Rio reward? Female rugby stars 'deserve more money'

Story highlights

  • Australia's women won Olympic gold
  • Seeking pay parity with sevens men

(CNN)Rugby sevens took Rio by storm -- but will its successful Olympic debut bring financial rewards for the players as well as increased profile for the sport?

The women's game is still catching up with the men in terms of pay parity, though one of its pioneering players hopes that will change.
    "The girls need to be endorsed," Australia's former World Cup-winning captain Cheryl McAfee (nee Soon) told CNN's World Rugby show.
    "I think they are a very marketable product. A lot of those girls are living off very little, the bottom tier girls are getting $30,000 a year -- you can't live off that.
    "They get out of bed every day with bumps and bruises, but they grind it every day and they work really hard and they deserve more money."
    Australia's Charlotte Caslick was one of the stars of the Olympic women's tournament.
    In 2009, the year she won the inaugural Sevens World Cup, McAfee was part of a lobbying group which persuaded the International Olympic Council to include rugby's shortened format at Rio 2016 -- the sport's previous appearance was in 1924.
    "We screamed, we celebrated," she told CNN in 2014. "It was just the most exhilarating feeling and I can't just describe it."
    That feeling of elation was repeated this year when Australia ended New Zealand's recent dominance of women's sevens by winning the 2015-16 world series title and then claimed gold in Rio, beating its rival in the final.
    The average salary in the Australian women's squad is reportedly around $41,000 -- which includes a base wage as well as tax-free contributions from the Australian Sports Commission and world series win bonuses, which are also tax free. This was further boosted by $15,000 for winning Olympic gold.
    The top three or four women in the squad earn between $60,000-$68,000. The men's sevens players, meanwhile, average around $56,000 according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
    Talks are ongoing between the Australian Rugby Union and the players' union, which is seeking pay parity for the women. CNN has contacted the ARU for comment.

    British investment

    The English Rugby Union announced before the Olympics it will be awarding 16 full-time contracts to its key women's players ahead of next year's 15-a-side World Cup title defense.
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    After England's 2014 success it switched focus to sevens, giving 20 players contracts as they sought to earn selection for the combined Great Britain team. England supplied 11 of the 12-strong squad that reached the semifinals in Rio before losing the bronze medal playoff against Canada.
    There will be 16 part-time contracts for sevens for the upcoming season -- three days a week -- while another 16 short-term deals will be on offer to cover training camps ahead of major tournaments.
    "This is a really exciting time for women's rugby in England," RFU Head of Women's Performance Nicky Ponsford said. "We will have more contracted players than ever before to give us the best possible chance of retaining the World Cup in Ireland next August.
    "We also recognize that the sevens program is important again next year with the world series and qualification for Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018."

    Global game

    Australia's players celebrate after winning the 2015-16 Women's Sevens Series.
    The sevens circuit travels around the world -- the men went to 10 cities last season, and the women five.
    World Rugby pays for teams to take part in both world series -- including flights, hotels, meals -- as well as funding development and high-performance programs in some unions, but told CNN that player earnings are up to the individual nations.
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    The ruling body said its member unions had received an extra $2 million in funding -- from government, sports councils and national Olympic committees -- ahead of Rio 2016 as a result of sevens being included in the program.
    "We can expect to see that figure rise as rugby sevens establishes itself as an Olympic sport," a spokesman told CNN.
    "The amount that will be brought into the game through private investment, sponsorship etc. because of the Olympic factor is harder to put a figure on but it will be significant as rugby in all its formats becomes more visible."

    Future's bright

    Cheryl McAfee led Australia to the World Cup title in 2009.
    McAfee believes the success of Rio is an indication that sevens will only go from strength to strength in the next few years.
    And she is backing the women's game to be in rude health by the time in touches it down in Tokyo in 2020.
    "The game is so much faster," she added. "You see it in slow motion, these girls have such physiques -- they're just phenomenal.
    "They have worked hard and I just want the world series to continue so these girls can keep progressing and getting better."