As a follow up to my Blog on the Rugby World Cup and Rugby’s future - I was asked by Bill Lothian (from Edinburgh’s Evening News) for some suggestions. No doubt it is only fair to ask for some answers to the questions that I posed - so here we go....
Some of these may seem out of reach, or unlikely to happen - but if you look at sports over a longer time frame than the immediate (as most tend NOT to do) - then just about anything is possible.... Who foresaw UFC’s growth vs Boxing in the past 10 years, who would have predicted that Man City would be the likely pre-eminent club in Manchester into the next decade - you get the picture. Life’s what you make it - someone once said - after all....
First things first - Rugby does a lot right - some of the most enjoyable days out are round Rugby - the 6 Nations, the Heineken Cup final (and earlier at many locations) - and as a sport it has a culture and a history that are the envy of the world. It imbues some of man’s (and woman’s) finest attributes and there are millions of folk round the world who will swear by it.
But it has a lot wrong. The safety first society that we increasingly live in means a worried parental eye on the sport and it’s safety issues. Those in the front line/row wear the contest as a badge of honor - but the contest is a dangerous place to be. The game itself has real issues with holding a un-motivated audience. Those in the know can feel the excitement, but trying to create a new audience is hard when the game can be slow moving. And despite its global growth (in TV revenues), the number of major nations playing the game is pretty limited - when compared to Soccer of course, but increasingly to other sports on the rise.
How to improve....
Cultural change is how the world moves. We all follow fashion, we all follow our peers, sports become en vogue, grow and fall in popularity. All activity that sports clubs undertake ultimately are designed to impact on the culture of the community around them. So - Rugby needs to take steps to plan for the culture of the future....
- Short term - sporting changes to the contest would improve the visual spectacle. Purists will hate to change the way the game is played - but it is the fast moving action that attracts the newbie. The collisions, the skills on show. It is not the never ending scrums, the laws that no one understands, the moments of hidden ball (mauls) - these are great for the converted but dull as dishwater for everyone else.
- Innovation - global sporting contests tend to follow a similar format - lots of games of big un’s against small un’s. Rugby’s problem is that the small ones have no chance. The ability to score points is more pronounced in Rugby than in Soccer for example. Stuart Barnes came up with a new way of playing the RWC that offered more competitive games, whilst still promoting growth. ANything that shows innovation, delivers excitement and uncertainty should be considered. If Rugby positions itself as the innovative sport, the one that leads on new ideas - this will offer an advantage against larger sports. As soccer fails to embrace Technology - Rugby can steal some ground.
- Use Rugby 7’s better - this is a sport that is easier to understand, offers more passing, more running and more immediate excitement per minute than the longer form. The IRB 7’s series has grown for sure - but it is not growing quickly enough. Other sports are eyeing up the global market place - NFL in London, NBA in China, EPL in friendlies across the globe - will all generate more $$$ than the 7’s series. Cricket’s Twenty 20 competition has given Cricket a huge advantage over Rugby - in opening up one of the world’s larger Sports revenue marketplaces. Rugby has an asset - use it.
- Target the Bigger markets. The USA has 14.5M active baseball players. The Chinese are addicted to Basketball (though this interest may wane with Yao Ming’s retirement). The Indians are mad fer’ cricket of course. Rugby has its own Super power - Japan have stated their desire to win the RWC in 2019 - let’s try to make this happen. There is a growing interest in Rugby in the US - they like the collision - let’s make this happen.
- Financing some of these ideas IS possible. Rugby is still a relatively less well paid sport. There is a chance to set Rugby up as the sport that looks after the sport and its community rather than lining the pockets of those lucky enough to participate. As culture grows more upset with today’s society - Rugby is well positioned to keep the players wages down, and hence invest in the future of the game. Whilst the major sports are the best paid at this time - there is no Rule that says this has to stay the same. NBA are arguing over a 50% salary cap, EPL are at 70%, whilst the NRL in Australia are at 35% - let’s find a way to commit the significant % of all Rugby generated income to growing the sport. This all requires a loss of self interest and a collective agreement - so tough to achieve in today’s culture...... but if we want to change culture - then tough steps are required.
- Simple stuff - get organized - Sports governing bodies have a habit of making poor decisions, or appearing to. Rugby certainly has its own examples. It’s leadership is still in many ways stuck in the amateur past - with committees everywhere, “blazers” making uneducated decisions, self interest to the max. Radical change in the sports government - with the goal to take the sport beyond the horizon is needed. Something brave, something new, something to make the cultural changes.
Outside of cultural change (and I have not mentioned any number of Marketing initiatives possible above - do the job better than Soccer, than Darts, than the cinema etc) - there are other areas for possible improvement.
Technology is super important in today’s society. Technology is growing exponentially - the I-pod is only 10 years old - can you believe that. Technology plays a huge impact on our lives - and is a hugely awesome option in sports. Some sports embrace the new, embrace the future - and those that embrace Technology will soon lead. The ‘inner sanctum’ of the Dressing room is still just about off limits to Rugby viewers - whilst other sports embrace it. Rugby needs to put aside its stuffy image and become THE sport that delivers for fans, for TV. ‘Mike up’ the captain during the game, become the first sport that allows on pitch commentators (maybe ex players who know where to go and where not to go) - crazy ideas for sure - but only because they are not accepted. The lesson is to be the first, to be the new, to be the Remarkable (stolen from Seth Godin).
Sport is about to enter a golden age - (see earlier blog) - Society is set up to really value the emotional attachment that Sport offers. If Rugby wants to keep it part of the pie - it’s time to shape up.