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In the wreckage of a postponed World Cup, there is opportunity

By Stella Mills
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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Of course, we were all devastated to learn that the 2021 Rugby World Cup had been postponed. Players and fans alike often arrange their lives around the tournament, with some even using it as a basis to make huge life decisions. However, in light of some major developments announced by World Rugby regarding the format of the competition, now set to take place in 2022, it is possible that this devastation could be transformed into opportunity.

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This week, World Rugby announced a complete restructure of the competition. These changes include an extension to the playing window, a promise of no game clashes and all fixtures to be played on the weekend.

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In addition to this, Eden Park will host the final match, becoming the first rugby stadium to host both a men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup final. This marks a stark difference to the recent Six Nations final, which saw England play France at the Stoop as opposed to Twickenham. A decision that did not go unnoticed by fans.

Following World Rugby’s decision to guarantee five-day rest periods between fixtures for the men’s World Cup in 2023, the women have also been afforded the same benefit. As a result, the tournament next year will follow an easier schedule, with all games evenly spaced.

Had the tournament gone ahead this year we would have seen up to six games scheduled on the same day, with fans having to live stream matches simultaneously; something which Allianz Premier 15’s rugby fans are unfortunately already well acquainted with.

But what does this mean for the tournament, and how does it translate into success?

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In order to build a solid and committed fan base, fans must have access to the sport. Viewing accessibility, and the level of ease that comes with it, is essential to developing an engaged audience.
Growing the women’s game, across all sports, largely depends on gaining high viewership when matches are afforded the opportunity to be shown via televised broadcasting or live streaming. In short, you must make it as easy as possible for a fan to be a supporter of the sport to enable it to thrive.

With World Rugby committing to no fixture clashes, and with all matches set to be played on a weekend, this new format will hopefully make it easier for fans to support the game. Creating a prime opportunity to attain high viewership figures and grow the women’s fan base in a positive and sustainable way.

It is no secret that broadcasting sport on mainstream TV serves as a massive boost to grow engagement of the game. World Rugby’s Chief Executive, Alan Gilpin, makes it clear that broadcasting logistics are high on the agenda: “We’re able to really make the schedule work for broadcast.”

Hopefully, with a more attractive schedule, fans will find it easier and more tempting to tune in and support the women’s game.

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With a longer tournament, comes more attractive sponsorship opportunities. The tournament will now run over 43 days, as opposed to 35. This offers lucrative sponsorship opportunities for brands who want to engage with the women’s rugby fan base. From a brand perspective, they will receive increased access to fans who are positively engaged with the sport. This, paired with the fact that the audience size should be huge due to a well-managed broadcasting schedule, suggests that businesses should be chomping at the bit to get involved with this tournament.

However, like anything in life there is another side to the story. A longer playing window will demand greater time commitments from players. And with some international women not on full-time, professional contracts, they will be forced to take a longer period of leave from their day jobs. This said, it will be interesting to see how teams manage these expectations, particularly following the flood of criticism aimed at Wales following their women’s teams ranking last in this year’s Six Nations tournament. The argument and necessity for full professional contracts in the women’s game is huge, but that is a topic I will save for another day, because a few sentences on it quite frankly would be an injustice to the bigger debate that needs to be had.

I would also like to draw attention to Alice Soper’s initial reaction to the delay of the tournament. Her video below garnered a fair amount of support on social media and for good reason. In the 56 second clip, Soper explains how we now have a window of opportunity to build momentum, get excited and grow the game properly. She sums it up perfectly in her tweet “If you are feeling disappointed, wonderful, you care about our sport. So, what are you going to do in the next year to build a better World Cup?”

I would echo her thoughts, and in light of this week’s announcement also encourage others to reframe their thinking of this tournament. If all elements are executed in the right way, there is potential for this to have a massive impact on the future of women’s rugby. Imagine the possibilities of growth within the game if this tournament is given its chance to shine. The number of young girls watching the games alone would serve to grow the grassroots game almost overnight.

To be taken seriously as a sport, we have to ensure we are building a high-quality product to showcase on a global stage. We have now been given the global stage; we just need to ensure that the product provided is as good as we know it can be.

We have this opportunity, to build momentum in the run-up to what looks like a well thought out and organised competition. We have the chance to do this, and to do it properly – so forgive me if I am premature in my expectations, but I think we have some seriously good things coming in the women’s rugby space.

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In the wreckage of a postponed World Cup, there is opportunity

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