The rarest piece of NZ sporting merchandise? A Black Ferns jersey

It’s literally impossible to buy Black Ferns merchandise. Madeleine Chapman still tried, and got very angry in the process.

You can learn a lot about me by looking in my wardrobe. The first thing you’ll learn is that I dress poorly and it’s a real issue. The second thing you’ll learn is who I support. Celine Dion, Haim, The National, Wellington Basketball, Samoa Cricket, the University of Nebraska Huskers, KFC. You’ll learn that I’m Samoan by clocking my Fahitua Family Reunion t-shirt because only Samoans make merch for their massive family reunions.

What you won’t learn is that I’m a big fan of the Black Ferns because there’s no such thing as Black Ferns merchandise.

Not in an abstract way like how there’s no such thing as a free lunch – there’s literally no such thing as Black Ferns merchandise. Check the official New Zealand Rugby store if you’re unsure. Once there, you’ll find 159 pieces of branded All Blacks gear available for purchase and one (1) item of Black Ferns merch. That one item is trading cards, which show three All Blacks on the front but presumably have one or two Black Ferns feature in each pack.

I learned this the same way many others have learned: trying to buy a Black Ferns jersey. After searching Google for “black ferns jersey”, the top result from Rebel Sport directed me to “Womens All Blacks Jersey”, an All Blacks jersey in a women’s cut. The links to the official All Blacks merchandise store led to a Black Ferns Sevens jersey. I’m a fan of the Black Ferns Sevens but despite the similar name, they’re very much a different team, and I wasn’t searching for a Sevens jersey. Could it really be that the five time World Champion Black Ferns didn’t have any merch?

Yes, it could. An email asking New Zealand Rugby just that received this grim response: “The only Black Ferns jerseys available at this stage are Black Ferns sevens. However, we are looking at producing a broader range of Black Ferns items which will hopefully be available sometime soon. Please keep a look out on our website for future information.”

“A broader range” suggests there’s currently a limited range of Black Ferns merch, which is untrue. There is currently no range.

It might feel like a molehill, but the complete lack of merchandise for sale is indicative of the neglectful mountain that is New Zealand Rugby’s treatment of the women’s game. Even the implication that Black Ferns Sevens jerseys count as Black Ferns merch shows that women’s sport is considered as one, and not as the separate strengths they are.

There are very few, if any, rugby teams in New Zealand that do not offer merchandise to their fans.  The Auckland Blues – an objectively terrible rugby team – have over 30 pieces of merch available. The Manawatu Turbos – a provincial side in the Mitre 10 Cup – offer 22 supporter gear options, including basketball singlets, bucket hats, and polo shirts. Eden Rugby – the local club down the road from my house – has supporter t-shirts, hoodies, hats, and socks for sale.

Here is a random selection of All Blacks branded items for sale from the official merch store:

All Blacks Puffer Jacket
All Blacks Memory Foam Pillow
All Blacks Fountain Pen
All Blacks Whistle Bottle Opener Keyring
Four different All Blacks ID tags for pets
All Blacks Turf iPhone Cover with Logo
All Blacks Turf iPhone Cover with Wordmark
26 other All Blacks phone cases
All Blacks bib set for babies

If all this is for sale, Black Ferns jerseys definitely should be

Turns out, merchandise for the Black Ferns, the most successful rugby team in the world, is a rare collector’s item. I had seen only two people (outside of current or former players) with the coveted jersey. That meant I had two chances to buy one secondhand. Those two people were the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and ZM radio host Clint Roberts. I went to Clint first.

Roberts had been a vocal supporter of the Black Ferns for a while, so decided to cash in all his favours in the lead up to the double header at Eden Park last month. “I had tried to buy one but all I could get was a women’s size small Black Ferns Sevens jersey from last year. So I thought I’d get it from the merch tent at the game but you couldn’t buy a single piece of Black Ferns merch.”

Roberts called around and managed to borrow a game jersey from the team’s kit bag. Yes, the Black Ferns themselves loaned one of their jerseys to him to wear during the match. He took a photo in it, posted to Instagram, and returned the jersey when the final whistle blew.

The following week, Roberts and co-host Bree Tomasel held “a bit of a peaceful protest slash complain session on the radio.” New Zealand Rugby didn’t get in touch with answers, but some of the players heard and sent the hosts two retired jerseys. They also sent a Black Ferns cap, something I’d never seen before. And with those two items, Clint Roberts from ZM became the most supportive Black Ferns fan in the country. He refused to sell me his jersey, but was equally pissed off at the complete lack of items available. “Don’t you think if you’re a young girl and you want to play rugby, you should be able to wear the jersey that the players you like are wearing?” I agreed, though I wasn’t really listening once he said no to my purchase offer.

You vs the jersey she told you not to worry about

As well as asking Roberts for his, I had posted signs around Eden Park searching for owners of Black Ferns jerseys. I even made my own knock-off jersey with a budget black t-shirt and some fabric paint. I browsed Trademe and only found a Silver Ferns rugby jersey, which I bought. It’s a great jersey, but how did netball fans get rugby merch before rugby fans?

The prime minister was my last hope. I sent her a message on Instagram asking if her Black Ferns jersey was for sale. It wasn’t. “I was given my jersey by the Black Ferns at their pre game jersey ceremony,” she said. “So sadly, I consider it priceless.” My last hope was crushed. But only for a moment. “I might still be able to help you get one though. Would you like me to?”

I’d done it. If anyone was going to be able to get a Black Ferns jersey for me, it was the leader of our nation. I felt like I’d been let into the club while all my friends had been denied. This has literally never happened to me but I assume all the girls I’ve seen experience this felt as privileged as I did in that moment.

While I waited for Jacinda Ardern to put in her request with New Zealand rugby, I put in my own. I asked to speak to someone who could answer my questions, namely “why is there no Black Ferns merchandise (including jerseys) available for fans to buy?” and “when will there be Black Ferns merchandise available to buy?” I didn’t get an interview. Instead, I was sent a press statement attributed to Chief Operating Officer Nicki Nicol that concluded ““Fans can look out for more Black Ferns merchandise to be released before the end of the year.” Again, the “more” suggests that there is currently something, anything, for sale. There is not.

I asked the minister for sport, Grant Robertson, what his thoughts were on the matter. He’s been a staunch advocate for women in sport but sadly his response was a press statement that read eerily similar to the one sent by New Zealand Rugby.

For all I know, this is more an issue with the sponsors than with New Zealand Rugby. Adidas make the playing jerseys and therefore the supporter gear. But even so, New Zealand Rugby is a behemoth organisation and they almost always get what they want. If they really wanted to promote the Black Ferns, they would. And how hard is it to print flags? Posters? Anything? People like to point to the (lack of) commercial viability in women’s sport as a reason it’s not promoted. But when I can buy an ugly $90 phone case made out of literal turf with the All Blacks logo on it and I can’t buy a single item with the Black Ferns logo on it, the commercial viability argument doesn’t stand. You can’t say people don’t want to buy something when you refuse to sell it to them.

While writing this, a parcel was delivered to me at work (I’d actually already written a different ending when the courier showed up). It was a Black Ferns jersey. The note attached was signed by the Black Ferns manager and thanked me for my interest and support. “We heard about your search for a team jersey. While there are not currently any in market, we’ve grabbed one out of the team supply.

“We hope you wear the jersey with pride.”

I will. I only wish others could too.

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