The impact of rugby’s inclusion in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics will be game-changing, according to a new report by Kantar’s The Future Company.
Rugby’s return to the Summer Games for the first time since 1924 will not be without modifications, mainly in the form of smaller teams and shorter matches—a version of rugby known as “sevens” (as in, seven per side) as opposed to the original and still dominant form known as “fifteens.”
“The IOC [International Olympic Committee] is looking for sports that will attract a new fan base, new participation, sports that younger people are interested in,” said four-time US Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson when interviewed for the report. “When you look at the athleticism required to excel in rugby sevens, it certainly fits with the Olympic narrative: speed and power are extremely important in sevens,” the sprinter noted.
- 15 million estimated global participation by 2026
While hardly rugby-crazed, the US nevertheless offers a standout example of how skill at other sports can apply to rugby and infuse the sport with crossover athletes. The US sevens team boasts track-and-field stars Carlin Isles—called the “fastest man in rugby”—and Perry Baker. Isles and Baker have revolutionized American plays with their impressive speed, garnering significant social media attention and commercial success as they evolve into formidable sprinter/sevens-player hybrids. “[USA sevens coach] Mike Friday taught me how to read pitches, how to be in the right place at the right time,” said Isles in his interview for the study. “We play chess with our defenders, [Perry] and me.”
Helped by Isles and Baker, sevens is seeing gains in the US. While rugby is still viewed here as an amateur sport, sevens is the fastest-growing sport in the country, particularly women’s sevens. The “Rookie Rugby” program has drawn 2 million young players to date.
Another reason for growing US interest among young people (and their parents) may be the combination of high contact but lower violence than can occur in football. Rugby rules are much more concerned about play that could cause injury, and sevens tends to see less contact than fifteens.
Financially, sevens is beginning to have an impact. Las Vegas made an estimated $17 million (in non-gaming revenue) when it hosted the US leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series in 2010. Las Vegas hosted a round of the Men’s World Series Sevens earlier this year, while Atlanta hosted a round of the Women’s Series.
The US is one of three countries targeted for growth by World Rugby’s current strategic plan, along with Brazil and Germany. Both men's and women's teams won medals in the 2015 Pan American Games.
The study, conducted by for World Rugby Sevens Series sponsor HSBC, looks at the opportunities for growth in both current and new rugby-crazed markets with a decade-long time horizon. What will rugby look like in 2026? The report forecasts that:
- countries with little rugby tradition now will be internationally competitive, at least at sevens.
- the overall number of rugby players and the proportion of women rugby players both will double, with global participation at 15 million.
- the rising profile of sevens will inspire new national competitions between clubs or franchises; sevens also will emerge as a summer sport.
- audiences for rugby will change and will access the sport in new ways. Younger audiences will experience rugby through social media, while innovations that capture the speed and power of the game will transform traditional media coverage.