Rachael Burford: In rugby, players are punished for showing their true selves
A few years ago I went to a baseball game in America and I was instantly hooked. The ‘kiss cam’ moving around the crowd, texting in photos that will go on the big screen, and the T-shirts being catapulted into the crowd. The atmosphere in the whole stadium was exciting and novel to me. I had no idea about the game of baseball, but I was there at an event as much as I was at a game of baseball.
Then last week I listened to The Ruck, The Times’ rugby podcast, which spoke about how WWE allows characters to be characters, which keeps fans engaged in the sport. The hosts spoke about how WWE embraces conflict and rivalry.
Rugby lives with this imagery that we are all one big family and all go for pints together after the game, which is nice, but there are brilliant rivalries on the pitch. In boxing and WWE, they use these rivalries to paint a bigger picture and tell a story, which rugby should learn from.
In the same week, I also saw a clip of Nickelodeon’s NFL coverage where they cover players in CGI slime once they score a touchdown. There isn’t a children’s show (that I’m aware of) that makes rugby a fun, interactive sport.
These may sound like random observations, but all of these things are linked. It’s about elevating a sport from a game into a fun event with the crowd immersed in what is happening. I can’t help but think that rugby is seriously missing a trick here.
'I wish standing up to these trolls wasn’t a responsibility solely afforded to women’s players.' @_JessHayden ??? on what's been a difficult but important week for women's rugby and the crucial role men can play in stopping the rugby trolls #icarehttps://t.co/cbKxceGjea
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 18, 2021
We don’t have sporting events like they do in America, where the social side of being a fan is as important as the game itself. Super Bowl is the one of the biggest sporting events in the world and every year massive groups of friends gather to watch the game together – even those who aren’t interested in American football. Rugby lacks that and it’s because we don’t characterise players like WWE or American football do, and we don’t make games into immersive events.
In England, we are very media trained and uniform in how we act in front of the media. That’s even more true with England women where we are under so much pressure not to say the wrong thing. We don’t show our true characters, which is a shame when there are so many children who are like us.
How can we inspire them if they don’t even know what we are really like? This is true for both the men’s and women’s game. In general, we criticise people who are characters because it doesn’t fit into what is the ‘norm’ in rugby.
Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are such great characters in the men’s game and it would be great if fans could really see that. Last February, Genge spoke honestly about how he felt the media treated the England team and he was shot down by fans for being open and honest. He showed us his character – and in my opinion that was exactly what rugby needed.
If young fans could learn about the players outside of rugby, whether it’s their character or their other hobbies, it would help grow the game so much. The problem is, if all the players are seen as tough, serious and professional, then children won’t be that engaged because it’s not relatable to them. They need to recognise themselves in us. That responsibility lies with the fans, too, who should stop criticising players like Genge who show their character and stray from the ‘norm’.
Hannah Botterman, Poppy Cleall and Shaunagh Brown are great characters who have used social media to show their less serious side, which provides a deeper engagement with fans. Botterman and Cleall did a series of Instagram Lives through lockdown, where they took on challenges such as speed eating hot dogs. Brown used lockdown to educate fans about Black history, showing another side to her character.
All three of them used their own social media to express other sides of themselves. It would be great if we could have that kind of content on the England Rugby channels. The content that O2 produce in partnership with England Rugby, like challenges and head-to-head videos, has often given the players a chance to show their character away from rugby. O2 has been thinking outside the box for years in order to engage fans, but there is certainly always room for more.
Letting players be characters is something that sevens does pretty well. Commentators tend to call people by their nicknames and they stick because people love them. Sevens has also struck gold with making the tournament a social and fun event for people. You can wear fancy dress, have a few drinks, it’s sunny: it’s a whole event and the organisers make it fun for people to attend, even for those who don’t follow rugby.
I would love to see those principles extended in 15s. We could have half-time shows, chances for fans to be more involved with the game; anything to make the game a more immersive experience for fans. Harlequins women have an annual event called The Game Changer where there is face painting, games, and challenges around the stadium. Men’s teams do similar, but having that on a bigger scale would undoubtedly drive attendance up at big games.
In 2019 I commentated on RugbyX, a 5-a-side rugby tournament that took place in the O2. From start to finish, the whole stadium was electric. The atmosphere was buzzing and it was one of the best examples of what rugby could be. The games were high pace, with loads of offloads and thrilling rugby. The women’s games were actually better than the men’s, which surprised a lot of people.
The first game was England vs Barbarians and because it was a draw it went to a one vs one where you had the whole pitch to score a try against one person from the opposition. All the lights went low and there was a spotlight on the players. That got the crowd hooked and it was so exciting, everyone was on the edge of their seats throughout the whole event.
That simple form of rugby is a thrilling way to introduce new fans who don’t really understand lineouts, scrums or mauls. It’s just simple, fun and exciting. That’s not to say I don’t love rugby as it is, but it’s a different way of getting fans engaged and undoubtedly that makes it more fun for kids and teenagers. There’s no attention span needed, it’s all fast and explosive.
It’s these kinds of events that bring young people into the game. If you ask any young person if they want to go to their local rugby club to watch rugby, they might say yes. Ask them if they want to go to the O2 to watch some of the best players in the world play in one tournament and they will bite your hand off to go. It becomes so much more than just rugby.
Engaging young people with rugby doesn’t happen on the pitch, it happens between themselves and on technology. When I run my camps for Girls Rugby Club, the players are happy to be watching something else on YouTube while also watching a game of rugby on a big screen.
"Watching England win 53-0 against Scotland is not a great advert for women’s rugby."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 11, 2021
We have to acknowledge the power of kids with technology and rugby is missing a game or social platform revolving around rugby. In football, FIFA has become as much a social platform as it is a game. Fantasy leagues are so popular because they become a talking point for football fans and a chance for them to learn about players. They also help to get those disinterested in football involved, or who maybe have no interest in playing but do enjoy watching the sport.
A really good rugby game or app could prevent us from losing players in the 15-16 age group, which is the drop-off point for many rugby players. What are we not doing that means they leave? Outside of life and school commitments, it’s because they haven’t got a computer game where they can interact with their friends outside of training.
If you only interact with rugby during a training session or during games, then it can quickly lose its spark. We need the next generation of rugby players to live and breathe rugby throughout the week and not just on the weekends.
Children and young adults are glued to their phones and we should be doing everything we can to give them something to do on their phone that is rugby orientated. There is a fantasy league for men’s rugby in the Six Nations, but not for the women’s game, and it hasn’t been anywhere near as successful as the football equivalent.
The postponement of the Women’s Six Nations is a prime opportunity for us to try something new. I would love to see a fantasy league app for the Women’s Six Nations, with similar rules to the football one where you can only have so many players from each team. It would make sure people are watching all games because they will want to see how all of their players perform.
Whatever the tournament organisers do, they need to make it different and exciting for the younger generation to get involved with. There needs to be better fan engagement and we can turn to American sport and look for ideas from them. The on-pitch product of women’s rugby is really good now. It’s just about growing the crowd participation and involvement with the women’s game.
This will all help to build momentum in time for the Rugby World Cup which also needs a dedicated app that fans can engage with and get involved with during every game. We want to make sure fans recognise their women’s teams and that they feel invested in the team’s big characters. That can only happen if we improve crowd participation and if those characters are allowed to be themselves.
The brute facts behind fears for the Women's Rugby World Cup:
Leading women’s rugby commentator @nickheathsport ??? takes a look at the challenges facing #RWC2021 organisers that have thrown huge doubt on the tournament https://t.co/eHvnsLEOaA pic.twitter.com/gpiaXhGFwy
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 15, 2021
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