Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Show Them the Money: Women’s Sport Has More Than Proven Itself. Why Is There STILL No Equality?

Sport fanatic Kelly Bertrands riding a high of incredible women’s sport – but off the back of the wildly successful Football World Cup she asks, where to from here – and where the hell is the money?

It’s been a bloody good few years for women’s sport. Off the back of last year’s brilliant Rugby World Cup which saw our Black Ferns blister through the competition, Aotearoa has successfully co-hosted one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

The Football World Cup, despite showcasing a sport many New Zealanders only had a passing familiarity with (there was a LOT of Googling the offside rule up and down the country I’m sure – personally I used the scene from Bend it Like Beckham to great effect), has shone perhaps the brightest global spotlight on wahine hākinakina.

The cold-hard facts: More than two billion – BILLION – people tuned in to watch. Almost two million (1,978, 274) people attended games across Australia and New Zealand, with an average attendance of 30,911 per game – more than 9000 above the 2019 average.

A survey released by brand tracking platform Tracksuit confirms that fans want more, and are more likely to support a brand who backs women’s sport than men’s – with 31% of respondents likely to purchase from a brand that actively promotes and supports sports and individual athletes, to 45% of respondents likely to purchase from a brand that actively promotes and supports women’s sports and female athletes.

As a writer with a long-held passion for sport (my nickname at my last magazine job was ‘Yay Sports!’) I’ve also noticed a huge difference in media coverage. While years ago I would have to fight for sport-related stories to be included in the mag unless it was an All Black wedding or Silver Fern engagement, the vast majority of my freelance work for my old mags has been sport, now enthusiastically included because yes, it helps sell magazines, even when it’s not Richie McCaw’s wedding.

And while they didn’t make it out of pool play, the Football Ferns won a place in the nation’s hearts with that brilliant win against Norway in the opening game courtesy of a brilliant Hannah Wilkinson goal (pictured) demonstrating to a rugby-hardened New Zealand that there’s room for more than just an oval ball in our arsenal of sporting loves.

As far as the public is concerned this is a popular, inspiring and lucrative era for women’s sport. But sporting organisations themselves have a long way to go in giving the athletes, the fans and the sponsors what they want.

The total prize money pool for the women’s world cup sits at around NZ$185m. The men’s is $743m, with FIFA President Gianni Infantino dismissing the idea of equal prize money, instead imploring sponsors to pay more – this despite the fact the women’s world cup pulled in $962m of revenue. I’d argue that shifting the blame to sponsors is an absolute cop-out – rather, it’s up to governing bodies to be creating opportunities for equity, rather than shifting the blame elsewhere.

I felt a deep wave of anger when I attended a couple of games when I saw huge advertisements for FIFA’s partnership with the UN – ‘Unite for Gender Quality’ blared the signage. FIFA also have a host of other issues to contend with when it comes to backing their women’s competitions – remember when they wanted ‘Visit Saudi Arabia’ to be a sponsor for the world cup? SAUDI ARABIA, a country with one of the WORST human and women’s rights records on the planet.

It’s not just FIFA though – Rugby Australia has this week come under fire from Kiwi-born star Carys Dallinger for their alleged backtracking on promises made to the Wallaroos.

“You told us flying anything beyond economy was too costly. Then you flew the Wallabies business class on a trip shorter than ours,” she wrote in a post on Instagram.

“You told us full-time contracts were in the pipeline, that there wasn’t enough money to keep the Men in the game, let alone us. Then you paid $5m for an NRL player… We’ve seen the impact that Women’s sport has had on the Australian sporting landscape, thanks to the Matildas. It’s time for the chairman, board and CEO to prioritise the future of Australian Women’s Rugby and allocate adequate resources. It’s time to acknowledge that we are not promoted equally, even on a free platform. The future of our games hangs in the balance.”

And of course our own NZRU has had their fair share of shameful moments, including last year’s insane scheduling clash that saw the All Blacks play against Japan at the same time the Black Ferns were kicking off in their World Cup quarter-final against Wales.

The excuse that “people don’t watch women’s sport” is officially dead. A generation of Kiwi – of all genders – have been inspired by all of our Ferns. There’s truly a sport for everyone now rather than just a ‘netball or bust’ approach – although much credit is due for netball who for years advocated strongly for women’s sport almost solely.

How amazing was it to see young boys cheering on the women soccer players? Kids don’t care about gender – they just want fun and passion. We’re not born with bias, society feeds it to us so we’re conditioned to believe it’s natural – but now, right now, the tide is turning and long-held biases are melting away.

Where to from here? Well, step one – stop calling it “women’s sport”. It’s just sport. Realistically we’re not there so in the meantime, let’s make it a level playing field by referring to it as “men’s” and “women’s”, rather than just assuming it’s the men? This will help the internet bias – for example when you search ‘New Zealand rugby captain’ there is NO mention of Kennedy Simon for the first 10 pages. It takes SEVEN pages to even mention a former Black Fern captain, Dr Farah Palmer, and that mention is from her professional speaking and MC profile.

We also need to invest more time, energy and resources to supporting female athletes at all levels. Things like shoe design – most football boots, for example, are based on male physiology which in turn, studies have shown, is more likely to lead to an increased rate of injuries in female athletes – women are EIGHT times more likely to have Anterior Cruciate Ligament issues (types this former netballer who has had two complete ACL replacements) – and yet female-specific research around this is scarce. More work needs to go in to uniform design – the white short rebellion is a start – for both confidence and performance.

And lets embrace the fact that have now reached the catatyst for sweeping, meaningful change – the point that so many mana wahine fought for for decades. It’s our time to shine.

Yay, sport.

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