Business of sports: Rising sun heralds new dawn for rugby world

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 11, 2019 - November 17, 2019.
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Not even super typhoon Hagibis could stop it. Midway through, the Rugby World Cup (RWC) was forced into an emergency sidestep, but with due respect to more than 80 fatalities, the tournament barely missed a tackle. Only three non-vital matches were cancelled — not nearly enough to prevent it from being hailed as a groundbreaker and a game changer on and off the field.

As recently mentioned, staging the RWC in an untested, largely non-playing and non-comprehending nation was a monumental risk. As was requiring fans from rugby’s heartlands to undertake long and costly pilgrimages to attend. Just watching it on TV was an inconvenience to many.

But as more than 400,000 grateful guests and a nation of new converts will testify, the gamble hit the jackpot. The rugby was thrilling and Japan did herself proud. An all-time record 54.8 million — almost half the population — watched the Brave Blossoms beat Scotland to become the first Asian nation to reach the quarter-finals.

If the spectacle was stunning, the commercial prospects are even more eye-watering: for the sport, there’s a whole new market of 126 million in a highly developed nation; for Japan, a welcome boost for tourism. Rave reviews will have a knock-on effect while a sluggish economy benefited to the tune of £3.1 billion.

The Japanese have the fourth largest purchasing power in the world and what they could not buy enough of was the iconic red-and-white hooped shirt — a quarter of a million of them by the end. Attendances were 99.3%, resulting in 1.84 million tickets sold. Fan engagement around the globe also hit a new high with an incredible 1.7 billion digital video views and an estimated worldwide broadcast audience of 400 million.

The tournament’s predecessor in England in 2015 had been considered a hard act to follow. It was the best-supported RWC ever — as England is the home of rugby with the largest number of players and fans. And it has no fewer than four other participating nations with large fan bases (Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France) on the doorstep.

And yet, Japan, of all countries, geographically, culturally and linguistically isolated, whipping boys a generation ago and still a second-tier rugby nation, took the RWC to another level. Seeing how followers of baseball, football and sumo embraced an alien concept as easily as changing channels took even optimists by surprise.

“Japan 2019 will be remembered as probably the greatest World Cup,” said World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont, and not just because the expected operational profit for his organisation is expected to be a record £165 million, exceeding the £150 million generated in England four years ago.

“We’ve broken records at every level — attendance, fanzones, broadcast, digital and social media. But, really, this is only part of the story. The success of this tournament has been personified by the warmth and passion of the Japanese people.”

Fanzone attendances of 1.3 million exceeded England’s even with three fewer games and Japan brought a whole new culture to what was once considered an old boys’ club — and old colonial boys at that. In nine editions, only five host countries have reached the final and only three have won it. That did not change but everything else did — opening up this new frontier has enabled rugby to dream of becoming a truly global sport.

Next year’s Tokyo Olympics offers the chance of an immediate follow-up when rugby sevens (both men’s and women’s) debuts as one of the Games’ new sports. It is a faster, sleeker version, easier to follow and some of the same overnight heroes will be involved. It should ensure that the feel-good factor is not frittered away as it was after Japan’s historic upset of South Africa in 2015.

Hearteningly obvious over the past six weeks is that if the nuances of the scrum may still elude many, the Japanese seem to “get” rugby and approve of its ethos. At its best, it can be dazzling and no one dazzled more than their own Brave Blossoms when in full attacking bloom. Indeed, they played with far more elan than their football counterparts, who, although regulars at the World Cup finals, have still to make an impact.

They also embraced the fun-loving, family atmosphere among the visiting fans where there was not a hint of violence. One might say there is more than enough of that on the field, but the combative nature of the game has honourable echoes of Japan’s martial arts culture.

And even here — and in another stark contrast to football — is a healthy respect for both referee and opponent. All this fits into with Japan’s modus operandi for getting through life.

There also saw no problem in being asked to become “supporters” of visiting countries for the duration — something they achieved with both enthusiasm and dignity. Whether other countries could pull this off is open to question. Indeed, the huge role played by the hosts — some observers say “they carried the tournament” — should temper the more outlandish expectations that rugby can cross other new frontiers just as successfully.

Leading candidates for the 2027 World Cup — the 2023 edition is back in a traditional hotbed, France — are Argentina and the US, and while US society is cosmopolitan enough not to need fans to fake loyalties, no one will be risking their mortgage on every nation being so sporting.

Rugby may never be a people’s game, but it has shown it is a compelling sport that appeals to an upmarket audience with disposable income. And already leading the business world’s predicted stampede to its door is private equity firm CVC with a soon-to-be-announced multimillion US dollar sponsorship.

As the travelling band of rugby aficionados said a heartfelt sayonara to the hosts, officials spoke of an estimated 10 million people eager to watch rugby either live or on TV. Even for the most zealous of missionaries, that’s an awful lot of new believers.

All in all, Asia’s first Rugby World Cup exceeded the wildest expectations. What finer testament is there than talk the hosts would like to do it again? It was indeed a brave and brilliant try — but the real rewards will come only if the sport can maximise the conversion.

Bob Holmes is a long-time sports writer specialising in football

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