riley.
Inspired by the US team’s equity fight and their power to transcend gender barriers and inspire both their country and their own children, the founders are committed to the power of sport through Angel City as a vehicle for social change.
“If you want to spark change, do it with theatre. That’s why sport is so powerful. It’s a spectacle and has the power to chance mindsets in a heartbeat,” said Portman
More mahi to be done…
FIFA has yet to officially confirm pay equity for the next edition of the men’s World Cup in 2026 and women’s World Cup in 2027. This must happen fast.
The situation around the Nigerian and Jamaican (and, by all accounts, the Spanish) teams must be resolved and mediated through appropriate channels if required.
We need more female head coaches and having Sarina Wiegman, coach of the Lionesses, in the final sends a powerful message of possibility.
My son asked me: “Can we go to the hockey World Cup next, Mum?” quite nonchalantly, because why wouldn’t you expect to have more World Cups on your doorstep?
But we don’t need a World Cup to continue to enjoy and value women’s sport.
We need to simply show up and support our wāhine. Like their social media posts and be as supportive as they are of their fellow athletes and social causes. Ask your local rugby club where the girls’ teams are. Get the Weetbix cards and support those who support these women to shine just like we should support those who support our men to shine.
The new annual World Rugby WXV 15s competition will be hosted by New Zealand in October and will see the six top-tier women’s rugby nations battle it out over three weekends in a cross-pool format.
Despite the disappointment of the timing of the WXV around the men’s Rugby World Cup in France, buy a ticket if you can, because it will be great.
Bravo to all those who have played a part in three game-changing World Cups – and thank you.
Thank you for what you’ve done for young girls and boys like my own kids. Through them we see a different future.
You’ve changed the game for the better and the impact goes far beyond the individual sports.