Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan – a gamble or a stroke of genius?

Posted on
September 10, 2019
Switching on the TV in the office to watch the opening ceremony of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan at 11am on Friday 20th September is going to feel strange considering the emotions felt in Twickenham Stadium four years ago. It is not just that the opening game, Japan vs. Russia, doesn’t quite whet the appetite like England vs. Fiji at Twickenham in front of 80,000 home fans, it is that fact that the greatest global tournament on earth (I am biased!) is being played on the other side of the world in a completely different time zone.  Evening beers in the pubs with friends in front of giant screens will be replaced by fry-ups with the kids watching matches from the sofa!
This Rugby World Cup will however be very special in its own right: it is taking this global tournament to Japan for the very first time, spreading the game in the Eastern world after the country was so gripped by the tournament when it created the greatest upset in history – defeating the mighty Springboks in 2015. 25 million Japanese tuned in to watch Japan play Samoa the following weekend and the country went rugby mad in support of the Cherry Blossoms.

Commercial pressures of the tournament

The pressure is on World Rugby, however, to prove the tournament going to Japan will be a success and it is going to be hard to surpass the records broken by England 2015:
  • 1.4 million people attended games in the tournament
  • 120 million people watched the World Cup Final
  • £25 million invested in the grassroots of the game
  • 520 clubs in the UK received funding for advancing facilities
  • 400 more secondary schools playing rugby
The decision to move the tournament to the Far East was a “bold move” by Brett Gosper’s (CEO of World Rugby) own admission and success for the tournament will be judged very differently. Despite the broad commercial considerations for World Rugby there are also some far-reaching considerations for the major partners to the event.
For international brands, such as the six Worldwide Partners – Heineken, Societé Generalé, DHL, Land Rover, Emirates and Mastercard – they simply won’t be able to activate on the ground as they did in the UK. Japan is a smaller market for a number of these brands and as a result they will have to re-align then activation spend accordingly – whether it be local experiential activity, hospitality programmes or promotions.
When running Land Rover’s sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup in 2015, it was not only in one of our largest markets, it was in our home market. We could justify a considerable hospitality and experiential programme along with a fully integrated communications campaign. This is not going to be the case for a number of the Worldwide Partners in 2019 but what we can expect is some smart activations away from the tournament in their key strategic rugby markets.
What does this mean for sponsor activation locally in Japan? World Rugby took the decision in 2016 to pass all local rights on to Dentsu, the Japanese advertising and marketing giant,  to attract sponsor and supplier-level partners within a market where major Japanese organisations are keen to support and associate with the biggest sports event to be hosted in Japan in more than a decade.
This is sensible and smart thinking and I suspect visitors to the tournament will experience far more exposure to local brands while some Worldwide Partner activation will be focused outside of Japan.

Where the tournament has been hosted

  1. 1987 – Australia and New Zealand
  2. 1991 – England, Wales, France, Ireland and Scotland
  3. 1995 – South Africa
  4. 1999 – Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England and France
  5. 2003 – Australia
  6. 2007 – France
  7. 2011 – New Zealand
  8. 2015 – England
  9. 2019 – Japan
  10. 2023 – France

Where to host the tournament going forwards?

This is a tough decision for World Rugby whose mission is to grow the game, globally. Large rugby markets generate significant revenues which can then be reinvested in the game. Recent tournaments in France and England have had over 90% stadium capacity and each totalled attendances in excess of two million.
Although less commercially interesting, hosting the tournament in smaller markets can have profound effects though. The Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995, united the Rainbow Nation and had an impact beyond anyone’s imagination, except perhaps Nelson Mandela. The tournament represents more than just a commercial entity and will always have to return to the likes of New Zealand and Australia; cornerstone nations in world rugby.  
World Rugby has identified that by announcing two tournaments in succession they are able to take a balanced approach to the growth of the game.
“The decision by World Rugby to award two World Cup hostings at the same time is something that should be considered by the board for the future.” Commented Brett Gosper in a recent article in the Japan Times.
“You can be strategic because by nominating England for the 2015 edition — relatively low risk with promise of high returns — gave us the time and the assurance to delve into the uncharted territory of Japan hosting the tournament,” Gosper concluded.

What can we expect from Japan 2019?

Having lived in Japan during my teenage years, I can assure those who are lucky enough to be travelling out to the Rugby World Cup that they are in for a treat, it will be the most extraordinary experience. There is incredible beauty and culture in the country and I hope this comes through in the coverage for those of us watching back home. I have no doubt that the hosts will make it truly memorable but let’s hope that the tournament does have a lasting legacy.
If Japan 2019 can demonstrate the value of developing rugby nations hosting the tournament, increasing participation and the commercial growth of the game, and importantly leading to a greater competition at the top level of the game, internationally, then it will be easier for World Rugby to take the tournament to new countries and markets on a more regular basis.
It appears they are off to a good start with World Rugby claiming this week that in Japan alone they have introduced 769,000 new children to tag rugby and have coached over 10,000 tag teachers. Across the nation as a whole, one million children have taken up the sport as a direct result of their Impact Beyond programme - a partnership between World Rugby, the Japanese RFU and Asia Rugby which started in 2016.
Rugby is an inclusive game with great values of teamwork, determination, respect and discipline. Let’s hope Japan 2019 lives up to those values and World Rugby continues to tread the fine line of developing the game in new markets whilst protecting the commercial viability of the sport long term.

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Posted on
September 10, 2019
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