With the showpiece of Rugby, the World Cup, coming to a close at the start of November, how truly global is the game?
As of 2018, it was reported that a record of 9.6 million people played the game globally. By contrast, football dwarfs rugby, with over 265 million playing the game according to FIFA. Importantly, these are the latest statistics available and go back to 2006, surely the number of people playing the sport has increased exponentially in this time (especially concerning women’s football).
More worryingly for rugby, in a report from Nielsen, it was the lowest ranked sport in terms of overall interest amongst sports fans, with even newer sports like mixed martial arts (MMA) having a higher share of interest.
So the question becomes, is rugby a truly global sport? And if not, does it have the potential to become one?
Indeed, a report concerning the 2007 World Cup put the viewership figure at 4 billion, yet this was widely debunked as simply being wildly inaccurate. Meanwhile, overall attendance figures for matches declined by over 4% from 2017 to 2018.
However, despite this, country-focused tournaments like the Six Nations and the World Cup have continued to grow, both in terms of sponsorship and also TV audiences. For example, Japan’s game against Scotland at this years World Cup saw a record peak of over 50 million viewers in Japan (impressive for a non-traditional rugby superpower and also a country with a population of over 120 million people.
Most worryingly of all however is it appears that participation levels, especially in two countries which are synonymous with rugby, are actually declining. In Australia there are reports of a record low numbers of players in the sport, meanwhile in New Zealand there has been an “alarming decline” in the number of secondary school player.
Again, it would appear that rugby bodies are seeking to claim numbers that don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Another report, again from Nielsen and commissioned by World Rugby claimed that the sport had over 700 million fans globally. This directly contradicts the Nielsen report mentioned above.
Even for potential growth markets like China there’s been estimates that the game will have over one million Chinese players in a decade. Again, this could happen, but in comparison to football, it seems unlikely, especially when the Chinese government is actually put in place state-sponsored plans to boost participation and interest in football directly, as detailed in a previous BusinessOfSport blog post.
Where Could The Game Grow?
So far I’m painting a not particularly flattering picture. However, rugby’s real potential, more than the club game, is, in my opinion, in national-level tournaments. Whereas club football has come to dominate, with fans increasingly bored by the international game (outside of tournaments), this is where rugby’s future could really lie.
Again, its biggest issue relates to that fact it is just not played in enough countries, and also that there is a huge disparity in the quality of teams globally. For example, currently Greece only has 11 clubs, comprising of just 300 players, out of a population of 10 million.
While rugby will maintain high levels of interest amongst core nations like Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand and Wales, other nations will really struggled to bridge the gaps in terms of quality. In fact, it could take 25-50 years for the lesser known nations to develop. Meanwhile, in the face of football, rugby will be an even further distance behind in terms of participation and also interest levels.
This World Cup will undoubtedly smash all attendance, viewership, sponsorship records to date for world rugby, which can only be a good thing for the development of the game. Yet, rugby simply can’t be classed as a global game in the way soccer can be.
Much progress, but much more to do.