‘Tipping point’: Melodie Robinson talks about women’s rugby, female leadership – and her future

The satisfaction former Black Fern Melodie Robinson took in receiving the NZRPA’s Kirk Award for services to rugby late last year was threefold.

First off, David Kirk is kind of a hero; second, it was recognition from her peers; and third, she didn’t even know she was nominated.

Still, the price was anything but surprising. Robinson does the mahi: she is the general manager of TVNZ, sports and events, sits on the board of the Rugby World Cup of World Rugby for the women’s tournament to be held in New Zealand this year, and is heavily involved in the community game at club and school level .

From left: Helen Clark, Melody Robinson, Dr.  Farah Palmer taking part in a panel discussion at the Sky City Convention Center in Auckland in 2019.


From left: Helen Clark, Melody Robinson, Dr. Farah Palmer taking part in a panel discussion at the Sky City Convention Center in Auckland in 2019.

It’s a tough commitment for the mother of two boys (Jensen, 12, and Freddie, 11), but the 48-year-old tells stuff she wouldn’t want it any other way. “I would say that rugby has changed my life,” she says. “It still has a huge impact on me in a positive way. I want my children to experience in other people’s children all the wonderful things I have.”

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Those roles have also given Robinson insight into what works for the national sport and what doesn’t. In an extended interview, she worries that at the schoolboy level, it’s too serious and not enough fun – a concern for the participation rate.

But for women’s rugby, she radiates enormous potential that is about to be unlocked.

“You look at the overall market that rugby is in,” says Robinson. “So if you look at your business and think, ‘Where are the areas where we can continue to grow’? One is the smaller markets, the developing countries, and the other area identified by World Rugby is women’s rugby.

“There is enormous growth potential. We have already seen the numbers, the number of participants has increased enormously in recent years. And it’s commercially untapped, that’s the most exciting thing about it.”

Here Robinson outlines the two most important factors – broadcasting and sponsorship: the first is particularly important.

“Going up to the Rugby World Cup Limited tier, the World Cups – the Women’s World Cups – were sold in a pack with the men, meaning no monetary value is attached to them,” she says. “Now They’re Getting Separated” [after this year], which is good news, because then they can sell them and actually generate more revenue.”

Obviously, that change has the potential to boost the women’s game — no more second-class citizens.

The business community is also becoming aware of the possibilities. “First, the Black Ferns bring in sponsorship revenue, they have revenue,” Robinson says. “They have shown the potential to increase that sales even more.


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“And the great thing about the Black Ferns in particular is that they’re really interesting people… they bring a lot of interesting stories with them. So it’s really deep, beautiful properties to sponsor. And we know that, for example, ASB has had great experiences with them, bringing them into the business and sharing their resilience stories. So they are really attractive commercial products, they just need to be sold separately and in a different way.”

This separation from the men’s game should also give the women’s game the opportunity to innovate, says Robinson, with a view to the experience of the match day.

She admires the way the Highlanders are leveraging Dunedin’s student population to turn Super Rugby games into events rather than just games on a list, and believes the Rugby World Cup will bring something similar, with bands, food and kapa haka planned to make the games something of a celebration.

“We’re at the tipping point now as we’re starting to get the investment, and World Rugby is setting up a global women’s rugby league, posting this World Cup, and then we’re going to see more sponsorship and more broadcasts. rights, money in the system,” Robinson says. “And then you really see where women’s rugby is compared to that of men.”

If the future of the game is female, then female leaders are needed. Robinson, a strong advocate for diversity in media and sports, says slow progress is being made at the governance level in Aotearoa, but that comes with major caveats.

“At the CEO level, there’s a huge gap,” she says. “So I’m hoping someone somewhere in New Zealand, or some of us, would like to aspire to be CEO of one of the big unions, or even New Zealand’s rugby.”

In a typical New Zealand way, Robinson talks coy about her own ambitions in this area. There is another reason.

Melodie Robinson and former All Black Piri Weepu during Robinson's time as a Sky rugby host and commentator.

Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Melodie Robinson and former All Black Piri Weepu during Robinson’s time as a Sky rugby host and commentator.

“It’s really hard to stick your head out of the crowd at times,” she says. “It’s a Kiwi thing and add that I’m Māori and there’s a concept called whakamā in Māoridom, and it’s about being humble. So I have a double tendency not to talk about personal ambitions.”

Yet, stuff presses Robinson gently. She has shattered glass ceilings throughout her career, and the MBA she completed at the University of Auckland reflects an ambitious mindset. In time, would she raise her hand for the role of chief executive at NZ Rugby, or any other high-profile position?

“That’s a very personal question,” she says cheerfully. “Look, I’ve actually been thinking about what’s next, because you should. Even though I’ve only been working at TVNZ for three years, you always have to have a plan for the future. So what I can say is that I’ve put a few things down that will hopefully give me the practical commercial skills to one day put my name forward for a position.”

That would shake up the game, which previously had to withstand accusations of being pale, stale and manly.

Melodie Robinson is a board member at College Rifles in Auckland.

David Joseph / www.phototek.nz

Melodie Robinson is a board member at College Rifles in Auckland.

Robinson’s connection to the base will serve her well no matter what the future holds. The rewards she gets from coaching her sons are huge (“I coached St. Peter’s under-13s last winter and it was honestly the most joyous thing I’ve done all year”), but she thinks that rugby still too attached to a “traditional” schoolboy-level model, where winning is the most important thing.

And there are no challenges to rugby when you are involved with the club. In Robinson’s case, it’s at College Rifles in Auckland, where she’s a board member. As she surveys that part of the rugby landscape, she sees the warning signs.

“We’re pretty healthy,” she says. “We are very fortunate to have some benefactors, old guys, who are contributing very generously to the club.

“But I think other clubs are definitely going to have a hard time raising money. I think that club rugby definitely needs some of that investment that will come in whatever deal between New Zealand Rugby, Silver Lake and the players association .”

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