As the final whistle blew in a dramatic women’s Rugby World Cup final last Saturday – where the Black Ferns triumphed over England in an historic win for the host nation – a record-breaking crowd of 42,000 fans celebrated.
Heartbreak, of course, for Red Roses fans watching at home willing for their 30-game unbeaten streak to continue for just one more match. Delight, meanwhile, for those of a Kiwi persuasion.
An impressive 1.3m New Zealanders tuned into watch the Black Ferns triumph on the world’s stage, a greater number than watched the All Blacks win the 2015 men’s Rugby World Cup final against Australia. It was a powerful symbol of the game’s shifting sands in a country that has historically focused on the All Blacks, but now is rallying behind the Black Ferns.
No matter your allegiance, though, in that game at Eden Park the five-week tournament offered a triumphant showcase of women’s rugby. It felt like a precursor to a bold new era for the game. From the Women’s Six Nations (and with it, the Red Roses’ first standalone fixture at Twickenham) to the 2025 World Cup in England and beyond, all the ingredients are now in place for a decade of growth.
Opportunities for brands
Brands are attracted to the potential of women’s sport right now. Many, like LinkedIn at this summer’s Uefa Women’s Euros, are new to sport sponsorship entirely. They understand the unique value that it offers and are keen to take the chance to steal a march on their competitors. Between 2013 and 2017, there was a 37-per-cent increase in women’s sport sponsorship deals, and these numbers continue to grow. Women’s sport in the UK is projected to generate $1bn in revenue by 2030, so rugby is riding that wave.
Mastercard was the first to join as a partner of World Rugby’s ‘Women in Rugby’ commercial programme, with Capgemini following suit this year. As part of that deal, the global payment giant was announced as founding Global Partner of World Rugby’s Pacific Four Series, a new competition established in 2021. The cross-regional tournament, featuring USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, completed a successful second season earlier this year, with an ambition to increase the competitiveness of the women’s game at the elite level.
More high-level competitions are likely to follow, including the Capgemini-backed ‘WXV’ which is due to get underway in 2023, as World Rugby strives to ‘supercharge’ the sport.
Not perfect, but progress is being made
While nights like Auckland offer an exciting glimpse of the future, it has been a case of evolution rather than revolution. There have been oversights like the scheduling mishap that saw the All Blacks playing a Test match against Japan at the same time as the Black Ferns’ World Cup quarter-final. Not to mention financial realities, like the Red Roses travelling economy while the men’s team fly business, that hinder the momentum.
However, the collective endeavour from the individual unions and World Rugby endures, major brands are aligning, revenue streams are solidifying, and interest is snowballing. The ambition must now be for more of the leading nations, beyond England and France, to find a route to professionalism. That means not just contracting, but also in approaches to infrastructure, coaching and development pathways across the whole rugby ecosystem. Doing so can reframe the way the women’s game is viewed, from grassroots right through to the elite level.
A model to replicate
Rugby chiefs would have watched on with both envy and excitement as England women’s football had its coming-of-age moment at Wembley in July. The Lionesses won the Euros, and with it the hearts of the nation. Fresh stars were born, new fans were captured and the FA Women’s Super League is now experiencing record ticket sales as a result.
The RFU will have a similar vision of a crisp Autumnal day in 2025 and a sell-out crowd at Twickenham stadium for the Rugby World Cup Final. With a total of 150,000 fans attending this year’s instalment – a threefold increase from Ireland in 2017 – the numbers are certainly tracking in the right direction.
But that day may yet arrive sooner still. Twickenham will host its first standalone Tik Tok Women’s Six Nations encounter in April next year, as the Red Roses host France in a final round fixture which is sure to attract the attention of a public energised by the sustained success of England’s women’s sports teams.
The defining image of that seismic day at Wembley was Chloe Kelly wheeling away with victory snatched and her shirt removed. It offered a vision of the future of female sporting stars: relatable, aspirational and authentic. It demonstrated also exactly the type of visual representation of female athletes which Getty is seeking to make ubiquitous through its new set of photography guidelines.
Series like Capgemini’s ‘transformational stories’, O2’s fly-on-the-wall look at the Red Roses’ World Cup campaign and Amazon Prime’s bold ‘No Woman No Try’ documentary also breed added familiarity. Victoria Rush, the Amazon documentary’s director, captures brilliantly the dedication – working full-time jobs while playing – and challenges – the deplorable online abuse – that remain a reality of being a female player.
As a player, Rush will know also that this type of content is vital to the future health of the sport. For it is these stars, seen for who they are, who inspire new life in the grassroots game.
Is the future gold and green?
The Australian women’s rugby union team, known as the Wallaroos, would have hoped to leave a more indelible mark on this year’s tournament. An impressive performance against the eventual winners in the group stage belied their amateur status and pointed towards a bright future.
Their time will come. From 2025, the global rugby calendar skews towards Australia – with a British & Irish Lions Tour in 2025 followed by back-to-back World Cups. Add in the tantalising prospect of a potential Women’s Lions Tour and such a smorgasbord of elite-level rugby is sure to have a galvanising effect on the women’s game both in Australia and globally.
An exciting calendar looms, punctuated by tentpole moments, each of which has its own unique part to play in catalysing an irrevocable shift for the women’s game.
Victoria Monk is communications director of CSM Sport & Entertainment