(Reuters) - Asian rugby clubs will get assistance to capitalise on an expected “uptick” in interest in the game following next year’s World Cup after a better than expected pre-tournament engagement programme, World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said.
The Sept. 20-Nov. 2 tournament in Japan is the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia and Gosper said the governing body was aware there were “infrastructure” issues that needed to be worked on for them to leverage off the interest generated.
“We know from past experience there is a huge uptick in interest and desire to get into the sport (after a World Cup),” Gosper told reporters on a conference call ahead of a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Asia Rugby.
“This is where we work very closely with the regions and the unions concerned ... to help them provide, mainly through their club system, the infrastructure ... whether it be coaches, referees, volunteers and so on, to absorb the greater interest as we go to a World Cup and what happens afterwards.”
Previous World Cups had demonstrated significant increases in interest in rugby, he added, and one of the major reasons they had granted the tournament to Japan was to enter previously untapped markets.
“The reason why we have taken the World Cup to Japan is to develop the game in Asia,” he said.
“What’s important to us is to see an uptick not just in participation but in the fan base as we go forward.”
In order to capitalise on that interest, World Rugby in 2013 launched a pre-engagement programme — “Impact Beyond” — to introduce Asian countries to the sport.
The programme, which involved a tour with the Webb Ellis trophy accompanied by education and coaching days, had reached more than one million participants nine months ahead of schedule, Gosper said.
While encouraging, Gosper said his organisation was not getting carried away with the figures, recognising that “participants” did not necessarily turn into long-term players or supporters of the game.
“We are not so naive to suggest we have converted one million Asian players,” he said. “We are not claiming that this is the ongoing population of registered players.
“What we have is one million new Asian participants who can ... stay in the sport either through activity in schools, clubs and where they have a deeper relationship with the sport.
“It’s now up to us to ensure the stickiness of those programmes and there is an ongoing relationship with those people.”
Research commissioned by World Rugby indicated there were more fans (112 million) of rugby in Asia than any other continent in the world, with 33 million people in China and 25 million in India indicating they were fans of the sport.
“These are big figures for fan potential,” Gosper said.
“The fans are now seeing that this is not that traditional Anglo-Saxon sport that is often played elsewhere.
“This is obviously a sport that is potentially for people of this part of the world. It’s a sport we should take more seriously. It’s a sport we should be more interested in.
“It’s a very fertile region ... with a younger population base and ... commercial potential.”
That commercial potential was reflected in World Rugby’s own projections on returns and the level of ticket applications for the tournament.
Fans had submitted applications that amounted to requests for 4.5 million tickets, for an actual total availability of about 1.8 million tickets, he said.
“We are being absolutely surprised in this huge demand,” Gosper said, adding they were projecting similar demand for tickets for the rugby sevens competition at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“(It’s) a really big jolt of support for the sport of rugby in a concentrated period of time,” he said.
“All of that is good news for the sport in Japan and the region at a fan level. The commercial consequences of that will be very positive.”
Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Nick Mulvenney