A revolution in British rugby has been occurring in Loughborough over the past two months with Great Britain Sevens men and women being paid the same as they prepare for July’s rescheduled Olympics. But as with everything regarding the shorter form of the game over the past year, there are more layers to the story than meet the eye.
2016 Rio veteran Amy Wilson Hardy was overcome with emotion when told the news regarding her salary while part of the GB Sevens squad leading up to the Tokyo Games, with both men’s and women’s sevens teams playing their first tournament at St George’s Park over this weekend and Monday.
The 29 year-old, who was an amateur when she first joined the England set-up in 2013, explains that because of the financially “up and down” nature of her career that she “hated the subject of money”. But this time it was something more comfortable to discuss. “I felt we had come a long way, we felt valued,” she says, having gone from playing at the highest level for the love of the game to to being paid as a full-time professional, before being made redundant by the Rugby Football Union last August.
The headline-grabbing aspect of the GB pay structures – where the highest earners, both male and female, are on the equivalent of £40,000 per year while contracted to Team GB – is that some of the higher-earning England men took a pay cut from their pre-redundancy pay packets. Those players, who could have earned up to £90,000, took the financial hit to level the playing field with the women who previously earned no more than £28,000. However, less experienced male players had been earning £40,000 and some as little as £20,000 in recent years as the RFU made cuts.
Wilson Hardy explains how the men and women are coming from different places.
“It is tough because they are coming from opposite sides of it. I am a very realistic person, I always thought there should be more parity but I am also aware that it is a business and you have to look at what each side is bringing in,” she said. “To get complete equality on this front, it feels good for us and is a step up for us. It has also meant a step down for some of the guys from what they were previously on. We are coming from opposite ends of the spectrum.”
One such male player is England captain Tom Mitchell who captained the GB men to silver at the 2016 Rio Games. He is proud of this ground-breaking initiative where there are three bands of pay depending on experience. He along with England women’s captain Abbie Brown and the since retired Phil Burgess ensured there would be gender-pay parity leading up the Olympics but as the 32 year-old points out, looking towards the future the situation becomes more complicated.
“The parity of pay is one of the things I am proudest of with our GB Sevens programme. It is a really good statement of the way things should and can be,” he says. “It makes total sense for this period of time where men’s and women’s players are committing to exactly the same journey with exactly the same goals. So, why would it be any different?
“As Amy already pointed out it meant there was reduction in salary for some of the men compared to their old contracts and what we were used to and what we felt our value was previously and still is arguably. That means the solution we have and we are very grateful the National Lottery came in with the funding. That means long term is the current model with numbers as they’re sustainable in terms of growing the game? Probably not. And it needs more investment because if you want to keep bringing the best players into sevens you want to pay them somewhere near to what they might be getting elsewhere.
“In this country, there is still the conflict between sevens and XVs and this is particularly relevant with the men regarding the disparity of the wages. For the future, they need to bridge the gap with the wages and as a result the funding needs to address that.”
Having been made redundant Mitchell didn’t quite see it as the noble act of taking a pay cut for the sake of closing the gender pay gap.
“I didn’t see it as a pay cut because it was something new. I saw it as a new job with a new pay, maybe that is an idealistic way of looking at it, maybe that was me trying to find a positive and sidestep the negative of earning less overall,” he says.
Wilson Hardy chips in: “I got quite emotional in the opposite way when I got the phone call to tell me what I would be on and I had to have a moment to hold myself together because I had the opposite of now being paid to do what I love. And to have however many months we were left to our own devices was very challenging. The news I had a salary again, albeit for five months, the same as the guys was incredible, was incredible and that escalated because I was on nothing before.”
Mitchell continues with frankness that due to the short-term nature of the contracts it was easier for the men to get their heads around: “I think the contrast was rubbed out by not being paid to play and not having a regular salary. Everyone was going to be grateful for something. For a lot of the men’s squad – they are more senior and older experienced players. I don’t know how the men’s group would have reacted if this was a longer term thing because of the lifestyle people have become accustomed to and the outgoings and whether that would be sustainable in the long term. But everyone felt this would be an opportunity to get paid and have a shot of living out a dream.
“And if you look at it like that and think is it enough? And for some people it is only just enough or not even enough for some in terms of the lifestyle they had but you are only looking at a six-month thing. That did have a bearing, if it had been longer term, it might have been different.”
Mitchell is emphatic that in the future the women need to be brought with men.
“On one hand I am incredibly grateful for the National Lottery funding but we need an increase in that if we are going to drive sevens to the place it needs to be. That means taking men and women with it, the model is great but the overall numbers probably need to change if we are going to grow. But to think that we have done this in one of the most-traditionally male dominated sports says a lot of how far we have come.”