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Extra Time: Paying women rugby professionals is long overdue

Women's sport still lag overall in finances.

Lord Triesman

4 min read

Many sports federations do painfully little to advance to protect women's sport.

Extra Time today is not strictly about the gender pay gap in sports, although it does impact on the competitive outcomes of matches between paid professionals and amateurs in international women’s rugby union.

Women’s sports still lag overall in finances, despite the campaigns of the Williams sisters in tennis, and the extraordinary footballer Megan Rapinoe who co-captained Team USA to World Cup victory.

It is worth remembering the baseline position. Ten years ago, female sports accounted for 0.4 per cent of all sport sponsorship. In the same period, Serena Williams earned $2m (£1.62m) more in prize money than Roger Federer, but Federer earned $58m (£47m) in endorsements, five times more than Williams.

A huge amount of profitability depends on broadcasting deals, visible exposure of brands, and endorsements. And that is why some wrongly assert, given social media viewing numbers, that lesser interest in women’s sports leads to a pay gap. The paradox, however, is that an equally powerful – perhaps more powerful – gap has emerged where some elite women competitors are paid and others not.

Nowhere is this clearer than in fast-growing women’s rugby union. I write on the day England beat France 24-12 to seal the Six Nations.

ExtraTime is not a column for sports stats nerds, but consider a set of truly extraordinary results from the last two seasons of women’s international rugby. In April 2020, professional England beat Scotland by 42 points, Italy by 64, but professional France by just four. Wales lost by 53 to France, by 45 to Ireland, and Ireland by 41 points to France.

The following year, England beat the USA by 89 points, and this year beat Ireland by 69, Wales by 53, Italy by 74 and Scotland by 52 points. The amateurs were walloped.

None of these abnormal facts are designed to upset one of our own number, Tonia Antoniazzi MP, who had a distinguished career as prop forward for Wales. The aim is to explore why gaps of this kind open, as a major sport for women becomes more attractive and widely followed.

The key answer is disarmingly simple. Successful teams and their federations are now identifying a core of professionals and paying them on a full-time basis to train and play. Players can devote their time without the distraction of multiple part-time jobs. Indeed, until England took the plunge, players would have to fund everything, including travel to train and play matches.

Clubs including Saracens (£12,000 to £15,000 pa) and Worcester (£200 per match) are reported to have followed suit; it’s said Harlequins is now paying for accommodation. Around core squads, a number of players receive matchday fees.

USA players are in full campaign mode following a fourth place in the Rugby World Cup, arguing that if USA men had reached the last four, it would have been front-page news.

The other home nations have lagged, as their results demonstrate. Scotland has declared the need for a paradigm shift to compete with England, New Zealand and Australia (or France). While England has 28 poorly paid (£30,000 pa) but fully-professional 15-a-side players, Scotland has inched to eight. Wales, with 10 pro players (£19,000 pa), has described these baby-steps as "a kick in the teeth". Ireland is moving at a glacial pace.

Some of this may reflect antique beliefs about professional-amateur sport but the truth is many sports federations do painfully little to advance or protect women’s sport. Players may love their game, have serious talent, but to pay to train and compete is an unrealistic step too far.

Time, I think, to be serious about inclusion and sporting integrity; and you don’t have that with 70+ points gaps between sides in international rugby. Results mirror funds. It’s simple as that.

Lord Triesman is a Labour peer and former chair of the Football Association

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