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Will women's rugby be the white elephant to break Australia and New Zealand?

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Roar Rookie
17th October, 2022
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We are currently enjoying the biggest Women’s Rugby World Cup to date.

Back in 1991, World Rugby refused to even acknowledge the first edition. It wasn’t until 1998 that the first officially backed World Cup took place, and now we are in the 9th edition, with World Rugby accepting 1991 as the official start.

Since the 2017 edition women’s rugby has gone through a change like the men’s in 1995, putting in place the structures that will shape the game. One big player missing in all the changes has been SANZAAR (South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby, the body which oversees Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship competitions). Because of no counter body to Europe will the next World cup be so open?

While the Six Nations are all going professional in some form or another, as in New Zealand, other nations are less sure of what to do. If a nation goes professional it often comes down to money, but how that money is created is the problem for many nations. For the big income-generating Unions of England, France, and New Zealand adding a professional squad only requires reducing funding to a lower men’s league. For a nation like Canada that can’t be done.

I will look at the top 14 nations (their first test/Number of games) which are:

Sera Naiqama of Australia (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Rest of the World – Australia (1994/59), New Zealand (1990/100), South Africa (2004/56), Fiji (2006/17), Japan (1991/59), USA (1987/126) and Canada (1987/147)

Europe – England (1987/297), France (1982/253), Ireland (1993/188). Italy (1985/166), Scotland (1993/181). Spain (1989/143), Wales (1987/226)

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Games played

Because of the six Nations and European Championships, all but Spain have played more games than any of the other unions. World Cup games make up 49% of Australia’s games, 29% of New Zealand but only 13% of England’s. Not playing enough games is a problem for all but a few teams.

In 2019 Canada, the USA and New Zealand had six games each, of which 4 games were the Super Series. Ireland also had six but were not invited to the Super Series. England had 12 games while France had 11. Australia played four games, twice the amount form 2018.

World Rugby has proposed a few changes to the test games that look much like the nations leagues but worse. First is the creation of the Pacific 4 which will involve New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. This will provide three games more for Australia but it is like the men’s Pacific Cup that gets changed all the time, I don’t know if it will work as the nations have ownership of it.

From 2023 will have three divisions of six teams played in one location. The problem with one location is it doesn’t build the local support as the July or November Tests do. This could result in the only home game Australia and New Zealand play at home each year be one against each other.

The breakdown of the three divisions going on this year would be (World Rankings as of 03/10/22)

Division 1 – England (1), New Zealand (2), France (3), Canada (4), Australia (7), Wales (9)

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Division 2 – Italy (5), USA (6), Ireland (8), South Africa (11), Japan (13), Fiji (21)

Division 3 – Scotland (10), Spain (12), Kazakhstan (15), Samoa (17), Colombia (25), Kenya (26)

While the first two divisions look fine, Scotland and Spain should not be in division three. The other four teams are all about the same level based on World Cup qualifications but Scotland won the final 59 – 3. As the six Nations become more professional over the next World Cup cycle expect it to look worse. Even after this World Cup, it might show up how not including Fiji or South Africa in a Pacific Six Nations as poor judgement.

Crowds

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Attendances are difficult to calculate when it comes to women’s rugby, as it can be hard to find crowd numbers for games. As we saw with the sold-out triple header all seats may have been filled but not even close for any of the games.

The 6 Nations has a set time each year that they play, allowing more tickets to be sold. In the 2022 six nations, Scotland 3988, Wales 4875, Ireland 6113 and England 15836, each set a new record for a standalone game not part of a World Cup. France failed to set a record, but they hold the current world record attendance at 17440 in 2018. Italy’s record is from 2017 at 4113.

England and France generally don’t get less than 10k per game at home. These figures would be able to go towards paying for professional and semi-professional teams, which is key as money is hard to find. With six home games selling 10k tickets at $10, would net England and France $600k a year. While it might not be self-sustaining, it does pay part of the cost. Even if Australia get the same attendance, they could end up with a lot fewer games to sell.

It still has a long way to go to generate the same income for a match day. The triple header on the opening day of the World Cup, ticket prices started at €6 to see the three best teams in women’s rugby in a 50k stadium. Namibia v Uruguay, a low-level game in the men’s version is being played in a 59k stadium, tickets start at €10 (66% more) and you can’t buy a ticket on the site a year out.

At the first sale of France 2023 in April 2021 350,000 tickets sold out in five hours. About 2.5m tickets are expected to be sold for the event possibly breaking the 2015 record of 2,477,805 total tickets. The record attendance for one game though will not be broken which is Ireland v Romania in 2015 at 89267. At the 2017 women’s version, they also broke the total attendance at the games at 45412 (2%) in total. This record will be broken again this year, but is unlikely to get above 10% of the men’s figure at a substantially smaller ticket price.

Fulltime means year-round

Many will be fed up with me pointing out that Super Rugby pays half the wages of the European leagues because they only do half the work. This is going to be mirrored in the women’s game more drastically. While men’s teams, like Chile and Uruguay, survive on one squad, most top nations have at least 60 professional players to call on.

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Women’s rugby is going to need 40+ players to be professional in the coming years if they want to stay at the top. It is one thing to pay people but they also need meaningful club games. We have already shown that internationals only fill up 10-12 weeks for the top teams, so what about the other 30 weeks of the year? These need to be filled with a mixture of games and training.

As the URC does the groundwork to form a women’s league of some sort all Six Nations players will be getting their 20 games a season. Add in the evitable Champions Cup like soccer has done with the Champions League, and you start to see the English team’s improvement mirrored across the Six Nations, South Africa, and probably Spain. At 20 games a season these players will become fully professional.

It will cost Australia and New Zealand a similar fee to keep the same size squad but will they be able to provide the same games to fill the year? Super Rugby Aupiki was four teams and three games, while Super W was six teams and five games. This shows that the Unions are already spending money putting on these games at no extra costs.

Funding via Commerical Partners

Logic says to put the 10 teams together, and have 18 game season, but can the unions afford it? Super Rugby does not have an official airline carrier that could help with free flights like the URC and ECPR have in place. Sometimes it is cheaper to just pay the players and have a few games than lose more money on flights and accommodation trying to get more games. When New Zealand only has 3 games at a high standard it shows where priorities lay.

The Six Nations runs the women’s six nations, just as it does the men’s. Since 1995 European nations have run a competition, this was when World Rugby made the women’s World Cup official. It is essential to understand that it has taken nearly 30 years to get to where it is. This year TikTok made deals with the Six Nations, one of these deals was to become the title sponsor of the women’s tournament, it was their first unique title sponsor.

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Because women’s rugby is also aligned mostly with the men’s teams, they are able to give more money if they want to. If Premiership, URC and Top 14 were to divert 10% of the club’s wage bill to support women’s rugby, Premiership would give about $1m, Top 14 about $1.5m with the URC about %1.1m. Super Rugby on the other hand would only be able to give $500k. $1m over a 40-player squad would be $25k.

Because all the deals are bigger in European rugby it’s not as hard to divert 10% of every deal in the league and union to support women’s rugby. On the other side of the world with international tournaments only just starting and little cross-broader interactions for the men outside of Super Rugby, getting commercial backing will be much harder as unions don’t work together.

Conclusion

I know that women’s rugby is here to stay, and I know it will be a long time before it can pay its way. Even the men’s club games can’t pay their way after nearly 30 years outside of possibly France. To some, it’s the future of rugby, to others it’s another white elephant like USA men’s rugby, but in reality, might it be the straw that finally breaks Rugby Australia’s financial back?

Yes, women love sport, and they do attend games. But will they be interested in going to watch, when they aren’t even sure Super Rugby is worth it?

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