The 2019 Rugby World Cup is now less than ten months away and in the immediate wake of a successful Autumn International series for the Northern hemisphere teams, including a famous win for Ireland (and oh so nearly England) over the All Blacks, the stage for rugby’s greatest quadrennial event is well and truly set.
It’s not all sunny across the board though. While the Quilter’s Autumn Internationals have allowed for enhanced global appeal due to the presence of the All Blacks and next year’s World Cup hosts, Japan, the Six Nations strifes of the past two years continue. Despite sold-out stadiums and an average attendance of 67,000 the historic tournament remains wrapped in uncertainty after a sheepish return to long time sponsors RBS for a slashed price in 2018. While HSBC are the rumoured front runners for 2019 and beyond, potentially adding to their ongoing sponsorship of the World Sevens Series, the continued delays firmly juxtapose the reported strong commercial health of rugby.
The World Cup, however, is a different beast entirely. As witnessed by every pub in England bursting at the seams during England’s run to the semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, events of such scale are not solely for the traditional, every-day fan. They encourage a huge new audience and while they may only be interested until their country is either eliminated or crowned champion, they boast significant rates of engagement.
The world’s third largest sporting event (behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics) reached new heights in 2015. Broadcast in 208 countries, attended by almost 2.5 million fans and with the final watched by 120 million across the globe, World Rugby’s Chief Executive hailed it as “The biggest and the best ever.” Japan 2019, however, looks set to mount a serious challenge to this statement. Buoyed by additional preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and already remarkable infrastructure, Japan is well prepared for the impending flood of rugby fans from around the world, a number that reached 460,000 during England’s spell as host nation in 2015.
Attested to by a strong performance against the All Blacks and England, rugby in Japan continues to go from strength to strength. A staggering 25 million Japanese viewers tuned in for the Japan vs. Samoa game in 2015, a number which will undoubtedly be bettered in the coming year. Such growth is further reflected at a grass roots level in Asia. Home to 60% of the world’s youth population, World Rugby’s ambitious Asia 1 million project has already attracted 900,000 new rugby participants on the continent, while 1,982 schools in RWC 2019 host cities have introduced tag rugby to their offering. Meanwhile rugby greats such as Dan Carter have further catalysed rugby’s growth across Asia by taking their talents to Japanese club rugby. Carter, an All-Black legend and three-time World Player of the Year, moved from French side Racing 92 to the Kobelco Steelers on a 2-year deal in 2018.
Rugby is additionally boasting a strong rate of engagement across social media (the 2015 tournament was the most discussed sporting event of the year) and a steadily growing rate of interest across rugby playing nations, suggesting that 2019 will be a ground-breaking year for the sport. Focus in the UK remains high with 32% of people said to be interested in the sport, a 2% improvement on 2017. In terms of commercial strength, Nielsen has reported that while 2018 (2,775) has witnessed fewer sponsorship and commercial deals than 2017 (3,121), 2018 has witnessed a 27% increase on 2014 while the values of deals struck in 2018 are of similar value to those struck in 2017, attesting to an increase in value of the average sponsorship or commercial deal.
While the state of rugby’s sponsorship in the UK remains an uncertainty, as highlighted by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, the game’s global presence is going from strength to strength:
“Japan 2019 is shaping up to be World Rugby’s most successful legacy programme to date and with one year still to go, is already a gold standard for engagement across the sporting spectrum.”