In August, rugby takes its place at Olympics for the first time since 1924. To mark the occasion HSBC has been working with Kantar’s The Futures Company, to research the future of rugby.
The inclusion of rugby in the Olympics is the latest milestone in a development process that has taken the sport beyond its traditional heartlands, to new countries and markets. Key to this transformation has been the short-form game, rugby sevens. It is sevens, not the traditional fifteens that will be played at the Olympics and will help raise the profile on the world stage.
Since the 2009 vote to add rugby to the Olympic roster, the sport has accrued an estimated £20m of funding from National Olympic Committees. This is money that is poured straight back into the game, to support its future health and development.
Initial benefits are likely to be seen in the development and participation of the sport rather than in spectator numbers. Olympic audiences are huge, but interest in fringe sports tends to be confined to the countries that play them already. However, there is no doubt that the Olympics will transform the image of rugby.
Clive Woodward coached the England team between 1997 and 2004, leading them to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. He played Sevens for Loughborough University and the Barbarians, and was the Director of Sport at Team GB between 2006 and 2012. He believes rugby will look back in a few years and know the Olympic seal of approval was a big step forward: “Through sevens, rugby is becoming a multinational sport. But it’s still not a world game like football, so it’s now about how you take it to that next level. World Rugby realises this, and hence the big emphasis on rugby sevens. I think sevens is this sleeping giant of rugby. I really think it can help develop the game on a world level. No doubt about it. Rio will be the springboard to take it global.”
The increasing profile and popularity of the short-form of the game does raise some important questions about the future of rugby. Does the development of a more dynamic and more accessible game threaten fifteens? Will sevens do for rugby what Twenty20 is alleged to have done for cricket: undermine the traditional game?
World Rugby has been careful to manage the development of both forms of the game, and this has been a core part of the governing body’s strategy for a decade. In 2006, the management consultants Deloitte recommended after a strategic review of sevens that it had “a unique and important role” to play in rugby’s future, its promotion and its performance development. One danger in this strategy is that as sevens builds its profile, attracts more funding from more sources and becomes more professionalised, it pulls away from the fifteens game, with different cadres of players and different media relationships.
With Twenty20 cricket, the best players command top dollar in the Indian Premier League or Australia’s Big Bash, and the short form has certainly encouraged more invention and faster scoring rates in the five-day Test matches. From an audience perspective, Twenty20 certainly pulls in the crowds. But it has also undermined the technical skills required to play traditional cricket, and, arguably, diminished the attractiveness of the long-form game to audiences.
But for World Rugby, this risk is outweighed by a larger risk - the risk that, as with one-day cricket in the era of the media mogul Kerry Packer, a television company creates its own rival tournament, packaged for the sports TV market, and scoops up the sevens audience that World Rugby and its partners have worked to create. The numbers are attractive: last year, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series clocked up almost 6,000 broadcast hours across various networks. The way to prevent this happening, of course, is to run a first-class tournament yourself, with marquee sponsors and strong broadcast partners.
Clive Woodward believes that even as sevens becomes increasingly popular, it won’t harm fifteens, the way Twenty20 has affected cricket: “They can be developed alongside each other. I’ve never seen sevens as a development game for fifteens, because it’s different in its evolution. It may overtake fifteens in many ways, if you think about the number of people playing, the popularity. I see that as a good thing, it’s a simpler game, it’s easier to play, it’s less physical, and it would attract a lot more players.”
There are good reasons to develop the formats in parallel. The audience experience of the two forms of the game is very different: sevens is more of a travelling show, a weekend carnival, with a host of teams in town and a social media buzz around the overall event. Our research suggests that the two forms of the game will not only be mutually compatible but also mutually reinforcing.
To read more and download the full report, visit the World Rugby website.
Source : Kantar Futures