Fans among the record crowds at the Canada leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Vancouver in March. Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images for HSBC, and used here by courtesy of HSBC.
Our report on the future of rugby for HSBC has just been launched in Europe ahead of the Paris leg of the World Rugby Sevens’ Series. HSBC is a significant rugby sponsor. All the evidence suggests that the short version of the game is transforming the sport. As a result of sevens, rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, fuelled by a growth in both the number of unions worldwide and by a surge in the number of women players. Women’s sevens, for example, is the fastest growing sport in the USA.
This expansion has been built on three pillars: new countries, new players, and new audiences.
- New countries: Rugby is now played in 120 countries worldwide. Olympic participation means that it now features in every significant multi-sports competition, whether regional (such as the Asian Games or the Pan American Games), or global (such as the World University Games). Olympic and multi-sports participation typically increases investment in a sport from the national Olympic Committee.
- New players: The number of players has grown to 7.6 million worldwide, and the growth of the women’s game has been explosive, from 200,000 to 1.7 million in just three years. Part of this is down to investment, and partly because women’s sevens is getting increased exposure through both multi-sports competitions and through a women’s circuit on the HSBC-sponsored World Rugby Sevens’ Series.
- New audiences: as the sport grows, so do its audiences, notably in Asia. Olympic coverage will help develop this further. Jonathan Hill of WPP sports rights agency ESP Properties, interviewed for the report, believes that “the rights associated with sevens could increase in value by about 50%” after the Olympics. Rugby has also had success with the teenage demographic, partly through a co-ordinated approach to social media, notably on Twitter and its video platforms. As broadcast sports coverage becomes more sophisticated, with personalised and interactive elements, both sevens and fifteens will benefit.
The development of these pillars has been part of a long-term strategy by World Rugby, using the increasing revenues from the four-yearly World Cup to finance investment in the game. But we think it’s down to more than that. When you look at the trends around sports participation and engagement, they are paradoxical.
As we say in the report,
“One of the curiosities of leisure in the 21st century is that as everything becomes more available digitally, so the experience of being there becomes more important, not less so. It becomes increasingly important that the live experience is memorable even as the audio-visual experience becomes richer and more immersive. … We see a sports future where the live experience is more distinctive than ever, where the digital fragments are more ubiquitous, and one where, as fans, we want our sports performers to be more superhuman on the pitch and more human off it. It is a set of paradoxes that sevens is well positioned to resolve.”
The sevens events are carnivals, weekend festivals at which there is good access to players, but the games themselves are compressed, and the best action is often measured in seconds rather than minutes. Although the first sevens’ tournament was played in 1883, it is as if it were designed for social media. But there’s something about the demands of the game itself as well. As participants, we want our sport to be tough, and sevens demands repeated lung-busting efforts and rapid recovery. In an age when there is less contact, we like contact sports more. And finally, tactically, it has none of the complexity of fifteens rugby. The one over-riding instruction is not to give the ball away. It is tough to play, but it is simple to understand.
The report can be downloaded here as a pdf: the-future-of-rugby-an-hsbc-report