The Toronto WolfPack, a Toronto-based rugby league team competing in the English Super League, recently announced the signing of one of the world’s best, Sonny-Bill Williams, to a two-year, $10 million contract. The New Zealander will play for the team this upcoming season, and his signing, while well-deserved, is largely seen as a large investment into the future of the WolfPack, and rugby in Canada.
Dropping Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner amounts of cash on a rugby, especially as a smaller-market team in a city dominated by hockey and basketball, is a gamble. Management and owners will be hoping such a large name draws more crowds of people, as WolfPack CEO Bob Hunter described it as comparable to when David Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy. That’s another example of forking out big money, to lure a big name, to build a big fanbase and team. But this situation begs the question: why are similar investments not being made in the small-market teams of female sports?
Despite the growing popularity of female sports, Archer and Prange (2019) notice that there is no consistent and corresponding urge to increase pay in female sports. Not only is the wage gap significant in most professional sports, but there appears to be no desire from any administrative leaders to invest in women’s sports, the way smaller male sports do with increasing frequency.
It was crushing to hear in Hayley Wickenheiser’s Hall of Fame induction speech how her parents would go bankrupt sending her to the Olympics every four years, and how she was never able to pay off their mortgage. As one of the best to ever play, her net worth today sits at $1.6 million. Williams will amass that amount in the next four months alone.
Fundamentally, the reason the WolfPack is investing in Williams is to build their team, and build their sport. It’s a sound economic strategy – it provides a reason for many to go watch, it raises the quality of the team so, from that point of view, it makes sense. But it’s a shame that nobody is ready to invest similar amounts of money to raise the quality, fame, and popularity of women’s sports. The ease with which this small Toronto team forked out millions for one man, compared with the teeth the USWNT have to pull for equal pay, just demonstrate how far away we are from an equal play, equal pay system in sport.