Monday 18 December 2017

A triumph of hype and good marketing

John Greene

John Greene

I t may come as a surprise to many that the Rugby World Cup lays claim to being the third largest sporting event in the world, behind only the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.

It may come as an even bigger surprise that rugby is now played competitively in 117 countries by over five million men, women and children.

It is remarkable that the International Rugby Board has managed to grow, probably beyond its wildest dreams, a competition that since its inception in 1987 has been won by four countries -- New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England -- in its six stagings. It's even more remarkable given that only five teams -- those four plus France -- have ever gone into the competition with any realistic hope of winning it. In fact, they are the only five capable of winning the tournament at any time in the foreseeable future.

What other 'world' competition can only be won by five countries? Baseball's world series has more potential winners and even cricket casts a marginally wider net in terms of potential winners of its showpiece.

Cricket, like rugby, talks a lot about game development but where last week's decision by the ICC to exclude developing nations like Ireland from the World Cup exposes their vacuous talk, rugby likes to present a different picture.

But is there more in common between the two tournaments than they would like to admit? Certainly, in terms of length there is -- cricket's recently finished World Cup lasted six weeks, rugby's will last for six and a half weeks. That's an awful lot of time spent trying to find out which of a handful of countries will win. Even soccer's version -- with more potential champions in the field, and certainly more evenly-matched teams -- is significantly shorter.

Rugby, like cricket, also struggles to maintain spectator interest from start to finish given the severity of the gap between the strong and weak nations.

In 2007, New Zealand scored 309 points in their four pool games, conceding just 35, while Australia had 215 points against 41. In fact, of the 40 pool games spread over four weeks, just nine had a converted try in the difference at the final whistle, of which only four involved a Tri Nations or Six Nations team. Effectively, bar a couple of early sparring bouts as the bigger teams jockey for position, the Rugby World Cup does not start until the quarter-final stage, over a month into the tournament.

And this is why it is extraordinary that the four-year cycle between tournaments has become such a focus for the bigger nations, who effectively start preparing for the next as soon as the last one finishes. Because the truth is that the success of the Rugby World Cup is as much a victory for marketing and commercial ingenuity as it is for the actual game of rugby.

At least rugby, despite the obvious massive flaws in the very concept of a world cup, makes all the right noises when it comes to inclusiveness. In cricket, it's a different story, as we saw last week.

Furthermore, a report published last week shows just how important the Rugby World Cup has become to the sport. Revenue from the last tournament four years ago accounted for 95 per cent of the money spent by the IRB on worldwide game development since and the next four years is expected to proceed on broadly similar lines. And, as the report notes, funds available for investment have increased significantly as the Rugby World Cup has grown.

The headline figures in the study, which looks specifically at the game's development in the second and third-tier nations, are interesting. The key findings are that participation in rugby has increased by 19 per cent since the last World Cup. Participation figures remain highest in Europe but growth elsewhere has been significant, by 33 per cent in Africa, 22 per cent in South America and 18 per cent in Asia and North America. The authors note: "These huge increases have also been linked to revenue generation with a £1 million surplus in 1987 rising to £122.4 million in 2007."

The study also looks at participation levels by country. The top ten nations in terms of participation in 2008 were the traditional Six Nations and Tri Nations sides plus Argentina. But this picture is changing as Japan, Sri Lanka and the USA all feature in the top ten for 2010.

Ireland figures at fourth in the list, behind England, South Africa and France, and ahead of New Zealand. (Ireland has 153,080 registered players at all ages, versus 137,835 in New Zealand and 2,549,196 in England.)

Participation in Ireland has clearly benefited from the successes of the last decade in winning a Grand Slam, Triple Crowns and three Heineken Cups, as well as from having players like Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell who, aside from being among the best to ever wear an Irish jersey, are also highly marketable.

The continued growth of the sport worldwide is mirrored in Ireland, where clever and localised marketing and commercial strategies have seen it expand into non-traditional areas, particularly in the greater Leinster area. The IRFU and the provinces have used their key assets, the likes of O'Gara (pictured), O'Driscoll and O'Connell, to good effect in this regard.

Internationally, the inclusion of Sevens in the 2016 Olympics and the increased investment are seen as the main factors behind the sport's growth. But while there is a strong positive correlation between participation and performance, all evidence suggests that this will not translate into the international game for many years to come. Like cricket, rugby's top table remains the exclusive preserve of the few and there won't be any new seats available for a long, long time.

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