Rugby is one of the biggest sports in the world with an estimated 400 million fans worldwide. There have been a few concerns as to whether rugby may be stalling in terms of popularity despite its popularity. So is Rugby becoming more popular?
Reasons for optimism on rugby popularity
There are a few reasons for being optimistic about rugby as a whole. The statistics often show good numbers for the popularity of rugby particularly over the last few years. World Rugby produces a report on the popularity of the sport around the world. The most recent figures published look at the popularity of rugby in 2019.
It said that interest in rugby is growing significantly across the world. World Rugby says that there are 877 million rugby followers in 2019 which was an increase of eleven per cent on 2018 numbers. Of those numbers, 405 million were rugby fans with 126 million being described as avid fans, increases of 18 percent and 17 percent on the prior year.
The figures also look really positive for women’s rugby which has been a real important driving factor of World Rugby of the last few years. Interest in women’s rugby in established markets was at 45% in 2019 which was a 15% increase in the prior year as well as increases in emerging markets.
If you look at the viewing figures of some of the major tournaments over the past few years it is clear that the viewing support is certainly growing with the World Cup in 2019 breaking many records on viewing figures. The tournament became the most watched rugby event in the history of the sport.
The final itself was also the most watched Rugby World Cup Final ever despite kicking off at 9am in the morning for both finalists. Fans still tuned into the final despite an incredibly early start time due to being hosted in Japan and both finalists being in similar time zones.
The entire world cup had a total of 857 million people watching. This was a record as the total viewing figures for the previous world cup held in England was 679 million. The final was also the most watched sports event of 2019 in the UK despite Football being the most popular sport in the UK by quite some way.
One of the big reasons for this is that rugby is continuing to try to become a much more global sport. One of the reasons why Football is so popular around the world is because pretty much every country in the world has a football team, whereas Rugby has very limited numbers of high level international teams.
A good example of this is the world cup. There have been eight different countries who have won the football world cup, whereas this is only four for the Rugby World Cup. They are looking to expand further into many different countries. The USA is one of the key targets for World Rugby.
The United States offers a huge market to World Rugby that they are hoping to capitalise on. It is why Major League Rugby was created in 2017. The influx of cash in the league has seen super starts like Matt Giteau, Ma’a Nonu and Chris Robshaw join the league. If World Rugby can successful conquer the US market it would bring huge popularity to the sport and they are making the right steps to do so.
One of the things that is really helping rugby grow is simply that the game is becoming better to watch. Players are continuing to become faster and more powerful but that is not necessarily why the product looks better. That would be because the skill level of players is much better.
If you watch a game today and compare it to ten years ago there have been clear increases in the skill level of all players. There are players and teams making the game exciting and this brings players to the sport.
One of the things that has certainly looked good for rugby popularity is the crowds coming back after Covid. The pandemic had a huge effect on rugby as they struggled without crowds and could not make the same revenue as before. Since covid restrictions have been lifting, the crowds have certainly be coming back.
Most of the Six Nations games sold more than 60,000 tickets per game. This is despite the tickets often being quite expensive compared to other sports. So there is certainly an appetite for rugby around the world.
Is Rugby Declining?
Covid-19 did of course have a big impact on rugby but the sport had a much bigger issue even before the pandemic. Players are the key to the sport and young players are the future of rugby.
Parents have become much more hesitant to let their kids play rugby as head injuries are becoming a much more recognised issue with rugby. Steve Thompson has been the key example of this. The 2003 world cup winner recently announced that he had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, due to the repetitive blows to the head while playing rugby.
Thompson can’t remember any of the World Cup win in 2003 that was his career highlight and is one of the group of former players suing the sports governing body for negligence. There are many retired players including Thompson who have come out post retirement and said that if they could begin their career again they would not play rugby.
Head injuries are a big reason why parents don’t want their kids to play rugby. It may not be an immediate problem, but if the player pool starts to reduce, the level of rugby across the world will decrease. It is a huge problem for the sport and is one of the reasons why we have seen youth playing numbers decrease.
Inclusivity is also quite a big part of the popularity of the sport. One of the reasons for football being so popular is that it is incredible inclusive and easy to start playing. Rugby does not have that same reputation with former player Ugo Monye talking about an issue affecting the popularity of the sport.
Monye said that rugby must tackle its “heavy drinking” and “laddish” culture to become fully inclusive. It is one of the reasons why rugby does not always have the biggest popularity in some countries. It can be seen as an elite game, with a reputation for not being incredibly inclusive of all countries and people.
In the UK, participation has decrease by 25% from 2016 to 2020 and it is massively hurting the revenue of rugby clubs across the country. Rugby needs to do more in urban areas. The game requiring large open fields means that it is difficult to play in urban areas, with street and cage football being crucial to footballs popularity in cities.
It is not a massive surprise that participation at a lower level has decreased. The fear of injury has increased in the sport over the last few years and when an injury from a hobby can effect your income, people who do not play the sport professionally will not want to play.
So is Rugby Popularity Growing?
If you look at the numbers it seems like the viewing numbers of the sport are certainly increasing. We continue to see viewing records being broken by different competitions around the world. Even the new United Rugby Championship has been bringing in record views in its first season.
One of the things that is certainly growing is the viewing figures of Women’s Rugby which has certainly been increasing. In the Women’s Six Nations this year, England smacked Ireland 69-0 in front of a record breaking crowd at Mattioli Woods Welford Road. So popularity in women’s rugby is certainly growing.
We are also seeing more countries develop professional leagues which is helping to boost the sports popularity. The USA and Japan have started to attract international superstars to their leagues, thanks to good support in both countries. The Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019 helped to really boost the sport and it will hopefully do the same in the USA in 2031.
This does not mean all rugby popularity is increasing. The decreasing numbers of participants at a lower level will certainly be concerning. Rugby needs to improve safety and the welfare of the players but it looks like the sport is doing exactly that.
At the professional level, changes to the rules to make the game safer should help participation numbers increase. There is also hope that by focusing on players personalities, more fans will take an interest in the sport due to knowing the people involved, similar to the way Drive to Survive has increased the popularity of F1.
So Rugby popularity is growing in terms of the viewers and fans of the sport even if we are seeing the participants decreasing. Rugby will look to turn more of these fans and viewers into revenue and participants.