Actually how successful was the Women's Rugby World Cup?
This weekend, a thrilling contest saw New Zealand overcome reigning champions England to win the Women’s World Cup. The climactic showpiece served as a fantastic finale to what many are calling the best edition of the tournament ever held. But just how successful was it? Let’s take a look:
One of the major barriers facing women’s sport has always been its accessibility. Hidden away on obscure channels or dedicated websites, only the most dedicated of sports fans could consider themselves regular viewers of women’s sport. That certainly wasn’t the case for this year’s tournament, with matches regularly being given high profile status on major television broadcasters.
Whilst information on viewing figures is not always easy to come by, a few major talking points arise. Reflecting the growth of the sport in general, records were constantly being smashed.
The Ireland v France pool decider reached a peak audience of 3.1 million in France, far surpassing the previous best of 2.5 million set by France vs Canada in 2014. This record was broken yet again, as 3.4 million French fans tuned in to see Les Bleus take on England. English viewers set their own record, with 2.6 million supporters tuning into ITV in a historic primetime slot to see the Red Roses take on the Black Ferns.
The audience for last night's Women's World Cup final on ITV peaked at 2.6m. Record numbers in this country.
— Nick Mullins (@andNickMullins) August 27, 2017
So should this be considered a success? It really depends on what metric you’re using. Given that the figures are getting bigger and bigger, arguably yes. Looking at the numbers in detail though means that it’s not quite as clear cut as all that.
In comparison to France’s 3.1 million for the semi-final, only 1.1 million tuned in across the channel. Whilst that’s nothing to be sniffed at, it does mean England have got some way to go in comparison with their Gallic counterparts.
Host nation Ireland’s broadcaster RTÉ announced figures of 322,000 for their clash with Japan, and whilst pool stage games are inevitably not going to attract the size of audience of the knockout rounds, it’s clear that there remain geographical differences in the game’s popularity.
Television is one thing, but what about those watching in the stands? At the start of the tournament, World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont predicted attendance records being broken, and the pool stage games all sold out in Dublin. Unprecedented demand even led to an increase of venue capacity to 16,000 at the UCD bowl. However, the BBC puts the attendance figures for the opening rounds at “over 6,000”, and tickets were still available on the door for Saturday’s showpiece finale.
True attendance figures aren’t currently easily available so accurately assessing the popularity of the tournament is hard to do. The empty seats in some games likely have something to do with host nation Ireland’s early exit, but with World Rugby’s Leadership Forum declaring “record ticketing programmes”, evidently the higher ups are happy with how the tournament was received.
Whilst off-field metrics are useful to some degree, it would be remiss not to take a look at the quality of rugby being played. This tournament has seen some fantastic encounters, with the semi-finals in particular showcasing just what these phenomenal athletes are capable of. A more objective statistical analysis reveals a few interesting facts about the tournament.
A total of 1,549 points and 247 tries were scored, indicating the attacking prowess on show. This free-scoring dropped dramatically in the later rounds of the tournament, with England’s semi-final clash with France seeing just two tries but 258 tackles. Only 20 penalties were scored through the entire tournament and not a single drop goal.
This indicates both that teams are preferring to keep the ball in hand and create opportunities for tries, but also that kicking skills are not necessarily as fully developed as other areas of the game. As a point of comparison, a whopping 227 penalties were scored in the 2015 men’s world cup, but only 271 tries. If you like your rugby open and high scoring, the women’s game is right up your street.
World Rugby produces a quantitative analysis report of its major tournaments (http://www.worldrugby.org/game-analysis?lang=en) so it will be worth keeping an eye out for the 2017 edition for a breakdown of things like handling errors, metres made and missed tackles in order to see the big picture of the state of the game. Unfortunately, no such report is available for the 2014 World Cup, but it will be interesting to see how this tournament compares to previous years and to the men’s’ game.
Another area which might take a little while to fully assess is the influence this tournament has on increasing the player base, amongst both women and men. It’s almost impossible to speculate at this moment just how influential the World Cup has been, but unprecedented media coverage and entertaining games have made the game more appealing than ever.
There's always time for a song ?before lifting your team's fifth Women's Rugby World Cup ? pic.twitter.com/TycQkwkEt6
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) August 26, 2017
Unions are doing their best to capitalise on the success of the tournament and get more women in particular into the game. England’s RFU have started the Inner Warrior programme in order to encourage people to try out the sport , and given that they exceeded their target uptake by 73% way back in May it’s safe to say this tournament will be a huge boost to an already thriving project. High profile issues around professional contracts and the newly formed Premiership will no doubt affect perceptions of elite women’s rugby, but at a grassroots level it seems the game is looking stronger than ever.
Whether you consider the tournament a success will depend largely on how you define it. But with future global superstars like Portia Woodman becoming household names, more people watching than ever before, fantastic matches, and strong legacy programmes the Women’s World Cup 2017 was everything you could hope for in a major sporting showcase.
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