In an exclusive interview, we talk with World Rugby’s head of revenue and fan engagement Richard Heaselgrave about the future of rugby’s major events

Why mega events are key to rugby’s future

They say a change is as good as a rest. Well for a global game that barely pauses for breath, in a market competing with other sports and digital offerings, it’s imperative World Rugby regularly evolve their major assets to appeal to new fans.

Enter Richard Heaselgrave, who has been the governing body’s chief of revenue and fan engagement (a fancy way of saying commercial director) for almost eight months. Having worked at the World Rally Championship, UEFA, the NBA, English Football League and Tennis Australia, he’s seen a few sides of sports marketing. And he’s already being talked about as a rising star in the field – at the very least as a man unafraid to enact changes.

We’re talking big switches too. To how Rugby World Cups are both funded and staged. How the entire sport of international sevens will be shaped. And what is being considered to keep you – yes you – switched on. 

“More and more it’s clear that people’s lives are changing and how they’re a fan of rugby or football or tennis or anything is changing,” Heaselgrave begins telling Rugby World. “The idea that you have a bunch of fixed assets and you sell them is of a bygone era.”

Examples? In short order we have seen the Rugby World Cup model change so that the governing body shares the costs of putting on future ‘mega events’, rather than what we’ve seen in Japan or England where it was entirely the organiser’s lookout, to guarantee delivery no matter what but also to try to open up untapped revenue opportunities. And in 2024 the World Rugby Sevens Series will be similarly centrally controlled. How it is packaged will be more focused too. 

In fact, all events will be and Heaselgrave explains. First, let sevens start us off. 

Sevens shake-up

“We’re actually going to take sevens and we’re going to make a youth product,” he tells us. “We’ll create a series of seven glorious events following the sun around the world. I think all sports are struggling with an 18 to 34 audience, and we’re going to turn seven into a festival. Seven little Glastonburys if you like. 

mega events are key to rugby’s future

South Africa and Spain men’s sevens (Getty Images)

“The rugby action right at the middle, we won’t be changing. That works really well. But it only talks to a certain core demographic (and it’s about) getting more people. If you look at the Hong Kong Sevens and Dubai Sevens, they’ve led the way in terms of making those really popular. 

“So as we’re taking on the operation of organising all of those sevens tournaments around the world, in seven spectacular locations, all seven events focused on a youth audience so that we can really say, hand on heart, we are striving to bring young people into into rugby and then showing them a bloody good time. Of which 20% of their day may be watching rugby, with 80% likely music acts, food festivals, mass participation events around that festival.”

There’s a famous saying in Hong Kong: ‘If you ever get bored of the sevens, you can turn around and watch the rugby.’ 

On this, Heaselgrave jumps in: “I couldn’t agree more. 

“And on the series previously, we were saying ‘Hey, look, individual federation – say Rugby Australia – we’d like you to do a tremendous event,’ and then left it for them to do it. Now, do they have the resource or do they have the (wider) vision or opportunity to market this globally? Well, no. 

“What we’re absolutely clear on is that we need to invest in the product, the essence of the day out and all of those things that people can do, it’s not fair if we expect the French federation to. Or goodness knows if we took an event to Ibiza say, if the Spanish federation are able to do it. But we are. 

Ireland sevens

Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe of Ireland sevens (Getty Images)

“We grow a global business development team who can bring in global sponsors. We take the responsibility for that. It’s that link, always, between the commercial outcome of the success of the sport and the passion – if you want to call it the fan experience – which is the product that people are going to buy. 

“If you have those two separate, you end up getting a bunch of sales people selling perimeter advertising and running out. We will never ever run out of ideas for our fans. Never. There will never be a moment when you can’t provide an idea for a sponsor or broadcaster. Because why would you ever do that?”

It’s moves like this that have seen Heaselgrave named at number 17 in Rugby World’s ‘50 Most Influential People in Rugby’ issue.

Related: Bernard Laporte Named Most Influential Person in Rugby 2022

And of change, the administrator goes on with talk of the need to be constantly curious. Sports like rugby have to be mindful of their direct competitors, sure, but then there’s the need to look at what theatre and film and gaming are doing. Because it’s all entertainment, baby. 

Digital growth

He also talks about tone of voice several times. 

One line that stands out is: “We just can’t show up in every group on every topic, dressed as World Rugby.” He mentions dad dancing or Ricky Gervais cutting shapes in the office, but for us it brings to mind the never-dying meme of a middle-aged Steve Buscemi in an episode of 30 Rock, clutching a skateboard and wearing his baseball cap backwards as he utters the immortal line, “How do you do, fellow kids?”

World Rugby’s fan engagement strategy from here on in is interested in digital reach; broadcasts on TV and increasingly highlights; and thirdly, live events. And events have to be curated for certain audiences but few people, especially not young people, like to be seen cutting shapes with big corporate entities. 

Romain Ntamack

Romain Ntamack makes a video call (Getty Images)

On tone, too, there is an acknowledgement that as the governing body there has always had to be a quite serious, factual voice for a lot of what they do. There are law clarifications and disciplinary hearings and qualification explainers and logistics and more. That’s needed. But the organisation also seems savvy enough to realise that punters have not traditionally flocked to their website for what all sports need: a sense of fun. 

Across different platforms, expect how World Rugby talks to you to be different. How successful that is will be borne out of user response and importantly, whether interaction on TikTok and Instagram and efforts to make stars out of certain athletes can be transformed into something meaningful. Cha-ching.

A few times we try to ascertain how much “risk” World Rugby will allow themselves to make a loss through, in the quest to capture more fans. Are flogging NFTs or similar the right way to go, for example? After all, more fans buying more stuff means more money to spread around the global game, however many fear being exploited and some talk of ‘magic beans’. 

But while the idea of being curious and exploring options comes over, Heaselgrave simply adds that if new channels or new digital offerings are demonstrably part of people’s lives, it makes sense to be there with them on those channels. 

Sticking with this thread leads us to a few interesting aspects of strategy as well.

First up, the fan engagement chief talks of casting your eyes ahead. He says: “I think it’s an interesting comparison with social channels or websites or particular marketing channels, but let’s talk about events. Who do we want to be rugby fans in the next 20 years? 

“Now if you and I sat down and had a beer, we would be able to come up with a group of five very simple, big bets on groups of society where, ‘Yeah, maybe we’re not great in this area, but we’d like to be.’ Let’s say, the youth market and let’s call it 18 to 34. Are they in our sport? Do we have an event that’s targeted for them? Well, we’re looking at the sevens again for them. Do we have an event that really, really works well for families with kids at home? And here we’re really talking under 16. Well, we’d have to be honest with ourselves and ask if any of our events do that. 

rugby's future

Michel Hooper of the Wallabies hands out jerseys (Getty Images)

“Then we’ve got massive events, particularly the men’s World Cup, which is generalist but not really good for families. You’ve not got many young people who go to it, as a key demographic. It’s no good if we don’t break it down by audience and say, ‘Do we have an event or property or a marketing channel for them?’ Because funnily enough, they’re probably never going to be our fan if we don’t.

“We either sit on our arse, or we actually do something about it and create something for them.”

Mega events and rugby’s future

We have a women’s World Cup this year, in New Zealand. And then we have the men’s, in France next year. Beyond those, there will be ploys to sell and snare fans differently. In our conversation, future events for men and women in Australia and the United States of America are discussed, and it is clear that World Rugby see enormous potential in those markets, if their new approach is realised there. 

So on the big tent poles, Heaselgrave says: “​​I don’t think sport has scratched the surface in terms of offering what a mega event can be, where a country or a city goes ‘I want to market myself through this mega event that’s hosted in my country. I want to show everything that’s good about Sydney, Perth or Melbourne. And this event gives me the opportunity to do it.’ And as a rugby federation, we’re no longer just happy at looking at the stadiums. We want to see how the cities come alive. Fortunately, governments want the same. 

rugby's future

Fan experience in and out of stadiums is important (Getty Images)

“It’s just reimagining really, or at least being a little bit more relentless in terms of what fans want anyway. The average trip duration to Japan was, I think, nine days. They watched 1.75 games (on average). So we talked to them for 140 minutes. The rest of the trip – did they have a good time or a bad time?”

Later Heaselgrave adds a little more of what is driving this: “Realistically, can we contrive to build experiences outside the stadium, outside of rugby, that are part of this? You ask why I joined World Rugby. Right at the heart of rugby, for me – and we’re doing a lot of work on this at the moment – is the idea that we are a sociable sport.

“When we watch it at home, it’s great. We have multi-generational viewing. I watched the last World Cup with my family in Australia, with different age groups, different genders. People obviously have a drink together, there will be lots of going out for a meal in Paris before you go to the Stade de France. It’s essentially sociable and that’s a unique selling point for our sport. 

“Now you want to dial up the concept that going into a Rugby World Cup is the most sociable experience you’ll ever have at one of life’s mega events. And there’s only a small number of mega events around the world, the Olympics or FIFA World Cup, us, maybe a couple of others. But if that’s our magic sauce, bloody hell I’ll take that. Because that’s not just talking about the match action. It’s no good if you put it in a stadium miles away from the city centre and you’ve got a four-hour wait to get back. That’s not fan experience, that’s not sociable. We’re really interested in that stuff now.”

Festivals. Fan villages folk would want to visit even when there’s no game on. A month-long party. Impacting every city in your World Cup and beyond. It’s easier said than done. But you want everyone else on earth to feel the buzz too though, right?

rugby’s future

Can major events capture the imagination of newcomers? (Getty Images)

“Some events have gone, ‘It’s a much bigger opportunity for us than just the people seated in the arena. How are we bringing the world?’ I’ve got a personal view that even for France 23 so much about promotion and activities celebrating the men’s World Cup is host market-orientated in France. That was the model in Japan. 

“Really what we want to do now is globalise that event. So if – and I’m being mischievous here – the final was in Melbourne, what are you doing in Paris, in New York, in London to celebrate that event? Now that’s the scale of ambition we’d have. We have a mega global event, we’ve just got to be ambitious enough to push it globally.”

There’s change. Then there’s ambitious change. In coming weeks World Rugby will have more announcements on digital offerings. But mega events are coming. 

When it was announced that the US had won the rights to host a men’s and women’s World Cup, the New York Times wrote that the men’s event can “plausibly make the claim to being the third largest sporting event in the world”. To live up to that, then, you have to be ambitious. The same, too, for competitions where growth is a must.

Seven wee Glastonburys a year you say…?

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