Rugby union facing 'growth pains' during global expansion

Elliot Daly of England in action during the Old Mutual Wealth Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 12 Image copyright Getty Images

As the autumn rugby union internationals put the sport firmly back in the spotlight, the game's governing body says it is perfectly poised to build on the huge boost it has been given over the past 12 months.

The financially successful 2015 Rugby World Cup in England was followed this year by the Sevens version of the game being contested at the Olympic Games for the first time, attracting attention in previously untapped parts of the world.

That has left World Rugby juggling a number of positive challenges - continuing the global growth of the game, taking the sport into new markets, enhancing fan engagement, growing the women's game, and engaging with sponsors and broadcasters.

According to Bill Beaumont, former England captain and World Rugby chairman, the game now "faces growing pains" experienced by most sports when they are "on a mission to become truly global".

Image copyright Steve Powell/Allsport
Image caption Bill Beaumont won 34 caps for England and was captain 21 times

"World Rugby's strategic mission... is to grow the global rugby family, and I am pleased to say the sport is experiencing a golden period of exceptional growth," he adds.

It comes as the body has updated its strategic plan for now until 2020, covering everything from player welfare to finances, but with the core aim being to continue its "transition from purely a game regulator to that of an inclusive game-inspirer".

'Financial sustainability'

On the financial side, thanks to the commercial success of last year's World Cup in England (and Cardiff), World Rugby says its total investment in the game in the coming years is anticipated to be £245.8m.

That is some 22% more than was invested in the previous 2013 to 2016 cycle, as the governing body seeks to "maximise commercial values and increase the financial sustainability of international rugby".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The 2015 RWC generated £250m in ticket revenues

Looking ahead, among other updated monetary goals, it also hopes its commercial programme around the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan will deliver an envisaged £210m for the sport.

Meanwhile, according to new figures from Nielsen Sports researchers, commercial income into rugby union from sponsors has been on an upwards trajectory in recent years.

It says that globally, spending in rugby union by commercial partners increased by 21% from £231m in 2012 to £362m last year.

"The value of global commercial and broadcast deals continues to increase through strong partnerships that do not just see record investment injected into the game, but... encourage, promote and support rugby participation," says Mr Beaumont.

Women and girls

And, as revenues are growing off the pitch, it says more players are taking up the game.

Mr Beaumont says the sport is now played in 121 national member unions, with a further 60 nations recognised through the sport's six regional associations.

Speaking at the World Rugby ConfEx event in London, he said there had been an increase of 8% in playing participation this year, taking the total number of players globally to eight million.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption World Rugby says it will continue its increase in the women's game

"[This is] a number that has doubled since rugby was voted onto the Olympic programme seven years ago," he said, adding that a further 1.5 million children have been introduced to the sport in 2016 thorough the Get into Rugby participation programme.

"Pleasingly women now represent nearly 30% of that [playing] total, and in many nations women's rugby is the fastest growing team sport," he adds.

"We must continue to prioritise investment and competitions to ensure that rugby is as accessible and inclusive as possible for women and girls at all levels. "

'Game changer'

Meanwhile, a growth in participation is being matched by strong supporter interest, with World Rugby claiming some 300 million fans globally.

Rugby Sevens is seen as an important vehicle for promoting the sport, with Mr Beaumont saying that the Rio Olympics inclusion was a "game changing" moment for the sport.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fiji won the Olympic Gold in the Rugby Sevens at Rio this year

He says that research carried out for World Rugby showed that thanks to the "Olympic halo effect" close to 17 million new rugby fans in six key markets - France, Japan, the UK, Australia, Germany and the United States - had been attracted to the sport.

"Indeed between the 2015 World Cup and Rio, driven by the power of social media.... it is estimated the rugby fan base has grown by more than 50 million."

He says that Sevens and the traditional 15-a-side game complement one another, and that expanding the Sevens side can help create interest in the traditional format of the game, which is restricted to around 20 competitive nations at the top level.

'Ground breaking'

To expand the number of top level nations, World Rugby has previously said that it is dedicated to moving the game into new territories outside the traditional spheres of Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

A huge deal was signed recently with Alisports in China, the sports division of e-commerce giants Alibaba, and the next World Cup, in Japan, should open further doors in the region.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Japan will host the next Rugby World Cup, the first in Asia

Mr Beaumont says that while last year's World Cup was successful in terms of attendances, viewing figures, the economic and commercial impact, the 2019 event will have a similarly important - but different - impact.

"If England 2015 was record-breaking, Japan 2019 will be ground-breaking," he says. "It presents a unique opportunity to convert new players and fans beyond rugby's traditional communities, and across Asia."

On the financial side World Rugby has a conservative goal to make a financial surplus of around £90m from the 2019 tournament, down from the record breaking £150m of 2015, but a figure which takes into account the novel nature of the venture.

'Clean playing field'

"As we look to the future there will be many great opportunities to further develop and grow rugby," Mr Beaumont says, but warns the sport can not afford to become complacent.

One challenge on the playing side is aligning the northern and southern hemisphere rugby union seasons, something that might bring order to a congested fixture list and ease the current physical demands on top players.

Mr Beaumont says he is hopeful a solution can be found by early next year.

Another key issue he says is preserving the sport's integrity by fighting doping and "promoting a clean playing field" through investment in education and testing programmes.

Meanwhile, to continue its growth momentum he says rugby union must continue to "innovate and engage with fans in a digital world, grow in new markets, and maximise the Olympic opportunity".

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