The 2019 Rugby World Cup is in full swing after a gripping opening week. In the next few weeks, all eyes will be on Japan as the host of the 4-yearly tournament, with games taking place in twelve of the country’s largest cities. Exciting times, not only for rugby fans but also for brands as they are (and should be) eager to tap into the buzz around not only the World Cup, but the sport of rugby in general. Even in Belgium rugby is gaining an increasingly enthusiastic following, consisting of both fans and players. National and international brands are salivating.
3rd largest sports event in the world
The sport of rugby is big and it’s only getting bigger. The Rugby World Cup is the 3rd largest sports event in the world after the summer olympics and the Football World Cup.
The Rugby World Cup reaches a worldwide audience of fans, with the global fanbase having grown by 24% to 780 million fans since 2013. During the previous World Cup in the UK, almost 2,5 million fans attended the live games, while the TV audience of the final comprised of 120 million viewers.
The Rugby World Cup organisation anticipates that this year, more than 400,000 fans will travel to Japan and the tournament will be broadcast on 40 TV channels in 34 different countries. In Belgium, fans can watch the knockout stage on Telenet Play Sports. The event is expected to generate a turnover of more than € 400 million.
Evidently, the Rugby World Cup will generate significant interest and audiences that lead to an impressive level of exposure for all brands and sponsors involved.
A new wave of Rugby fans
Traditionally, rugby’s popularity has been the strongest in the countries partaking in the yearly Six Nations competition and in former British colonies such as New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. However, we are seeing a major expansion in popularity in countries such as Spain, Uruguay, Germany, the USA and even Belgium whose participating numbers are going through the roof.
This brings with it hordes of casual fans, which alongside the hardcore fans give rugby a much broader reach. Also, during the World Cup, a lot of people will take an interest just because they like sports and the tournament is very well marketed and engaging. Additionally, it helps that the New Zealand team has been given a certain hero-like aura, with the ‘Haka’ being the number-one fan experience in the game of rugby and known to all sports fans worldwide, whether they are into the game of rugby or not.
The shift in fanbase has also happened since brands have more opportunities to engage with the rugby public. Everybody can be exposed to the sport, whether it is through traditional marketing or social media. The fact that rugby (the 7’s variant) became a fully integrated part in the Rio De Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016 has also resulted in an exponentially larger and more diverse audience.
In Belgium there are currently 65 rugby clubs and the growth is not going to plateau any time soon. The sport is mainly gaining interest in the French speaking part of the country thanks to the popularity of the French national team. The Black Devils, Belgium’s national rugby team, have never qualified for the World Cup. However, the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France should be a realistic target.
For the first time in history the sport’s biggest event is being held outside of one of its traditional strongholds. The World Rugby, the world governing body for the Game of Rugby Union, believes a flame has been lit with the arrival of the World Cup in Japan. They say the interest is phenomenal and young people in Japan are getting into rugby more than ever before.
If the Japanese national team performs well, the game could take on new levels on a national scale. And with Japan being Asia’s second-largest economy and something of a regional trendsetter, chances are sports fans all over the continent will pay close attention.
World Rugby’s goal is to add 2 million new players across the region by the end of next year and seeing another Asian team qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
The numbers are also there to prove that female interest in the sport is growing. 40% of the fanbase for rugby worldwide are female. There has been a 28% increase since 2017 in registered female rugby players. Needless to say, women will play an important role in the future growth of the game.
World Rugby has teamed up with fun video app TikTok to launch its own channel and hashtag challenge on the video-sharing platform for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. By introducing the #RugbyFever challenge, fans are encouraged to share their excitement about the tournament. The channel is already bringing rugby to new mass audiences through Tik Tok’s global appeal with Gen Z. Since the start of the World Cup, over 12 million people have engaged with the challenge.
The rise of rugby will be both an opportunity and a challenge for brands. The key to success will be to take the time to understand and engage the new wave of rugby fans, without forgetting the traditional audience.