Fans enjoy the party atmosphere at the USA Sevens

Rugby has experienced a big increase in participation since the last Rugby World Cup, driven in large part by strong growth from emerging markets, according to research commissioned by MasterCard Worldwide.

MasterCard’s study – the Economic Impact Report on Global Rugby: Strategic and Emerging Markets – finds that global participation has increased by 19% since Rugby World Cup in 2007. Rugby is now the sport of choice for more than 5 million men, women and children in over 117 countries.

The research is the third in a series that MasterCard commissioned the Centre for the International Business of Sport (CIBS) to conduct on the economic impact of Rugby globally and associated demographic trends, following the Six Nations and Tri Nations reports released last year. This instalment examines Rugby in emerging markets and the development of the Game in non-traditional areas.

In comparison to 2007 figures, emerging nations across the globe are catching up on the traditional playing territories in Europe and Oceania in terms of participants, with growth increasing by 18% in Asia. In Africa and South America significant increases of 33% and 22% respectively have occurred. While participation figures are highest in Europe, non-traditional Rugby playing nations in Eastern Europe have also emerged, contributing to the 22% increase seen across the continent as a whole. The study shows that these unprecedented levels of growth can be attributed to three main factors:

Rugby Sevens’ inclusion in the Olympic Games programme from 2016.

Event hosting strategies often with linked legacy programs: The diffusion of Rugby via the hosting of major events is a clear strategy for some countries. The IRB legacy programme involves participating teams in tournaments in development work with local children, often in deprived areas, many of whom would otherwise have had no exposure to Rugby.

IRB programmes and investment: GBP153 million (USD248 million) is being invested from 2009 to 2012, an increase of 20% over the previous funding cycle. This is made possible due to the commercial success of Rugby World Cup.

At the micro level, the study shows that while the top ten playing nations in terms of participation in 2008 were the traditional Six Nations and Tri Nations sides plus Argentina[1], this picture is changing, with Japan, Sri Lanka and the US all featuring in the top ten for 2010.

Japan was the top Asian market ranked fifth worldwide with 122,598 registered players ahead of Sri Lanka (103,325), Argentina (102,790), Australia (86,952) and the US (81,678). England (2,549,196[2]), South Africa (632,184) and France (273,084) topped the table for 2010 participation.

Participation in Africa is being driven by a surge in young recruits – more than 80% of the continent’s players are under 20 years old. The report attributes the growth of Rugby in Africa to the high profile of Sevens Rugby – particularly following the success of Kenya – and new development initiatives funded through the IRB’s Strategic Investment Programme.

The report suggests that Rugby is penetrating untapped Asian markets too, including Pakistan, where participation quadrupled over the past two years with an increase of 250% in the last year alone, and Iran, where the sport is now played in 15 out of 30 provinces and where Women’s Rugby thrives.

“Rugby is in a healthy state with participation now spreading through new territories and across demographics in emerging markets. While traditionally Rugby has been concentrated in relatively small pockets, it is widely accepted that the future strength and development of the sport is dependent on achieving a higher level of competitive balance between the developed and emerging rugby nations,” said Professor Simon Chadwick, Director of the Centre for the International Business of Sport (CIBS) at Coventry University.

Japan, China, the US: Strategically Important Emerging Rugby Markets

The study finds Asia’s interest in Rugby has been boosted by Japan securing hosting rights for Rugby World Cup 2019 and Rugby Sevens’ status as an Olympic sport from 2016, which is expected to have a huge impact on development across the Region.

Participation in China has grown 13% since 2009, according to the report, but is currently a miniscule 5,430 registered players from a population of 1.3 billion. While 89% of participants are over-20 males, the Chinese women’s Sevens team has been more successful than the men’s team. It is one of the top ranked women’s sides in Asia although it lost to Kazakhstan in finals of the Asian Games. Rugby Sevens has been added to the 2013 Chinese National Games programme and will be included in the national development system aimed at developing elite athletes.

While Rugby is still thought of as a niche, amateur sport in the US, it shows a 350% participation increase since 2004 and staggering growth in terms of economic impact. The 2007 US Sevens International tournament in San Diego had an estimated impact of USD625,000. In 2010, the tournament, a round of the record-breaking HSBC Sevens World Series, moved to Las Vegas and was estimated to have a non-gaming economic impact of USD17 million for the city. Growing interest is reflected by broadcast deals recently concluded for Rugby Sevens and Rugby World Cup 2011 and 2015, marking the first time Rugby will be shown live on US network television.

IRB Chairman, Bernard Lapasset, said: “These are extremely exciting times for Rugby with strong growth and participation worldwide. This report, commissioned by MasterCard, underlines that growth is not just continuing, but is accelerating and is as prominent in emerging Rugby markets as traditional Rugby countries.

“The IRB is committed to the development of the Game and through a strong programme of investment, coaching and education funded through the commercial success of Rugby World Cup we are committed to ensuring that more men, women and children can enjoy a sport that brings people together through values of integrity, respect, solidarity.”

“We are also noticing the boost that Olympic Games inclusion has given Rugby and we are excited by the opportunities that are now being presented to our Member Unions through National Olympic Committee and as we count down to Rio 2016. We are working in partnership with the IOC and the Olympic family to ensure that Rugby Sevens’ Olympic debut is both memorable and successful.”

Participation Drives Performance

The study uncovers a strong positive correlation between the number of Rugby participants in a country and its IRB World Ranking, suggesting that there is a close link between the two variables.

According to the report, though a number of other factors are important, if countries are to improve their playing quality they need to increase participation. Additionally, bringing Rugby to areas not traditionally involved will engage athletes who might otherwise be attracted to other sports, or to those who otherwise may have not engaged with physical activity at all. The study shows that while Rugby faces stern competition from other sports and entertainment activities, over the last decade it has managed to harness the renewed enthusiasm for the Game in a number of ways, to become one of the world’s fastest growing sports.

Stuart Cameron, vice president, Sponsorships, Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa, MasterCard Worldwide, said: “Our study shows that the hard work done to bring Rugby to new audiences is paying off. It is clear that communities – particularly in Africa and Asia – are buying into what Rugby has to offer. In a Rugby World Cup year, and in preparation for the 2019 tournament in Japan, that is a powerful endorsement of the sport and an indicator of its strong future.”