New sevens series start in Dubai
Aiming to capitalize on Rio 2016 success
Big gains in rugby's worldwide audience
After an Olympic “fairytale,” rugby is on a roll – but can it maintain the momentum?
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper says research has shown the sport has recruited 60 million fans in the past 18 months, with half of those coming from the six days when sevens made its debut at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The story of the Fiji men’s team winning the Pacific Island nation’s first medal of any kind – and it was gold – captured the hearts of viewers around the globe.
Now, three months later, Gosper is hoping the new Sevens World Series season can capitalize on the game’s recent boom.
“The series has been growing very rapidly,” the Australian told CNN ahead of this week’s opening men’s and women’s 2016-17 tournaments in Dubai.
“We had a new group of destinations last year – Vancouver, Singapore, Sydney, Cape Town – and we built our fan base, the actual attendance, to 700,000 – which was considerably higher than the previous year.
“There’s a huge buzz around that property. We’ve now got six stops on the women’s tour, 10 on the men’s tour. It’s a bit like Formula One, it travels around the world, it’s highly global.
“This is something that really can ensure that between Olympics, rugby sevens doesn’t have a trough and retains that excitement throughout.”
The International Olympic Committee will confirm next year which sports feature at Tokyo 2020, and Gosper is confident sevens will be on the program “for a long time” after the positive impact rugby made in Brazil following a 92-year absence.
“We knew when it got to the field the players would step up and perform because in the HSBC Sevens Series there’s never a bad tournament, it’s always spectacular. We really got the fairytale story in the end,” he says.
“It sits well at the Olympics, we got some high ratings around the world from a broadcast perspective and there was a huge buzz. All of those things point to the fact we’ll be in the Olympics for a long time, hopefully.”
Brazil, however, is not in the men’s world series – Argentina, which placed fifth last season and sixth at the Olympics, is South America’s sole representative among the core teams.
Brazil’s women will again be part of the women’s series, having improved from 10th last season to ninth at the Olympics.
“On the legacy front, we’ve been planning for a long time, working with the (Brazilian rugby) union to make sure that we can really embed the sport in the country,” Gosper says.
“We’ve seen huge growth there around the Olympics, through sponsorship, and getting a rugby program in schools.”
‘Cherry Blossoms’ bloom
There will be big interest in Japan’s performance in the men’s competition, having returned to the top tier.
The country’s shock win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup has stoked passion for the game there ahead of its own hosting of the 15-a-side tournament in 2019, while its sevens team made it to the semifinals of the Olympics before losing the bronze medal match against South Africa.
“It’s very different for rugby to be in the context of Asia for the first time,” Gosper says of the continent’s debut staging of the game’s premier tournament.
“We’re expecting big crowds, big numbers of visitors and a really spectacular backdrop that we’re not used to seeing in rugby. It will be culturally very different to any World Cup we’ve had before.”
Nielsen Sports surveyed six of rugby’s key markets before and after the Olympics – Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Britain and the US – and found that group alone had brought in almost 17 million new fans.
Gosper says Germany, where rugby is a minor sport, had TV audiences of four million during the Olympic sevens and three million for some 2015 World Cup matches.
“It’s been in that country for a long time but it just seems to be going through a bit of a resurgence, as it is in Spain as well,” he says.
Growing the game
The big prizes, however, are the US and Chinese markets.
“The United States is not just an investment market in terms of growth in numbers, for us it’s a return-on-investment market because we’ll see that in terms of revenue, in terms of broadcast during Rugby World Cups. It’s already the fastest growing team sport in America.”
World Rugby has signed a 10-year, $100 million deal with Ali Sports – part of e-commerce giant Alibaba – aimed at growing the Chinese game from grassroots level and setting up professional leagues.
“One day they’d like to host a Rugby World Cup as well. They’re in a hurry to do big things in rugby so that can only, of course with the population they have, result in huge numbers,” Gosper says.
China is a long way from having a sevens team in the world series, but it can take inspiration from the recent progress of Uganda – which returns this week after a decade away.
The African rugby minnow won its 2016 regional tournament to earn an invitational place at the first two rounds in Dubai and Cape Town (December 10-11), and will also have the chance to earn a spot for the 2017-18 series in April’s qualifier at the Hong Kong Sevens.
“The win has buoyed the lads in schools and the communities,” head coach Tolbert Onyango told the World Rugby website.
“They now see that there’s a clear pathway to greater things; there is more to play for and their dreams can finally come true of playing on the world stage against top teams in the world.”