x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Rugby participation grows globally as Sevens impact hits

After the World Rugby Sevens in Dubai and inclusion in Olympics, nations like Japan, Sri Lanka and the US are now in top 10 in numbers and growing fast.

SINGAPORE // Japan, Sri Lanka and the United States all muscled traditional rugby heavyweights out of a list of top 10 nations for participation as the sport's popularity among players grew globally by almost 20 percent since the last World Cup, a report issued on Tuesday showed.

While participation figures remain highest in stronghold Europe and Oceania, emerging nations are catching fast, figures show, with growth of 33 percent in Africa, 22 percent in South America and 18 percent in Asia.

The growth is being driven by three factors, the study — commissioned by World Cup sponsor Mastercard — said. The factors are rugby sevens' Olympic inclusion from 2016; IRB programmes and investment; and event hosting with linked legacy programmes.

"These are extremely exciting times for rugby with strong growth and participation worldwide," International Rugby Board (IRB) Chairman Bernard Lapasset said.

"This report ... underlines that growth is not just continuing, but is accelerating and is as prominent in emerging rugby markets as traditional rugby countries."

In the report, Japan was rated the top Asian market, ranked fifth worldwide with 122,598 registered players.

The study found that Asia's interest had been boosted by Japan securing hosting rights for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and by rugby sevens' status as an Olympic sport from 2016. The latter is expected to have a huge impact on development across the region.

Participation in China grew 13 percent since 2009, according to the report, but is still a miniscule 5,430 registered players from a population of 1.3 billion.

While rugby is still regarded a niche sport in the United States, it showed a 350 percent participation increase since 2004, the report said.

Growing interest is reflected by broadcast deals concluded for the rugby sevens and 2011 Rugby World Cup and 2015, marking the first time the sport will be shown live on US network television.

It also means that the authorities will have a tough time doing the balancing act since they were considering the next World Rugby Sevens in 2013 at Moscow to be the last once and preserve the important of Olympics and the World Cup. The latter will be held in New Zealand this year in September.