“A perfect time for brands to get on board – we’re still lower profile”
Our latest “Inside Track” interview series with athletes visits the ever-expanding world of women’s rugby. According to HSBC’s Future of Rugby report, 500,000 women are picking up the sport annually. Alongside the growth of the women’s game, the shorter and faster version – sevens – is further driving the sport’s popularity and now features at the Olympics. Consequently, Millie Wood and Amy Wilson Hardy are well placed to report from the front lines of this new frontier…
“A perfect time for brands to get on board – we’re still lower
profile but are only going to grow”
caytoo: What is your current playing status?
Amy Wilson Hardy: We’re currently training with the England Sevens squad. We are fortunate to train full-time which consists of four days a week together. It’s quite a novel thing in the sense that we’ve only been professional for four years and it’s good to be able to take time to train as hard as you can and actually have the time to rest as well – previously we took for granted how important rest is.
Millie Wood: Our competitions schedule is long, from the beginning of December all the way through to the end of July. So there’s a bit of off time in the summer but regular competitions monthly really.
Millie Wood (L) and Amy Wilson Hardy (R)
caytoo: How did it work before you became professional four years ago?
Amy: We went professional the year before the Olympics because of that event. A lot of the other nations had already become professional so we were playing a bit of catch up. Prior to that, everyone had jobs or was studying. They had given sessions to do but you had to timetable that yourself. The only thing you had to do, aside from your given training sessions, was club training with your 15 a-side team. So it has changed since then because now we’re solely focused on sevens for the season.
caytoo: What experience do you have working with sponsors on a personal level?
Millie: It’s very minimal. I was part-time last year and full-time this year so I haven’t really delved very deep into the world of sponsorships. However, I’ve learnt that as a full-time athlete, it could be quite important to my development. Coming out of university and experiencing what it’s like to be a proper adult with real expenses and bills to pay, things like kit and opportunities to grow myself are really important. They could help me live a lifestyle that enables me to be the best I can.
“It’s actually really hard to approach people full stop, let alone get anything.
We’re not used to trying to sell ourselves”
Amy: Similarly to Millie, I haven’t seen a huge amount. It’s actually really hard to approach people full stop, let alone get anything. We’re not used to trying to sell ourselves. We sometimes underestimate how valuable we could be to a company. So that’s part of the barrier, but also finding the right person and finding the right brand who will understand that it’s not major things that we need help with but little things, as Millie alluded to, like kit and stuff. If we had the funding for that it would make a huge difference.
caytoo: Is that a problem that runs through the squad?
Amy: I think some of the high-profile players find it a lot easier and many of them have well-established connections which definitely helps them. There’s also World Cup winners in the squad who obviously have a bigger profile which helps massively. A lot of it is down to an individual being proactive but it’s not quite as easy as that because there’s so many barriers in the way.
caytoo: What do you offer brands, what’s your unique selling point and what would they gain from having you on board?
Millie: While playing sevens, we do get the opportunity to go global with our sport. There’s not many sports that get worldwide coverage on a regular basis. It’s almost a USP but I realise 15s players also play globally and you could argue that their competitions are covered better and have much more publicity to them. Being a female rugby player in general, there’s so many opportunities that I don’t think people realise until they were to have a look in and get involved. But women’s rugby is not a dead platform to put your brand on an athlete or say that you’re helping an athlete. You know you might even be the one that boosts them into the spotlight. So there’s definitely opportunities.
“If we got help from somebody we’d be very keen to
pull our weight and give them something back”
Amy: I also think you get a lot of bang for your buck. I can obviously speak specifically about our squad and our group of players so I know that we’re all very invested. If we got help from somebody we’d be very keen to pull our weight and give them something back. Whether that be physically, in terms of visiting them, or how we could potentially help their companies. Also, as Millie said, from a social media point of view, you do get these unique places to travel to with rugby, that would potentially spread that brand internationally as well.
caytoo: How would brands help you personally?
Amy: I think the emphasis is we’re not asking for a lot, by any means. Sometimes people may think we’re going into a company expecting £10,000 cash in our bank the next day, it’s not like that at all. It’s usually things that, potentially, other high-profile athletes take for granted, such as getting sent a pair of boots a week. We don’t have that luxury. So if someone was to cover four pairs of boots a year then that would be enormous for us.
caytoo: If you could pick the brands and sponsors to be involved with personally, what would they be?
Millie: If we were going to go down the road of politely asking for products, it would be things that would mainly help my expenses. Obviously we have to live a healthy lifestyle so our monthly food bill is expensive, so anything along those lines. Kit is the next big expense – boots, training gear, anything really just to help towards what we have. It’s pretty simple really and, as Amy said, small amounts go far, particularly when you’ve not got big sponsorship deals.
“Small amounts go far, particularly when
you’ve not got big sponsorship deals”
Amy: For me as well, looking at an individual company or brand, regardless of what they’re offering, it’s actually being able to relate to them and be passionate about what they do to really be invested in return. As I said, any help is amazing and it doesn’t necessarily mean that if a business is kind enough to offer me something I’d turn it down. But at the same time, I want to be able to sell them as much as possible and if I’m passionate or enthusiastic about what they do, that’s obviously a positive for both of us. In the past, I’ve worked as a female ambassador in a sport. As that’s promoting females in sport, something I’m really passionate about, I know that I can drive and sell it even though that’s not helping me in any form of money. But it is helping me improve my profile while also helping promote something I feel strongly about.
caytoo: Do you feel there is more emphasis on you as female athletes to really go out as an ambassador and push the sport?
Amy: We take it upon ourselves because we love what we do. There’s a lot of people that love what we do but not enough are aware of it. Consequently, it’s an uphill battle at the moment to get people interested and getting our message and what we do out there. The hardest challenge we have at the moment isn’t that people aren’t willing to support us but they don’t know enough about what we do. If you turn on the TV on a Saturday you’re going to see men’s rugby or men’s football, but you’ll have to really search to find women’s sport. It’s getting better but there’s still a hell of a long way to go and I think that’s why we have to be a bit more proactive about it.
Millie: A lot comes from players that have been there, done it and moved on to commentating roles and doing things publicity-wise. They have seen the effect they can have on the younger generation by pushing women’s rugby. The responsibility to continue that work falls upon your shoulders when you wear the England shirt. That’s a job that you need to take on because it’s for the best of the sport and everybody that is going to join it.
“The hardest challenge we have at the moment isn’t that people aren’t
willing to support us but they don’t know enough about what we do”
caytoo: Do you feel aggrieved that you have to continually push your sport?
Millie: You just have to accept that that’s where your sport is at. I think it’s when people dig more and they’re asking for personal opinions on why. Whereas if it’s just to say how great the game is and why you should watch it, then that’s easy to say. But when they want your personal opinion on reasons why maybe it hasn’t gone as far as it can or fishing for answers, that tends to annoy me more.
“It only takes one person to be brave and actually put
us out there and people will see how good it is”
Amy: It’s a general frustration more than annoyance because if people could see it, they would see how good women’s rugby is. As Millie said, we’re not at the same level, in terms of generated income, as the men’s game and you can go around in circles with these kind of arguments. But it only takes one person to be brave and actually put us out there and people will see how good it is. The game is amazing to watch regardless of the gender. It’s fiercely competitive. All games, male or female, have dull games, but equally there’s some spectacular games for both men and women, so it’s really naive to say that there aren’t any in the women’s game.
caytoo: What challenges do you face in attracting sponsorship?
Millie: The obvious thing is not much coverage. If they’re looking at social media profiles, mine in particular, I don’t have as many followers as a big company may like.
Amy: Millie hit the nail on the head really, but the thing about social media followings is that if these brands actually invested then it would help the profile grow and then you end up with a higher profile athlete anyway. It is down to someone taking the punt on it. But it’s hard when you’re doing it as an individual and not having the help of others around you to sell yourself in the way that you should because we are very sellable people. We’ve got fantastic attributes that hopefully many brands would like – our work ethic and attitude to life is really positive. I’m saying it here on a microphone but I would struggle to say that to a company because it’s awkward for me, Millie and all of us. I think a platform like caytoo could be a really good answer.
“What I can give you in return is far more than just followers
in terms of my investment to your brand”
caytoo: How much does a role of social media play for you?
Amy: It’s huge but it’s hard because you’ve got to be so constant on social media to get it growing. It’s not our full-time job. Some people have huge profiles as that’s what they do. I think it’s what comes first as an investment, to create a bigger platform. We could have a fairly decent following for a rugby player, but you then look at someone on Love Island with 100,000 followers. But actually what I can give you in return is far more than just followers in terms of my investment to your brand, but if I’ve got one hundredth of the followers they have, I’m portraying the information to a much smaller audience.
Millie: It’s chicken and egg, it really is.
caytoo: Does it feel as though you are asking for something for nothing?
Millie: I don’t want to sound like I’m begging. When we talk about having boots and stuff, I always feel awkward asking for anything from anyone. That’s just how I am. So I could say to somebody ‘do you think you could spare me a pair of boots but I can give you this and that in return’, and they might turn round and give me three pairs, and although that’s nothing to them I still feel so awkward doing it. That’s why having a middle man putting my interests forward is easier, particularly if the brand or sponsor are interested as well. It avoids the awkward ‘asking for something for nothing’ feeling as everyone is on the same page.
Amy: Also knowing how much to ask for. So, if it is a sum of money, I wouldn’t have a clue. I don’t know what’s too much to ask, what’s too little to ask. Are you underselling yourself by saying “can I have sponsorship to cover my travel to training”, whereas actually I could have got double the amount. I don’t mean that to come across as sounding greedy, but it’s just not knowing.
“If brands think smart, they could invest less and have a
very high-profile athlete in a few years, or less”
caytoo: Are there any opportunities in women’s rugby that are currently being missed by sponsors?
Amy: Loads. It’s been a huge climb to get women’s rugby out there but I think it’s a very positive future. It’s a perfect time for brands and sponsors to get on board because we are still lower profile and we are only going to grow. So, actually if they are sensible and they think smart, they could invest less and have a very high-profile athlete in a few years, or less than that even.
Millie: Take the Tyrrell’s Premiership, for example. Before this season I don’t think the women’s premiership had any sponsorship related to it. But as of this season, it’s had multiple games on Sky, the finals were on Sky and everyone knows it as the Tyrrells Prem. So, that’s just one example of how quickly one brand getting involved can just rocket the sport. Women’s rugby benefitted massively from Tyrrells getting involved.
caytoo: What experience do you have working with sponsors from a team perspective and what brands are currently involved in working with the England women’s sevens team?
Amy: A lot of our sponsors are an umbrella when it comes to England rugby. Secure Trading are the sevens sponsors and they sponsor our kit. Then you’ve got Mitsubishi Motors and all of the big brands that you see associated with England Rugby (see image below), but you don’t see much on an individual basis beyond that. It’s amazing they’re creating these opportunities for us as a team but there aren’t huge perks from it all.
caytoo: Do they work with you a lot? Are you involved with their activations or brand days?
Millie: There’s a couple of tick-box appearances we need to do throughout the year that were offered to the big sponsorships before they sign on. We’ve done a couple of Virgin Active ones, a couple of Secure Trading ones.
caytoo: What do you need to work on to make yourself more compelling to potential sponsors?
Millie: An answer to that question would come off the back of somebody being interested and saying “we’d love to help you out but there’s one or two things you could do to make yourself a bit more marketable for us”. In which case we would get straight on it if that’s something we’re interested in.
“The stuff the RPA do and the funding that they give us to
be able to develop ourselves is just incredible”
caytoo: What sort of training and guidance in regards to the business and commercial side have you had?
Millie: We have the Rugby Players Association (RPA), who are our go-to when it comes to things off the pitch mainly. I personally use them a lot for career and personal development but they would be my go-to if I had any queries to do with sponsorships and commercial things. They’re a charity and they are amazing. They were set up off the back of somebody having to retire and then having nothing post-rugby. They’re an absolute godsend. The stuff that they do and the funding that they give us to be able to develop ourselves is just incredible.
Amy: With the RPA, the more you put in the more you get out of it. But it’s also so nice to have someone who has your best interests at heart. Even if it is not directly to do with rugby. They’re solely there to help you. It’s not connected with England Rugby as nothing you say is going to be taken the wrong way, so you can really make sure you’ve got the most solid advice out there.
caytoo: Are there any key lessons from your experience for other athletes looking for sponsorship?
Amy: I completely don’t practice what I preach, but “sell yourself”, which is easy to say to someone else, but just be brave. Don’t hide things away, start with your biggest achievement when you’re approaching people. Again, I need to get better at it so it seems a bit hypocritical me saying it. But if someone else can do it then fair play.
“I completely don’t practice what I preach,
but “sell yourself” – just be brave”
caytoo: Have you started thinking or doing anything about preparing for life after rugby?
Millie: The RPA are really good and offering funding for different courses per season so this year I completed a course in sports and exercise nutrition. It’s nice to do something off the pitch, engage the brain a bit and get an extra qualification. In seasons to come I’d love to look into different courses I can do and get as many qualifications on that CV as I can. Hopefully, then I’ll fall into something with the right timing, whether I choose to step away from rugby or I’m forced to, I’ll have a big net to fall into.
Amy: Similar to Millie, I’m in the process of doing a nutrition course and I’ve also tried to keep really active in a couple of other projects I’ve got going on. Long term, I’d love to be entrepreneurial if funds allow. I’m trying to start it off in the hope that when I finish playing, it’s quite seamless. A lot of the stuff I couldn’t do without the help of the RPA so a huge credit to them.
If you’re an athlete interested in having a profile on caytoo like Amy and Millie click here.