Will this be Rugby’s Perfect Moment?

Back in September 2014, a year out from Rugby World Cup 2015, Synergy gathered a panel of experts at the top of The Shard, with an audience of sports sponsorship glitterati, to debate whether the upcoming tournament would be ‘Rugby’s Perfect Moment’. Could this be the year for rugby to break free from the pack to establish itself as the number two UK sport? Could 2015 be a catalyst to super-charge rugby’s international expansion?

With a panel including Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby; Damian Hopley, CEO of the Rugby Players’ Association; and Rose Beaumont, Senior Vice President and Group Head of Communications of Rugby World Cup Worldwide Partner MasterCard, it may come as no surprise that the debate was how, not if, this year would be ‘Rugby’s Perfect Moment’. But what underpins such confidence that 2015 could step change rugby’s profile, in the UK and beyond?

A Solid Set Piece

As a globally relevant spectacle, the Rugby World Cup (RWC) is on an upward trajectory, with each tournament surpassing its previous incarnation. The 2011 tournament in New Zealand may have been less commercially lucrative, with small stadia forcing ticket sales down 40% on 2007 and some pretty unfriendly match scheduling as far as European broadcasters were concerned, but it didn’t stop World Rugby continuing to tout their showpiece event as the world’s 3rd biggest tournament. There is no debate on the top two – the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup are pre-eminent in terms of interest and media coverage – but many a rightsholder makes claim to the final podium position.

What is Rugby World Cup’s argument over the likes of the F1 Championship, the Champions League, the European Football Championship, the Ryder Cup and the NFL? ‘It is the third biggest global event of an international flavour,’ claims Gosper, citing the number of participating unions, the TV footprint, cumulative TV audience of 4bn, and ticket sales. While many observers, including Synergy’s CEO Tim Crow, have raised eyebrows at such pronouncements, there is no doubt that the platform for growth is strong. RWC 2015 will produce an estimated 20,000 hours of coverage, broadcast in over 200 territories, to over 800 million homes. A return to the commercial epicentre of global rugby means the 2015 edition is set to be the biggest yet.

An Expansive Game Plan

From such a proven set-piece, rugby has the opportunity to reach hitherto untouched communities and audiences. From a UK perspective, the challenge for tournament organisers England Rugby 2015 (ER2015), and longer-term for the RFU, is to help rugby expand from the traditional heartlands and engage a new audience, who will not only be captivated during the tournament, but will stick with the sport once the big show has packed up and moved on, destination Japan 2019. The dreaded L-word: legacy.

But first the nation needs to be in thrall to tournament itself. And if you want a playbook for capturing the public imagination, it doesn’t get much more compelling than London 2012. Who better to implement that blueprint than the LOCOG team – including Chief Executive Debbie Jevans and Director of Comms Jo Manning-Cooper – who have been parachuted into the ER2015 organising committee? From ‘The Pack’ of 6,000 volunteers (RWC’s ‘Games Makers’) to the 100-day Domestic Trophy Tour (there is no Torch to ‘relay’ when it comes to rugby), the London 2012 tactics are being redeployed to give the tournament more geographic and demographic reach.

Arguably the RWC has an in-built advantage. Whereas the Olympics and Paralympics were London (or at least South-East) specific, each over within a couple of weeks, RWC 2015 is a six-week tournament, played out across 13 venues in 11 cities nationwide. Not only will host cities share the 48 matches, their staging agreements include commitments to deliver Fanzones, where the ticket-less can watch matches on big screens, participate in various rugby experiences and sponsor activations, and feel part of the tournament.

The intention is clear: a genuinely inclusive and national tournament. As Gosper comments, ‘London enhanced the Olympic brand. I’m hoping the same will be true of England 2015 for the RWC brand.’ ER2015’s stated ambition to make the UK a ‘rugby nation’ in 2015 – seemingly shared by Visit England – began with Stuart Lancaster starting Newcastle’s firework display and unveiling a RWC 2015 logo on the Tyne Bridge, and will continue through Olympic-esque countdown milestones, such as ‘100 days to go’ and the launch of the Domestic Trophy tour on June 10th.

A Big Scrum

The ER2015 marketing approach is clear, but what about the consumer appetite? With over five million ticket applications during the first 17-day sales window – the highest demand for any RWC to date – and approaching two million tickets sold, initial signs are good. While ER2015 are still ‘expecting’ complete sell-outs across all matches, the over-supply of Millennium Stadium matches looks to be a minor miscalculation. It remains to be seen whether the frenzy for tickets – aptly echoed in ER2015’s ‘world’s largest scrum’ PR stunt to launch the ticket drive – has brought in a new audience. Regardless of the ultimate make-up and volume of tournament spectators, that prerequisite for successful sporting competitions – packed stadia – is guaranteed, and RWC 2015 will be the most attended RWC ever.

Bums on seats are essential not just for the spectator experience, but also for how the spectacle translates to pubs and homes across the nation via ITV’s coverage. RWC is a lucrative asset for the broadcaster. A 30-second TV ad spot in an England pool match is likely to set you back £100,000, with the price escalating the further Stuart Lancaster’s men progress in the tournament. ITV will be hoping the host nation advance to the latter stages, so audiences are closer to the 15.8m who tuned in for the England v South Africa Final in 2007, than the 7.6m who watched the England v France Quarter-Final in 2011 – both England’s final (and most watched) games in the respective tournaments.

It appears that ITV’s money men are planning for success. As a barometer of consumer interest, the reports that RWC will bump X-Factor from its sacred Saturday night slot suggest change is in the air. This is reinforced by Repucom analysis, which suggests that the proportion of people in the UK interested in rugby is set to jump from 35% to over 46% in 2015. That would translate to an extra five million rugby fans in the UK. Quite a surge in interest, and a mouth-watering opportunity for rugby sponsors.

Forward Drive

Back to the ‘L’ word, and rugby’s chances of harnessing the heightened consumer interest to create a sustainable, long-term increase in followers and participants. The RFU palpably failed to capitalise on England’s RWC triumph in 2003, so what should they do differently this time? Perhaps best not to follow the Olympic blueprint on this one, according to Tim Crow: ‘The London 2012 Olympic legacy ultimately became a toxic subject. People never fully understood why the money was being spent. We want the aftermath for the Rugby World Cup to be really impactful. And I’m not sure we’re completely there yet on explaining what the event’s legacy is meant to be.’

The RFU is talking a good game. Planning started three years out, focused on building capacity and increasing participation: £10m to be invested in facilities; over £1m in newly qualified coaches and referees; £500,000 in recruiting lapsed players. Perhaps the most interesting initiatives are those spreading the gospel to new audiences – the All Schools programme aiming to bring rugby union into 750 state schools by 2019, and investment in touch rugby as a more accessible entry point to the game. The money and programmes are there, but much depends on England’s on-pitch performance providing the requisite inspiration for a new generation. Failure to emerge from the group of death could have huge ramifications on the future of the game in England.

Foreign Muscle

Beyond the UK, the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour – a global procession of the Webb Ellis Cup delivered in partnership with RWC Worldwide partners Land Rover and DHL – is helping to foster international anticipation. In 2014 it made its way across 10 countries, from the core rugby nations of Australia, Fiji, Argentina, and South Africa to burgeoning rugby hotspots such as China and the UAE. The sport is already breaking free of its heartlands and growing at a significant rate. In the US, while participation in baseball and basketball fell between 2008 and 2013 (14.5% and 9.3% respectively), rugby participation grew 81%, more than any other sport, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Indeed, in 2008 the top 10 countries in terms of rugby participation were the usual suspects – the RBS 6 Nations and Rugby Championship nations. By 2010, the top 10 included the United States, plus Japan and Sri Lanka.

The RWC is the commercial catalyst for the game globally, and World Rugby’s profits from each tournament are invested in the growth of the game through initiatives such as their ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme. But a very different dynamic, and slightly different sport, are responsible for creating a ‘perfect moment’ for rugby globally. The biggest surge in participation materialised when the International Olympic Committee voted to add Rugby Sevens for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games. A shorter format, more accessible for new fans and players alike, and with a greater chance of success for smaller, less affluent rugby federations such as Fiji and Kenya. The growth of Sevens, and its involvement at Rio 2016, are arguably the most significant factors in rugby’s international development. It remains to be seen how compatible the two forms of the game remain. The tension between Test Match cricket and T20 could well be replicated in rugby as players become short-form specialists and younger fans gravitate to the festival nature of a Sevens event. For the time being, rugby’s global icons will remain in the 15-a-side game, with RWC its pinnacle.

A Deft Sidestep

RWC 2015 is on track to be a record-breaking tournament on every measure. Commercial success is all but guaranteed, and the tournament organisers have 2015 largely to themselves as they look to build anticipation. The Ashes will take the limelight for a while, but will also help to stoke the fire of traditional England–Aussie rivalry, ahead of the Pool A showdown at Twickenham on October 3rd. The global game is in rude health, fuelled by Olympic dreams, and will continue its expansion east with Japan 2019 on the horizon. But the real test will be whether RWC 2015 grabs hold of a new audience and pulls them into rugby’s embrace for good. Sponsors have a massive role to play in taking the rugby message beyond traditional audiences. Brand activation around the 2011 tournament was relatively underwhelming, and it will be interesting to see how many RWC and National team sponsors step up to the plate this year.

So, Rugby’s Perfect Moment? Well, as Stephen Jones, The Sunday Times’ rugby correspondent, pointed out at the top of the Shard, if rugby was meant to be perfect they would be using a round ball. Imperfect maybe, given how much rests on the shoulders of a team scuppered at the previous tournament by mystery blondes and dwarf tossing, but undoubtedly Rugby’s Biggest Moment.

Tom’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.