Rugby: Rugby set to grow in Asia

Murray Barnett, World Rugby's head of commercial, marketing and broadcast, and Singapore Rugby Union president Low Teo Ping at the National Stadium, which will host the eighth leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series next April. The tournament kicks
Murray Barnett, World Rugby's head of commercial, marketing and broadcast, and Singapore Rugby Union president Low Teo Ping at the National Stadium, which will host the eighth leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series next April. The tournament kicks off in Dubai on Friday.PHOTO: RUGBY SINGAPORE

World Rugby's Barnett says sevens game will be key to sport's expansion

Expansion continues to be the buzzword for World Rugby, the sport's world governing body, as it plans to grow the sport in Asia and other parts of the world.

However, one area which it is unlikely to consider expansion in the near future is the 20-team format of the Rugby World Cup (RWC).

Said Murray Barnett, World Rugby's head of commercial, marketing and broadcast: "When you have a 20-team Rugby World Cup, every match is like a knockout because you can't afford to lose one and it's all the good quality teams.

"We have a huge qualification process that leads up to it, so lots of teams get involved in a competitive way."

Still, World Rugby is determined to ensure that the sport makes a lasting impact in Asia, especially with Japan hosting the next edition of the RWC in 2019. It will be the first time the Cup is hosted in Asia, and Barnett said: "The important thing for us is not just to put a tournament in Japan but actually have a real legacy to grow the sport both locally and across Asia."

To do this, the "Asia 1 Million" project by regional governing body Asia Rugby aims to bring in one million new players by the time the Rugby World Cup in Japan ends.

Alisports, e-commerce giant Alibaba's sports arm, had also last month committed US$100 million (S$142.78 million) to boost the game and support all levels of rugby development in China over the next decade.

Barnett said: "It's also about making the sport much more visible on television and all media in general, so a partnership with Alisport will be good for us in China not only because they're a great partner, but also because they can transport sport to a much wider audience than we can by ourselves.

"So we're looking to make sure that the Rugby World Cup and other World Rugby events are available on many more channels through Asia with a much higher opportunity for people to see it, rather than just on additional expat channels or subscription-only services."

The 46-year-old also believes the sevens game is "the growth engine for the sport", especially in Asia.

The first leg of the 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series kicks off in Dubai on Friday, with Singapore hosting the eighth leg of the tournament next April.

Referring to Fiji's gold-medal triumph at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he said: "To be able to see the Fiji rugby team in an Asian setting in Hong Kong (the seventh leg) and more specifically Singapore is incredible, and I think it won't be long before you see more than two (sevens) tournaments in Asia."

A slowing global economy contributed to a 15 per cent drop in average attendance at the Singapore Grand Prix in September, but Singapore Rugby Union president Low Teo Ping believes the Singapore leg of the HSBC Sevens Series will face no such problem. A target of 30,000 spectators each day over the two-day event has been set. Low, 71, is confident the activities both on and off the field - including a family-friendly fun zone - at the National Stadium will draw fans in.

Explaining how this year's "Show Your Colours" theme, which encourages fans to don their team's colours to show support, will help create a loyal fanbase, Low said: "This whole experience will turn them into fans, instead of customers. These fans want to be part of the whole atmosphere, and will commit themselves wholly to supporting you every year - that's the difference."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline 'Rugby set to grow in Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe