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Where’s the Funding? An Interview with New Zealand’s Julie Paterson

Netball is the most popular sport for women in New Zealand with the highest participation rate and public interest. Netball is primarily considered a women’s sport though there are men’s and mixed-gender teams at varying levels. First introduced in 1906-07 as women’s basketball, netball spread rapidly throughout New Zealand and was incorporated into many schools for girls to play. Today, New Zealand boasts five semi-professional teams, however, despite the sport’s success – scarcity of funding is still an issue for many teams in the area.

CEO of Netball Northern Zone, Julie Paterson, offers perspective on how funding impacts her work and discusses the steps needed to close the gap between men and women’s sports. Paterson shared, “money that comes into our organization for the community is kept separate from the money that comes in for our professional arm.” She explains that they do this to ensure that money allocated for grassroots development does not then get used to further support the professional arm of the sport and guarantees that both stay afloat monetarily.

An area where lack of funding becomes apparent is when netball, the primary sport for women and girls in New Zealand, is compared to that of men’s rugby, a highly popular sport for men and boys in the country. The best netballers in New Zealand earn roughly ten times less than their rugby counterparts, after endorsement deals and other contracts are added to their salaries. “A woman that comes into my netball league, the starting salary is $15,000. If a man goes into a rugby franchise the starting salary is more like $70,000,” says Paterson of the women who compete in the Northern Zone’s professional league, the SKYCITY Mystics. “Our top salaries are somewhere around $70,000 to maybe $80,000, while the top male players can earn in the hundreds of thousands.”

Pay equity is not the only issue that Paterson faces but also trying to grow the netball audience and thus encourage broadcast deals, which can bring more money back into supporting the league. This becomes increasingly difficult due to the fact that the sport of rugby in New Zealand has existed since 1892 and in general men’s sport has been on television significantly longer than women’s. Paterson says, “Rugby, for example, has been on TV since TV started in New Zealand, pretty much. So people watch rugby. Men and women watch rugby. That’s quite a battle to overcome. Women’s sport has not had broadcast opportunities for anywhere near as long.”

Money that comes in from sponsorship and broadcast deals can make a big difference for the sport but Paterson notes that for this to happen the sport needs to grow more internationally, so that it has a wider audience to appeal to. “The two big nations that are forever going first and second for gold medals in the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games are Australia and New Zealand,” says Paterson. “So, the only TV coverage really that contributes any substantial money is from New Zealand at the moment and that’s through Sky TV, which is our major sport’s broadcast network. Commercially netball is a very good proposition, as a professional organization with strong female audiences, but there is also a perceived lower value attributed to women’s sport.”

While many local media outlets are supportive of netball, Paterson hopes that other countries will recognize the value their respective netball leagues offer to the community and begin to acknowledge them in the same way they celebrate their men’s sports. “There’s an audience out there for women’s sport,” says Paterson and she wants to work to bring netball to a larger global community. Paterson provides numbers for this audience in Auckland saying that “at game attendance ranges between about 3,000-4,000 and capacity is 4,500” at her venue for the SKYCITY Mystics; while, “our broadcast numbers are around an average of 40,000-60,000 people watching per game on television.”

While netball has its difficulties, Paterson points out that women’s sports in general in New Zealand are facing many of the same issues. “For most female sports in New Zealand you are happy to get an article and a 30-second clip on sport news. For the majority of male sports there is strong support from the mainstream media and thus is everywhere,” she depicts. Paterson wants to work towards putting all women’s sports on the same playing field as men’s in funding, viewership, pay equity, media and more.

One sport that has done a good job of this is tennis, she notes. “For instance, when you have tennis you have the men’s and women’s tournaments at the same time and there seems to be a more equal approach to that sport. You have the same credibility, the same value for a tournament. You have women at Wimbledon and men at Wimbledon, they’re both a big deal.”

Netball still has a long way to go in order to achieve parity with a sport like rugby in New Zealand and internationally. Paterson hopes with all that she is learning through her time with the Women’s Sports Foundation and as a part of the U.S. State Department and espnW’s Global Sports Mentoring Program, that she can return home with a clear plan of action in order to make these aspirations of equality in sport a reality.