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Rethinking Rugby: Playing the (commercial) advantage in the women’s game

When Sky Sports announced the postponement of the Women's Six Nations, the comments on Instagram were depressingly predictable. ‘We don’t care’ and ‘not elite sport’ were some of the gems on offer, causing players and fans to take to social media under the hashtag #icare. It’s clear the women’s rugby community cares about the sport.

But what are the commercial opportunities being left on the table?

At the last count, 2.7 million women play rugby worldwide (over a quarter of the playing population), and those numbers are growing. On the assumption that there is an also a large group of female rugby fans, this isn’t a small market – and yet it has remained largely untapped.

As of January 2021, the Black Ferns shop sells seven items, three of which are various iterations of a cashmere throw. Contrast this to the 198 items available in the shop of the male equivalent team, the All Blacks, and it’s clear there is room for growth. Ruggette, founded by Bristol prop and Canadian hopeful Stef Evans, pegs itself as ‘solving apparel problems for female athletes’. Started with £1000 out of a spare room, Ruggette has grown exponentially (and profitably) by making women’s rugby kit designed for the female body. Hardly rocket science – but an opportunity not fully explored before.

Now, back to the Six Nations. Guinness’s £50 million sponsorship does not include the women’s event, which has been without a title sponsor since 2018 – the delay offers a chance to rectify this. With the new schedule, there will not be clashes with men’s fixtures, creating larger audiences and a much better proposition for sponsors prepared to buy in. It’s worth considering that whatever form the New (Ab)-Normal takes, the number of fans allowed into stadiums will remain limited. What better way to sate the appetite for live sport than some clever marketing of top-flight women's English club rugby, Allianz Premier 15s. Harlequins set the precedent in 2018, hosting more than 4500 fans for The Big Game – it will be interesting to see if other clubs step up to the plate.

There is also space for a consistent broadcaster of the AP15s. At the top of the table there are exciting match ups, with the likes of Ellie Kildunne and Helena Rowland adding flair to XVs after the termination of England Sevens contracts (another issue for another day, but one which certainly holds some silver linings). The interest in women’s rugby is there, with 2.7 million UK viewers tuning in to the World Cup Final in 2017.

In the AP15s, each team has a salary cap totalling £60,000, meaning clubs sustain 40 athletes on less money than an average male premiership player’s salary. This shockingly low amount is damaging both the athletes and the ability of the game to attract commercial investment, and must be changed. Sport has experienced significant upheaval during the pandemic. Regardless, there is plenty of commercial opportunity for women’s rugby. Let’s hope the game makes sure to play the advantage. Charlie Willet plays in the Allianz Premier 15s for Wasps FC.

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