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'We’re so far behind England and France that we can’t even see how far we’ve fallen'

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 25: The Black Ferns line up for national anthems prior to the 2024 Pacific Four Series Round 4 & 2024 O'Reilly Cup 1st Test match between New Zealand Black Ferns and Australia Wallaroos at North Harbour Stadium on May 25, 2024 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The first message landed: “What a game!…Thought there’d be more people there!?”

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Indeed.

Canada had just pulled off the biggest win in their rugby history by beating the Black Ferns for the first time ever, taking out the Pacific Four in the process. On a freezing, gloomy Christchurch afternoon about 6,000 fans were on hand to witness the world’s second and third-best teams in action, an attendance figure that hadn’t gone unnoticed by rugby friends overseas.

Last weekend, in the final match of the Pac Four, in what was New Zealand’s last of just three home tests this season, a crowd of 7,300 was seen as cause for celebration as the Black Ferns blitzed the Wallaroos at North Harbour Stadium.

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That 7,300 is representative of a very loyal fan base that the Black Ferns have built. They call their fans “BFF’s”, have cleverly used the Taylor Swift-inspired friendship bracelets to great effect among young supporters and the “Like A Black Fern” tagline now (finally) comes with merchandise and tangible ways to support the team. The same people show up time and again.

But while that 7,300 is a vast improvement on the horrendous attendance figures of last year’s WXV, it is a long way from the 45,000 who were at the Rugby World Cup final two years ago. That was a special occasion for sure, but somewhere since then the metaphorical ball has been dropped.

There are contributing factors as to why our crowd numbers aren’t coming close to the Northern Hemisphere, and admittedly a few sweeping generalisations to be made.

We have a small population, saturated with sporting events on any given weekend and people now have much more choice in their discretionary spending. Many of our grounds are multi-purpose venues, with average transport links and, in my opinion, mediocre food and beverage offerings where the overall fan experience doesn’t come close to anything I’ve attended overseas. 

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By the same token we (I’ll use the royal we as a Kiwi sports fan) expect to park outside the front gate five minutes before kickoff, grab a hot dog and a beer and be in our seats before the first bars of God Defend New Zealand our belted out. Some Kiwi fans can be incredibly apathetic and at times look like they’re at the dentist rather than an entertaining game.

There’s a quid pro quo in here somewhere. We as fans could do better but we also could be offered better; case in point, the long line of people still coming into Waikato Stadium as the Black Ferns kicked off against USA – they’d left their arrival too late but there was also only one set of gates open to let them in. Why do we only open the doors one hour before kickoff?

In the broader landscape, there are other elements at play.

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New Zealand media loves pitching rugby union against rugby league. Union has become a whipping boy/girl, league now the “fan favourite”, for a media contingent largely based in Auckland where the country’s one and only NRL rugby league team is domiciled. 

Now that the club will re-enter the NRLW women’s competition next season, the same writers and reporters who’ve barely deigned to lift a pen in coverage of women’s sport have another angle to explore – how many Black Ferns are going to jump ship to the Warriors or other NRLW clubs?

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The league versus rugby trope is a bore but if that’s what it takes to get media coverage of both codes for female players then so be it. Yes, rugby players have and will inevitably go to NRLW. The seasons at the moment don’t clash and it’s an amazing opportunity for women to be paid to play regardless of the code.

If we take money and the longer calendar of NRLW compared to Super Rugby Aupiki out of the equation, one reason players anecdotally cite as a carrot in switching from union to league is marketing and hype…and crowds.

People are turning up to watch the league women play; 25,000 fans were in attendance for the opening game of the women’s State of Origin series compared to the 1500 tickets pre-sold for the Aupiki final a few months back.

No one is better at telling you their game and competition is brilliant than the NRL. They make it look like THE place to be and the crowds follow. There is a tribalism which has now filtered into NRLW that New Zealand Rugby lost somewhere a few years ago and is struggling to recapture.

The Black Ferns, and the national sevens teams, have one of the best social media content creators in the world at their disposal. How can the brilliant work of Rachael Whareaitu be better utilized to hype up the players and help turn them into rock stars?

While we’re building hype, how about being able to buy a number 11 jersey with “Vahaakolo” on the back, or having some flexibility in a rule that says three players need to be in every promotion?

I love seeing crowds of little girls with their friendship bracelets and signs being inspired by these players, but it feels like we need to get away from women’s rugby as a constant crusade where we tell people they “should” be supporting, and instead be better at marketing the players’ skills and personalities to a mass audience.

No one went to watch University of Iowa play because it was a nice thing to do, they went to see Caitlin Clark because of her incredible skill and she let her basketball do the talking. 

Have you watched Katelyn Vahaakolo glide past defenders or heard the crunch of a Liana Mikaele-Tu’u tackle? 

What about seeing Canada’s Sophie de Goede make 28 tackles a game and pot a handful of kicks or hearing England’s Marlie Packer rark up her teammates and needle her opponents? Heroes, villains, stories, skill.

New Zealand Rugby is fighting many fires at the moment, but talk to anyone in sporting and media circles and they’ll tell you the sport is in an almighty battle to win, or win back, hearts and minds.

Two years ago, the Black Ferns did both.

For a country that considers itself a leader in the world of rugby, we’re now so far behind England and France when it comes to attendance and promotion of the women’s game, that we can’t even see how far we’ve fallen.

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12 Comments
M
Mana 23 days ago

The Black Ferns were lucky to beat England, any rugby enthusiast knows this,the English and,French, have the most dangerous forward packs in the world, Canada has been copying their forward rolling maul techniques,and its working for them, the Black Ferns coaching team should of copied Englands big strong forward style, we got the best backs in the world, we know that,but I can't see us getting into the top 3 at the World Cup, i’m a proud as Kiwi, but i’ve been watching the 6 Nations games,and their competition and regularity of hard games puts them ahead of the Black Ferns ,sad to say,but realistic.

S
Shelley 23 days ago

I have been a Black Ferns fan for over 20 years and it's been tough being a Black Ferns supporter. Not because of the players or the footy that they play but because until very recently, the NZRFU have made it really difficult to BE a BFF. For years it was hard to find out when they would be playing. For years, their games weren’t televised. For years I haven’t been able to get Official supporters kit and even now, just this season it looks like there is FINALLY some decent supporters kit but most of it is only available if you can make a game… its not available online. I've attended games and still couldn’t get Official supporters gear because it was on the opposite side of the stadium and you had to have tickets to seats on that side of the stadium to get access to the supporters gear. General f#ckery like that makes it really frustrating to be a BFF. It's difficult to build that tribalism that other sports teams have when its made so hard to get supportersgear. The marketing people are so focussed on growing the fan base amongst kids that it feels like adult fans and long term fans like me don’t matter. I watch every game either in person or on the tele. I’m invested in the players and the team. I just wish the NZRFU would do better by them and us, the fans.

B
Brian 24 days ago

It will be a real eye opener for the Black Ferns to come and play at Twickenham in front of a 60,000 plus crowd made up of all sorts, families, budding Red Roses, coach loads of rugby club members and just rugby fans converted to the women’s game. The Red Roses are really well marketed with lots of online features on the players and the games are on terrestial TV. It also helps that they are a brilliant team and the entertainment value is great, it all makes for a great day out and Twickenham is not the easiest ground to get to. I was at the Ireland game and have seven tickets for my family for the September match. When Ellie Kildunne gets the ball the buzz of expectation that goes round the ground is huge.

J
Jon 24 days ago

I love seeing crowds of little girls with their friendship bracelets and signs being inspired by these players, but it feels like we need to get away from women’s rugby as a constant crusade where we tell people they “should” be supporting, and instead be better at marketing the players’ skills and personalities to a mass audience.
I don’t know Rikki, that would seem like a better virtue to have than fangirl’n some player to silly heights like they do.
It’s traditionally how things are done, it may not be embedded loyalty but it is loyalty none the less. One thing that will help a lot on both of those fronts though is having those household names, don’t want to be switching players year to year.

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