London – The world’s fastest-growing sport. That status is claimed by many, but rugby union has a genuine shot at the title on the back of a record-breaking Rugby World Cup.
As the tournament approaches its climax, having smashed attendance and TV audience records despite host nation England’s early exit, the sport aims to build on growth from Asia to Europe and the Americas.
Data collected by governing body World Rugby shows that player numbers climbed to more than 8 million last year from 5.48 million in 2012.
“We’re going into new countries all the time, huge new programmes in countries like Mexico and India, and we’re going into Mongolia and Asia,” World Rugby’s head of competitions and performance, Mark Egan, told Reuters.
“It’s all about getting in there on the ground, going into schools, educating parents about our sport, the strong values our sport has. It’s a very powerful message.”
The emergence of Italian rugby offers a vivid illustration of the game making its mark outside established strongholds.
For decades rugby in Italy was very much a niche sport, but since it joined Europe’s Six Nations championship in 2000 the number of registered players and coaches has climbed to 110,000 from 25,000, the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) says.
Aided by the increased media exposure, FIR revenue has increased tenfold to 40 million euros-plus ($45 million) since 2000, making it one of Italy’s wealthiest sporting federations.
Riccardo Sironi, trainer at OverBugLine Rugby in the northeastern town of Codroipo, said hardly anyone in Italy had heard of rugby when he first played in 1974. But now even little Codroipo has teams from under-6s to under-14s, with 100 children signed up.
“Demand from families keeps on growing, because rugby is not just a sport but a life school,” he said.
Women’s rugby is also taking off. The number of women FIR cardholders has risen to 7,200 from 600 in 2000 and Italy finished third in this year’s Women’s Six Nations, with victories over France, Scotland and Wales.
Japan, meanwhile, is making huge strides, though participation has fluctuated over the past 20 years.
With only one victory from seven previous World Cups, Japan pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament’s history by beating South Africa in their opening game and were desperately unlucky not to progress beyond the pool stage.
The Brave Blossoms’ exploits drew record TV audiences in Japan, reaching 25 million for the game against Samoa, which augurs well for when they host the 2019 tournament.
“Maybe there were 30 million people in Japan watching this game. That’s the whole of the Australian population, plus the kangaroos, and New Zealand and all the sheep,” Japan’s Aussie coach Eddie Jones said after their closing win against the United States.
“Now out of that 30 million people there are kids that want to be the new Michael Leitch (the Japan captain). It’s a fantastic opportunity for Japan.”
The success of the tournament is seen by World Rugby as the springboard to further growth.
“The game was on a upward spiral anyway, but I do think the Rugby World Cup is giving us huge exposure,” Egan said.
“Japan beating South Africa and the competitiveness of the Tier Two countries is opening us up to a lot of new markets … we have seen some good growth in Central America, El Salvador, Guatemala, also in Ecuador.
“I think we have three million in Germany who are tuning in to the World Cup.”
Overall figures for Europe show an increase of about 13 percent since 2012 to 3.45 million players. Of the smaller rugby nations, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, Poland and Malta have all at least doubled playing numbers.
World Rugby is investing $538 million across 120 national unions between 2009 and 2016, with nearly half going outside the top-tier nations.