New global women’s rugby competition is a bold step into the future

New global women’s rugby competition is a bold step into the future
South African women compete during the U18 Womens Rugby match between Boland and Western Province on National Womens Day at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, 09 August 2019. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

The launch of a global season for women’s rugby is set to give the sport a platform to attract a wider audience, fan base and, ultimately, money. Will it work?

World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, revealed a bold plan on Tuesday for a new global competition, underpinned by initial investment from its own coffers of nearly R130-million, to boost the women’s game.

The project officially kicks off in 2023 and will comprise three competitions (divisions) – WXV1, WVX2 and WXV3. It’s the kind of clean calendar the men’s game can only envy.

Men’s rugby is mired in conflict over scheduling and club-versus-country tension that is making the transition to an equitable, workable and plausible global calendar challenging, to put it mildly.

The women’s game, which has grown gradually over the past decade, has no such constraints. For almost a century there was no women’s rugby and even though it has been played by enthusiastic amateurs for decades, when it comes to the professional side of the sport, particularly at 15s level, there is a blank canvas to plan the future.

That means the game can be shaped with a clear strategy and growth plan, guided by the likes of World Rugby, with input from broadcasters and commercial partners. There are few obstacles such as a century-old Six Nations or a commercially crucial Rugby Championship to sully the blueprint.

The success of sevens rugby, and the growth of the sport among women particularly because sevens is an Olympic sport, has given 15s a boost as well.

“By establishing a unified international 15s calendar and introducing WXV we are creating a platform for the women’s international teams to compete in more consistent, competitive and sustainable competitions at regional and global level,” World Rugby chairperson Bill Beaumont said.

“At the same time we are growing the profile, fan base and commercial revenue, generating opportunities for women’s rugby through the new Women in Rugby commercial programme.

“This is an ambitious, long-term commitment to make the global game more competitive, to grow the women’s game and support the expansion of the Rugby World Cup (RWC) to 16 teams from 2025 and beyond.”

The outline for the WXV global competition is:

  • A 16-team, three-tier competition set to begin in 2023;
  • World Rugby to invest £6.4-million (R130-million) in its first two years;
  • A unified international 15s calendar comprising two playing windows on an annual basis, optimising player welfare and performance;
  • A groundbreaking global international 15s calendar set to accelerate development of the women’s game ahead of an expanded RWC 2025;
  • Calendar reflects World Rugby’s long-term commitment to establishing a highly competitive and global test calendar to elevate standards;
  • WXV will be supported by a new Women in Rugby commercial programme; and
  • WXV offers hosts diversified revenue-generating opportunities.

The three WXV competitions will feature 16 teams and will be hosted within a new September-October global competition window, except in a RWC year.

Teams will qualify annually into the WXV competitions courtesy of their finishing positions within the respective existing annual regional competitions, such as the Women’s Six Nations. These regional competitions, played within a new regional window, must be completed by June each year. 

To support the implementation of the WXV competitions, an annual cross-region competition will be established which will act as one of the principle qualification routes for the top tier of WXV.

The brutal truth is that the women’s game in South Africa is an expense for SA Rugby, not an earner. Which is why there has been a clear strategy to turn that around.

This will feature Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. This represents a huge step forward, providing a regular annual international competition for these teams, where previously there was none.

Springbok women prioritised

Under the new proposal, the Springbok Women could be in line to qualify for WVX2 as one of the top teams from Oceania, Asia and Africa, or WXV3 as the winner of a playoff match between an African and South American team.

SA Rugby’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, made it clear last month that the Springbok Women have replaced the Blitzboks as the organisation’s second-most-important team in the organogram.

That means more resources will be transferred to their needs, which has already started with the appointment of former Ireland international Lynne Cantwell as high-performance manager for the women’s programme.

But it’s still a long road ahead. SA Rugby’s annual income of more than R1-billion is exclusively derived from the men’s game, and the bulk of that – 50% broadcast income and 64% sponsorship income – is directly from the Springbok men’s team.

The brutal truth is that the women’s game in South Africa is an expense for SA Rugby, not an earner. Which is why there has been a clear strategy to turn that around by embracing women’s rugby with an eye on future success and therefore income, rather than shunning it.

SA Rugby recently launched women’s domestic tournaments with a Premier League and a First Division to create needed competition. But challenges remain, such as a lack of female schools’ rugby, as Erasmus pointed out at a recent media briefing.

“We don’t have the correct pathways at school level,” he said. “We’re working closely with the South African Schools Rugby Association to address the matter.

“There are about 200,000 participants – girls and boys – in the Get Into Rugby programme. The boys continue to have opportunities as they get older. The girls, unfortunately, do not. My youngest daughter is nine and she’s so keen to play rugby, but she’s just falling in with the boys at her school.

“One thing we got right is the youth training programmes, which cater for girls of 14 years and older. We see the results from these programmes when the girls get to under-20 level or, in the case of some, the Springbok Women group.

“Nothing is happening between nine and 14. That is something we will look into with [the schools rugby association] to help create proper pathways. There’s a massive, massive gap there.”

But at least there are now clear pathways emerging for local and international players to follow. The Springbok Women have 40 players in camp in Stellenbosch currently, and with obvious targets to focus on at both 15s and sevens level, there has never been a more opportune time for the sport.

“It is one thing training and another thing playing, and obviously the more matches one plays the better you can become at your craft,” said Springbok Women coach Stanley Raubenheimer.

“We’ve seen with our other national women’s teams such as the Proteas cricket and netball sides, as well as Banyana Banyana (soccer), that the more they play the more they improve.”

Build it and they will come

With avenues for growing the sport in the men’s game bottlenecked, the obvious answer is to improve the women’s game in terms of appeal and competition structure, to grow the sport. For this vision to be sustainable it will require a level of fan, sponsor, media and broadcast engagement that simply isn’t there at the moment.

But all women’s sport has faced the same obstacles over decades and many are thriving as barriers and stigmas are broken.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been the most successful in that prize money at the Grand Slams is equal to the men’s game while the rest of the tour offers huge rewards for elite players.

The Ladies Professional Golfers’ Association is also a powerful force in global sport. Female golfers on the tour earn vast sums and have a global reach.

A study by the association shows that on average 60,000 fans attended each event in 2019 (pre-Covid), while the television viewership is larger than the men’s Champions Tour (over-50s) with an average of 3.4 million unique viewers.

The most recent figures show that the WTA has grown significantly. In late 2018, WTA chief executive Steve Simon projected a broadcast viewership of 600 million and digital viewership of 300 million, which was “up 20%” from the previous year.

The WTA also noted that Chinese broadcast partners iQiyi increased viewership in China “from four million people in 2014 to 39 million in 2017”.

In Australian cricket the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) started life as curtain-raiser games to the men’s T20 tournament. But there was always a clear vision to advance the women’s competition and by 2020 the WBBL had become a standalone tournament attracting more than two million viewers for the finals. For a domestic competition in a country with a small population, those were staggering numbers.

From four years ago, leading Australian women cricketers on national and WBBL contracts earned on average R680,000 a year. They are now earning R2.4-million.

Fifteen of South Africa’s leading women’s cricketers now have full-time national contracts and the results are already startling, having recently completed a one-day series victory in India.

World Rugby’s decision to launch the WXV league is ambitious and faces many challenges. But there are enough examples to prove that with the right plan it could be a barrier-breaking move.

The alternative of letting women’s rugby stagnate on the outer rim of the men’s game was never an option.

It has been built. Will they come? DM


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