The rise and rise of women's sport in New Zealand

NZ Herald
By Suzanne McFadden


By Suzanne McFadden

Almost a third more Kiwi eyeballs were glued to women’s sport in the past year, proving the worth of hosting three World Cups in NZ. But how do sports maintain the momentum? Suzanne McFadden reports.

They came in droves – first to the stadiums in record-breaking numbers, and when those seats were full, they watched it on screens like never before.

Women’s sport in New Zealand gained a whole new audience and unparalleled popularity over the past 12 months – generated in no small part by the Rugby World Cup, won by the Black Ferns exactly a year ago, and the FIFA Women’s World Cup this past winter. And the throng of new fans confirms the value of hosting both those tournaments and the Covid-marred Cricket World Cup held here in March 2022.

New research from Sport New Zealand and Gemba carried out straight after the massive FIFA tournament wrapped up in August shows an additional 450,000 Kiwis watched women’s sport in the past year – a leap of 29 per cent in viewership.

But the makeup of that audience may surprise you.

Three women’s national teams are now ranked in the top five for popularity – the Black Ferns No.2 behind the All Blacks, the Silver Ferns No.4 and the Black Ferns Sevens No.5. That’s up from just one female team in the top 5 in 2022.

It’s a significant rise in the popularity of women’s sport since similar research conducted in June 2022 showed the awareness and ‘likeability’ of New Zealand’s elite female athletes was considerably lower than our male sports stars. That chasm spurred the It’s Time campaign, Sport NZ’s push to raise awareness, interest and engagement in elite women’s sport.

Hannah Wilkinson scores for New Zealand against Norway. Photo / Michael Craig
Hannah Wilkinson scores for New Zealand against Norway. Photo / Michael Craig

That investment has paid off, says Sport NZ’s chief executive, Raelene Castle. And this latest burst of interest should lead to higher profiles of players, rolling on to greater commercial value of female sport, and more investment in the women’s game – “which continues the spiral up,” Castle says.

“If you put quality product in front of people, they lean into it. And that’s what we’ve done over the last 24 months; we’ve had the world’s best women here in Aotearoa playing sport at the highest levels with great free-to-air access. People are exposed to it, get interested in it and go searching for it again,” Castle says.

That’s why Kiwi sports can’t let this latest spike in audience, popularity, player numbers and the value of their women’s sports stars be a flash in the pan.

Data like this – as well as the marketability of female athletes and teams rising by 21 per cent, and half of Kiwis saying they’ve advocated for women’s sport in the past year – is encouraging, but the research has also highlighted areas needing more attention to reach gender equality.

While the audience growth has been driven by younger viewers (aged 16-44), many of them are existing male sports fans now taking an interest in women’s sport. Attracting more girls and women to watch and engage with sport remains the challenge.

The national bodies of both rugby and football are well aware they must capitalise on the momentum of the past 12 months - through more international home games for the Black Ferns and Football Ferns, more free-to-air coverage, new ways to connect with fans and specific sponsorship for the women’s side of their sport.

Claire Beard, NZ Rugby’s head of women’s rugby, welcomes the Sport NZ research, which she says holds more merit than warm fuzzies.

“We need the data to prove women’s sport is worth it. It’s not just a feel-good thing, it has viability, where you can see the growth market,” she says.

“Every female athlete who’s been part of inspiring more New Zealanders to engage with and consume women’s sport should be really proud of what they’re doing for the future generation. And it’s not over; we still have a requirement to provide that consistent content.

“But the freight train is here, and it’s now about whether people want to get on and hang on.”

  • 45 per cent of sports fans are watching women’s sport, up from 35 per cent in 2022.

The number of Kiwi sports fans who actively watched women’s sport in the past year was just shy of two million - burying the age-old argument no one is interested in watching women play.

Football, netball and rugby dominated viewing statistics (the Netball World Cup was played in South Africa at the same time as the FIFA World Cup).

Younger audiences are being drawn in, but they’re predominantly male sports fans – so catching the eye of female fans still needs work.

A lot of that comes down to how we’re watching nowadays, Castle says.

“We don’t all sit together in the lounge as a family to watch TV anymore and gain an interest through watching rugby because your parents are watching rugby,” she says. “Now kids are watching on mobile screens, watching highlights and stories on YouTube; it’s changing the dynamic.

“We have to continue to make sure the best athletes are playing, they’re visible through media coverage and some free access, and we’re continuing to promote our stars – the people and the personalities, so we know who they are.

“In male sport, that’s happened for 100 years. It’s the Ruby Tuis, Sarah Hirinis, Sophie Devines and Hannah Wilkinsons of this world who are making that happen for women now.”

Raelene Castle is the chief executive of Sport New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell
Raelene Castle is the chief executive of Sport New Zealand. Photo / Dean Purcell

Sports organisations have to be nimbler and more creative in the way they pull in new fans.

NZ Rugby has launched its free digital screening service, NZR+, and is investing more in its social media platforms to increase the storytelling around female rugby players.

“Not everyone has pay-per-view TV, not everyone is ready to consume an entire game of rugby,” Beard says. “We have to give them shorter clips to test out the game in small doses, and introduce them to our incredible wāhine, so they can relate to them.”

NZ Football has moved their match coverage to FIFA+ - a “relatively radical move for the broadcast market,” says CEO Andrew Pragnell. “It’s a free provider and free access to sport is one of the critical enablers.”

Highlight packages and video content telling the stories of the Football Ferns are also important to capture young minds. “It’s only in the last few years we’ve begun to role model our female athletes properly. It’s going to take time to have some effect.”

  • 87 per cent of Kiwis heard or saw something about the FIFA Women’s World Cup - with 59 per cent watching a game.

For a decade, Kiwis were starved of international women’s football. “Leading into the World Cup, we played more Football Ferns games in New Zealand than the team had played at home in the previous 10 years,” Pragnall says.

But keeping the Ferns front of mind after the resounding success of the World Cup presents a unique challenge for NZ Football.

“Partly because international football is played in small windows and because our top players spend more time with their club teams than with the Football Ferns,” Pragnall says. “It’s hard to build a brand identity around a team that isn’t physically here, and whose games are broadcast at 4am.”

The growth of professional women’s football in New Zealand will help, Pragnell says. “Last weekend we saw one of our Football Ferns, Flea [Annalie Longo], score a spectacular goal in her Phoenix debut. And we’re hoping a new A League franchise will come to fruition in Auckland with both a men’s and women’s pathway.”

The Football Ferns now need to play in front of home crowds as much as possible. “We’ve made a commitment that every year, the Ferns play at home for one international window against quality opposition and we want to grow it from there.”

  • The marketability of female athletes and teams has risen by 21 per cent, driven by increased awareness.

Raising the commercial value of female sport has been a stumbling block for decades.

“Often female teams have been wrapped up in bigger sponsorship deals with men’s teams, but there’s the opportunity now to separate them out, and make sure women have their own revenue source,” Castle says.

“Partners can attach their brand to the team and the hero athletes. They can have an entry price point which is possibly more affordable than the men’s game. And if it’s a brand that believes in equity, or is consumed by women, it’s a perfect opportunity to engage.”

It’s now an “absolute priority” for NZ Rugby to build commercial relationships for the women’s game, says Beard.

“We’ve recently signed Ryman Healthcare as an exclusive partner for the Black Ferns, and that’s only going to continue to grow. Partners are now seeing the value of women’s sport - not just for their prowess and their stories, but the way these women can support the other objectives commercial partners have, around connecting with new markets and expanding their understanding of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“Up until the last 18 months, the Black Ferns had a couple of tests a year and a World Cup every four years. It wasn’t enough for us to commercialise or even professionalise the women’s game. Now we have Super Rugby Aupiki, more tests at home, the WXV and Pac Four, so we’re incredibly confident there are people out there who want to support women’s sport, and the Black Ferns.”

Growing players

The survey didn’t look at the impact the World Cups have had on player numbers.

But last summer, off the back of the ICC Cricket World Cup played around the country to Covid-restricted crowds, NZ Cricket reported a large leap in female participants (including the Yeah! Girls introduction programme) - up 9000 to 28,473.

In rugby, the number of female players at club level increased almost 30 per cent this past season, and more women were involved in coaching and refereeing.

Beard says they’ve seen an influx in girl players aged between 11-13 and 16-18. “They’re usually the drop-off phases. And we’re seeing women in their 30s and 40s returning to the game, too.

“We have to create awesome spaces, tackle-ready programmes, be supporting coaches to understand how to work with women, create great experiences and have great opportunities on the pathway. We want to build a stronger and more sustainable club rugby system, so there’s a competitive environment to support our sevens and 15s teams.”

Next season’s player registrations will be the “proof in the pudding” for NZ Football, Pragnall says.

“We were lucky going into this World Cup that our women and girls game was already growing – we’re one of the few traditional sports that can lay claim to having further growth,” he says. “Now it’s about can we get the growth curve up from 45 degrees to 70 degrees.

“But our issue isn’t so much the demand, it’s whether we can meet the supply. I’m worried about things like field access and cultural change – but they are good problems to have.”

Increasing women in leadership, coaching and refereeing remains a priority for the sport, too.

The right strategy

Castle wasn’t surprised by the research figures in the wake of the World Cups – more relieved and pleased. “There’s been a huge amount of effort from cricket, rugby and football, plus the investment from the New Zealand government, to build this platform to give Kiwis the opportunity to engage. The fact that it’s resonated so well and strongly with New Zealanders means it was the right strategy,” she says.

The last Labour government put a strong emphasis on investment in women’s sport. So will a change of government alter that?

“There’s such a normal focus on gender balance and equal opportunity now, I wouldn’t see that changing,” Castle says. “It continues to be the role of Sport New Zealand to make an investment in community sport and high-performance sport with an equity lens on it. That’s hugely important.

“The cycle of women’s sport continuing to grow comes from quality performances and more coverage which means commercial dollars will follow – and we have to make sure we continue to do all three things because that’s what drives the outcomes.”

This story was originally published at and is republished with permission.