Rugby’s huge economic potential

> Antoinette Muller

On 3 October 2015, Japan recorded 25 million viewers for their victory over Samoa in the Rugby World Cup. While the Tier One and Tier Two system is far from perfect, the tremendous growth the sport has seen over the last 20 years could teach cricket an economic lesson or two.

Professional sport is no longer just a game. It’s a serious business. And in the world of sport, no business is bigger than the broadcasting rights that see games beamed to billions of fans around the globe. Japan’s victory over Samoa at the Rugby World Cup was watched by 25-million people in Japan alone, a record number of viewers for a rugby match in the country. The previous record was 20.7-million back in 2007, when the French broadcaster TF1 showed England defeat France in Paris in the semi-final of the World Cup.

It’s no wonder World Rugby chiefs picked up on it faster than you could say “ruck”.

“This is a significant result for the game in Japan. It shows that the general population there appreciate the sport and the amazing performances of their national team over the past few weeks,” said World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper.

“Their style of play has really caught the imagination of rugby fans around the world and, as these broadcast numbers indicate, in Japan.”

Japan’s style of play, and their success, has captured the imaginations of people from all over the globe. They have come a long way since losing 145-17 against New Zealand back in 1995. In fact, such massive margins of defeat rarely happen these days. There might be big wins for some teams, but no more than you expect. For this, World Rugby deserves some credit, but that does not mean that it’s all smooth sailing.

While “the minnows” have taken some strides, the big teams have taken leaps and if the saying is true that you only get smarter by playing the smarter opponent, then you will find World Rugby lacking. Rather like cricket’s closed club of England, Australia and India, rugby has its own little clique of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. But here is the key difference: the door is not completely shut to those who want in. Argentina’s inclusion into the “Rugby Championship” and the inclusion of an Argentinian team and a Japanese team in the Super Rugby competition shows that the bosses who pull the purse strings at least realise where their bread could be buttered and that they are not afraid of sharing the butter around, unlike cricket bosses.

Cashing in on the interest from across the globe can stretch further than success on the pitch, though. A number of the teams at this year’s Rugby World Cup still rely on foreign-born players to make up the numbers. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, it is simply the nature of the global village.

In fact, only one team – Argentina – has a squad that is entirely home grown. Fascinatingly, the World Cup has a total of 33 countries playing when counting the nationalities of players. Africa leads the way with the biggest participation numbers with players born in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and Zimbabwe joining participants Namibia and South Africa. Zimbabwe has the most players representing different countries, more than any other non-competing country. David Pocock (Australia), David Denton (Scotland), Taku Ngwenya (US) and Tendai Mtawarira (South Africa) are Zimbabwe’s representatives.

But as rugby continues to grow across the globe, these numbers are likely to decrease. Still, the opportunity to cash in on the eyeballs across the globe presents an opportunity not just for the bosses who want to make money, but for the players, too.

The growth of rugby in Japan – and the professional league that has come with it – is a sign of the times of professional sport. It will irk the patriots, but playing for your country is no longer the number one goal in a sportsperson’s career, and why should it be? Sporting careers are short and dangerous. The US will soon launch professional leagues – both for XVs and Sevens. The potential of sport to create jobs is something that is often overlooked when people talk about growing an economy, but only a fool would deny its potential.

Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and while there is still some discrepancy between the Tier One and Tier Two teams in terms of funding, rugby’s will to grow the game is encouraging and a complete contrast to the way cricket is approaching things. Next year, rugby will return to the Olympics in the Sevens format, which is likely to see the game spread even further. Cricket still refuses to opt for cricket at the Olympics and it continues to exclude smaller countries from its Future Tours Programme and this surely makes cricket bosses the biggest fools of all.   Daily Maverick

October 2015
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