When it comes to women’s rugby, equal pay may be a red herring

With New Zealand’s rugby-playing women cleaning up at today’s World Rugby Awards, the head of New Zealand’s largest sports management agency outlines why pay parity is a red herring and the Black Ferns are the steak knives of our generation.

2017 might just be remembered as a breakout year for women’s sport. A capacity of 24,000 people packed into Melbourne’s Princes Park to watch the first AFL Women’s League match. The Women’s Cricket World Cup took over the back pages of England’s dailies engaging a traditionally conservative sporting nation. And our Black Ferns, statistically the most successful team in international rugby, brought the World Cup back to Aotearoa for the fifth time, defeating England in a final played in Belfast in front of full house of 18,000 spectators and an English TV audience of 2.6 million (almost twice the number of viewers of a typical Premier League match).

Today the Black Ferns were crowned World Rugby Team of the Year – the first time in history that a women’s team have taken the sport’s top honour. Amazing, inspirational and revelatory stuff.

As a result of this cumulative success, the conversation about womens’ sport is hotter than it’s ever been. Which is a good thing – until it’s not. In the immediate afterglow of the Black Ferns’ World Cup victory earlier this year they were the toast of the town and people couldn’t get enough of their story. However, for some reason, the celebratory conversation was taken over by one issue – pay parity.

Mike Hosking, the host of Newstalk ZB’s breakfast show and co-host of TVNZ’s nightly Seven Sharp programme was quick to argue that pay equity, even in sport, is a purely economic issue. You get out what you put in, simple as that, move on please. It’s an argument that makes sense at the most basic level and it’s a line that many observers of sport, and the business of sport, perpetuate because it’s easy to grasp. To wit: Why should people receive more than they are worth?

Yes, it makes sense at a basic level, but it is far from a basic issue. That’s why, ultimately, any assertion that worth and remuneration in this context is a causational relationship is wrong. It is a philosophy that fundamentally fails to ask the right questions. It’s wrong because pay parity is ultimately a red herring.

I don’t profess to know all the answers, but I do believe that over the course of my career in sports law and sports management I have garnered many insights regarding the actual issues confronted by athletes, sporting organisations, boards (one on which I sit), administrators and the public.

Aldora Itunu in the Black Ferns’ World Cup semi-final victory over USA. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

When it comes to women’s rugby in particular this should not be framed as a pay issue, but as an investment issue. Whilst it is human nature for anyone to say they want more money in their own back pocket, if you take the time to ask people involved in women’s rugby, top of their priority list would be increased investment: investment in competitions, investment in coaching, investment in investigating which corporate entities might in turn be prepared to invest.

Pay parity alone does not give our women the same opportunities to grow, develop and blossom in the same way our national game provides for the boys. This is the point at which the personal economic argument loses its appeal. To truly measure the economics you actually need to first have something to measure. Mike Hosking, and many others, point to the fact that the women’s game doesn’t attract sponsors or paying spectators – and currently, it doesn’t. But if you don’t give something oxygen, don’t give something the chance to breathe, then it will never grow. In straight economic terms, if you don’t spend money how are you ever going make money?

And now for the steak knives. Sponsorship rights can at times be a little confusing. Bodies like New Zealand Rugby have multiple properties (read: teams) which they sell to sponsors. Lots of people want the All Blacks because the All Blacks are everywhere. Which means access to eyeballs – lots and lots of eyeballs. Eyeballs equal money. The Māori All Blacks, the All Blacks 7s, the Black Fern 7s, the New Zealand Under 20s, and the Black Ferns? Well, yes, they too have an audience, but it pales in comparison to the original All Blacks brand.

Sarah Goss on the World Series sevens circuit (Photo: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)

What New Zealand Rugby does (and this point is pretty much true of every sporting body of the same ilk) is bundle up some or all of these properties (teams) as a way to increase the perceived value of the sponsorship. Sponsor the All Blacks and we will throw in the 7s teams, the Māori All Blacks and the Black Ferns! In other words, buy the Kitchen Whizz and get a free set of steak knives.

But maybe the Black Ferns need to be the original purchase, not the added incentive.

For a variety of reasons (most of which are made in this article) we need sporting bodies to at least attempt to let female properties stand on their own two feet rather than treating them as add-ons to men’s teams. When they are treated like this they are rarely leveraged in a way that grows awareness and increases engagement. We need to open minds to the possibility that competing companies could sponsor the separate teams. And why not? Company A’s sponsorship, marketing and activation strategy could be completely different to Company B’s. If we can accept that they are separate teams (read: properties) with separate strengths, why should it matter?

Investment is the only growth strategy in sport and there are plenty of examples where simple economics scream ‘don’t!’ but good sense screams ‘do!’ Top of that pile in New Zealand would be the respective World Rugby Sevens programmes. They cost millions of dollars a year and return very little in monetary terms. However, New Zealand Rugby would rightly say they are justified on the basis that sevens is an Olympic sport and its global reach is good for the growth of the game. Some inside the organisation would insist that they are prepared to spend that money in the hope that eventually the sport will become a new source of revenue through an increased World Series and one-off tournaments like the postponed event in China this year. Wouldn’t that be fantastic if the return on investment came off, particularly if it pays off for both the women and the men?

Fiao’o Faamausili lifts the World Cup. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Equally, wouldn’t it be fantastic if New Zealand Rugby took the plunge and invested in a women’s Super Rugby competition that was played in its own window and had the chance to stand on its own two feet from a sponsorship, broadcast and spectator point of view? The French and English unions have taken that plunge and are making a real effort to grow awareness and engagement in their game. The results have been incredibly positive – 3.4 million tuned in on French TV to watch the Women’s World Cup semi-final between England and France.

From where I sit I believe sporting chief executives have got an absolute free pass to give it a go. I appreciate they may have to find new monies to make it so, but I also know that money is there, if only it was given a chance to be put front and centre in a new direction. The naysayers might end up being right – maybe it will fail, maybe it won’t stack up over time – but history will say they did the right thing and were right to give it a go.

And who wouldn’t want the opportunity to leave a legacy, change the narrative and always be remembered to have been the leader in a new, more independent direction for women’s sport. We can all stay hung up on the convenience of the pay parity debate, or we can forget the steak knives and invest in what we really need.

Besides, you need something much blunter to cut through red herrings.

Simon Porter is the New Zealand CEO of CSM Sport & Entertainment

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