Fans are showing up in their hundreds to see their home team, the Tokomanawa Queens, play in a new women’s basketball league. As well as celebrating the long awaited pay parity for players and televised coverage of every game, watching these queens play ball is seriously good fun, writes Bess Manson.
“Tokomanawa Queens, that’s my team!”
That’s the chant and 530 fans are screaming it.
It’s 67/73 to the Queens’ opposition, the Whai, with 1 minute 38 seconds in the fourth quarter remaining on the clock.
It’s proper edge-of-your-seat stuff at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua for the women’s basketball league game on a wet and cold Monday night.
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MC King Kapisi has been relentless on the mic revving up the crowd with the catchy chant he coined. He must gargle enthusiasm for breakfast.
The Queens, representing the center of the motu, edge up to 70 to the Whai’s 76 with just 42 seconds left and play is stopped so the ‘hype team’ – yes, that’s a thing – throw sweets and T-shirts to an already hyped crowd.
The music being pumped out by DJ Raw gives way to the squeak of rubber on the court as the players go all out in the last few seconds of the game.
It ends with a loss for the Tokomanawa Queens – 70 points to 78 – but the fans don’t care.
They make a rush for the sidelines, so the players can sign their basketballs, their posters, their t-shirts, their arms. There are selfies and pep talks to the kids who clearly idolize these players.
It’s the seventh game in a two-month season of the new women’s league.
The Wellington region-based Queens are part of the Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa competition, which also features the Northern Kāhu, Mid-North Whai, Mainland Pouākai, and Southern Hoiho.
On and off the court it is a strongly female-led operation, says the team’s co-owner, Rachel Taulelei (Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, Ngāti Rārua).
“We’ve absolutely gone out of our way to ensure the female voice leads.
Three directors, board chair, game commissioner, chief statistician, manager, operations manager, game day managers – all women.
Four out of seven owners of the team are women, including former Tall Fern Megan Compain, the only Kiwi to play in the women’s NBA. One of the male owners has designated a woman as his proxy for all involvement.
The team’s volunteer crew are the Porirua Under 15 Girls team and their parents (almost all mothers).
Officially named GJ Gardner Homes Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa, (Tauihi meaning “to soar” in Te Reo Māori) the league has made big waves in the game.
The players have pay parity – Sky has injected a record sum of money into the women’s game with $100,000 towards their budgets on a par with their men’s equivalents. They are being paid more than any female basketballers in the history of the sport in Aotearoa.
Every game will be televised live on Sky Sport.
It’s been a long time coming, says Tokomanawa Queens captain Stella Beck.
It’s overwhelming at times, she says straight after the game.
“There are so many people older than us who didn’t have all this, and we recognize they beat the path before us.
“What’s important to recognize is all those people who came before – the volunteers, the coaches – who gave up their time and money to allow women to play sport at a time when it was really difficult.
“They put in all those efforts over the years, and now it’s coming to fruition. We see females able to be supported, they have resources, and they can focus on the fact they just have to come and play.”
The fans agree.
Just ask the girls in the front row at the arena who play basketball for their local Porirua team Te Amokura.
Teaomihia Kupenga (Ngāti Porou), 10, is one of them
“I think it’s great that they are paid the same [as men] and that’s on TV. It should be because the players are great.”
Right on, says her teammate 13-year-old Milan Keelan
“I didn’t like it before how men got paid more. I love it that [the Tokomanawa Queens] get paid the same, you know.”
Pay parity is an indicator of respect, says Taulelei, who is at the game pacing back and forth as the points light up on the scoreboard.
“If female athletes world-round were regarded on the same level as [their] male counterparts this perhaps wouldn’t be so much of a conversation – it would be a given.
“The pay parity is also just one part of the development here too as we also have every game broadcast – same commentators, similar league sponsors. It’s a genuine attempt at parity across the board.”
It feels like now is the time for that focus, and you see that across the world, she says.
“It’s becoming a very unpopular position to maintain to not have parity between women’s and men’s teams in the same code. It’s not fair, and it doesn’t make sense.”
Pay parity allowed Kiwi players to stay in New Zealand and play at a top level without having to go abroad to earn a fair pay-packet. It will bring decent internationals to play here and add to the caliber of the game. Each of the five teams in the league has a budget for three internationals.
Some of the kiwi team members who have always traveled internationally to play, have never had the chance to play in front of their friends and family in this capacity, at this level, says Taulelei.
“It’s amazing but on the other hand it’s deeply shameful.”
The first Queens’ home game in the new league back in July was pretty nail-biting. Taulelei admits she had a moment when she wondered: Will people come?
They came alright. The arena had 800 fans that night.
Not bad for a city ravaged by covid. And a great moment after years of thin crowds because of the pandemic and the lack of coverage in women’s basketball.
It’s not just the game that brings in the punters, it’s all the bells and whistles that come with it – the music, the hip-hopping hype team with mascot Queen T (aka Bombay Bombshell), the fabulous and ubiquitous drag and burlesque entertainer.
Being able to be the MC for the Tokomanawa Queens is a blast, says King Kapisi, aka Bill Urale, who travels from Auckland back to his old stamping ground of Wellington for every Queens home game.
He and Walter Taulelei, chief executive of Wellington Basketball and Rachel Taulelei’s husband, go way back – to school days at Wellington College, to the same community church. They shot hoops together for years.
“I know where Walter and Rachel’s heart is with basketball.
“And I’m happy to be able to promote the women’s game. They can all ‘hoop’, better than some of the men players I’ve seen.”
The women’s game is being uplifted to where it should be and where it should have been years ago, he says.
“Equal pay is a huge move in the right direction for our players to be on an equal playing field as the men. Next I’d suggest having the men’s league opening up for the women’s games, programming-wise. We’re moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot more work to be done for our women’s game.”
Queen’s head coach, former Tall Fern Tania Tupu, (Ngāti Porou) would usually be court side but was instead convalescing with covid during the Queens’ game against the Whai.
Tupu is basically superwoman.
The two-time Olympian has two young sons, she’s the manager and curator of Ta Papa store, she’s a jeweler and runs a café.
“She is an incredibly strong, smart independent woman,” says Taulelei.
“This is an amazing opportunity for her. There just aren’t that many opportunities for women to be coaching at this level in Aotearoa.”
Taulelei, who sits on the team’s board, says players and management are building an academy that will create pathways for young women through to the Queens. It will involve camps, clinics, skills development, mentoring, and holistic development of players as they move through the ranks.
Queens scholarships will be a part of this to remove as many points of friction for our girls to stay in the game, she says.
“Part of that scholarship activity is the commitment to meet with one of our Queens – a chance for them to talk with kids about what’s good in life, what’s tough in life?”
“Everyone – management, sponsors and the players – are invested in keeping kids in the game.”
Taulelei, whose own achievements are as long as a basketballer’s wingspan, says they are all in it for the love of the game but also for change.
[We’re in it] so that we as a country can compete on the world stage, really compete. Whether that’s our Tall Ferns competing at the Commonwealth Games or whether that’s having a second kiwi woman in the WNBA.
“If we can have more of our young girls staying in sport that would be the ultimate, because you have a direct line between kids staying in sport and their ability to build every skill under the sun – teamwork, resilience, time management.
“You get all of that by staying in the game, and you stay in the game if you see people who look and sound like you, people you can aspire to be like.”
Sitting in that front row seat, their number one fan, Teaomihia Kupenga, might agree.
“They are the best team. And they did training with us! I love it that they are all girls. I love Queen T and the hype team. And I love it that they threw me a handful of lollies.”
There’s a basketball fan for life.
The Tokomanawa Queens team represents the central part of the motu – Wellington, Taranaki, Manawatu and Hawke’s Bay.
The name Tokomanawa Queens is based on the pou tokomanawa – the central post in a whare tūpuna.
Each of the league’s five teams has a budget for three overseas players. The Queens’ imports are Elin Gustavsson (Sweden), Florencia Chagas (Argentina), and Jaime Nared (USA).
Games are played throughout the country.
The next Tokomanawa Queens home game at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua against Southern Hoiho is on August 3.
An earlier version of this story spelled DJ Raw and Elin Gustavsson’s names incorrectly.