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The costliest mistake in the history of Rugby

By Ben Smith
Basketball is set become New Zealand's most participated sport in 2020. (Photos/Gettys Images)

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It has been predicted that basketball will become New Zealand’s most participated youth sport by high school students this year, having overtaken rugby a couple of years ago.


For a country where rugby has been interwoven into the fabric of society, it is a remarkable rise.

When it comes to viewership, rugby is still king, with a Roy Morgan study showing that 1.3 million New Zealanders tuned in to watch rugby in 2018. But the concerning aspect is the aging demographic behind those numbers.

The younger you were, the less likely you were to be watching rugby.

Around 25% of the Super Rugby audience were Millenials (born from 1976-90) and alarmingly just 10% of Gen Z (1990-05) according to Roy Morgan’s report.

Over 70% of the audience was 42 and older with pre-Boomers and Baby Boomers forming a large percentage of the viewership.

When that older demographic no longer provides active viewership, the professional game in New Zealand will be a ticking time bomb towards extinction without the younger audience to replace it.


Rugby is not the only sport with this ‘age’ viewership problem. Baseball, America’s past time, is increasingly heading towards being past its time, failing to adapt and evolve and retain attention.

Former MLB star Aaron Rodriguez and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuck, decried the state of baseball in a podcast from December 2018.

Some of the issues they identified were that the average viewer of the MLB was a 58-year-old white male and that there’s a growing indifference of youth towards the sport.

Vaynerchuck blames the short-term lack of foresight by the MLB driven by commercial interests that eliminated MLB’s online footprint, just as attention online exploded, particularly with youth, around the rise of social media platforms.


Major League Baseball content was ‘garden-walled’ with fan-made videos copyright-striked and shut down in an attempt to protect the commercial interests of the MLB.

Whilst they achieved in doing that, they also removed themselves from the view of a generation who increasingly lived online with an ever-growing list of content options. They became out of sight, out of mind as they say.

Generation Z and Millenials consume content online like no other on social media platforms, proliferating a huge transfer in attention from traditional media channels that has transferred billions in wealth towards Silicon Valley.

At some inevitable point in the future, everything will be consumed on the Internet and nowhere else.

Was it wise for the MLB to almost eradicate the discoverability of their sport on a platform where the next generation of fans reside? They have lost attention and face an uphill fight to win it back.

Money goes where the attention flows. It’s a simple equation for sports administrators – if you lose the attention, you lose the money.

Listening to the lawyers is never a good plan when it comes to the long-term strategic survival of your core business. They certainly won’t be there to help revive your sport that isn’t commercially viable anymore.

Rugby’s powerbrokers globally have persisted with a similar approach to the MLB across the first 10 years of Internet platforms.

During the 2019 Rugby World Cup, fan-made videos from inside stadiums, or even at home in the lounge, were mercilessly removed across social media if they contained any source of match footage as if they were any harm to the game.

Popular YouTuber Squidge Rugby was struck down with the aim of protecting copyright interests despite capturing the attention of thousands upon thousands of rugby fans, many of new ones looking to learn more about the game.

In a weird and perplexing juxtaposition, World Rugby featured Squidge Rugby in their World Cup content despite trying to eliminate his presence in the name of ‘commercial interests’.

Free exposure and attention for the game has been attempted to be removed, and in most cases successfully, from every corner of the most important platform in the history of mankind so far.

The business model of broadcasters and the unions tied to it has created a tide of resistance, blinded by an inability to see the future that now jeopardises their positions in it as they can’t work out how to deal with it.

The failure to understand how the Internet could shape the sport and play a role in its future is one of the costliest mistakes in the history of Rugby by administrators.

The Internet changed the rules, but offered opportunity like never before to those that saw the potential.

E-Sports didn’t exist 20 years ago but the money flowing into gaming has already outstripped rugby by some distance.

There are stadiums in Asia that sell out with fans wanting to watch teams play video games that fans can already play at home by themselves. Imagine that, people will pay to watch others play video games.

Producers of the game titles have generally been open to users producing fan-driven content that continues to drive exposure and create interest in the games themselves, in a cycle that feeds itself and increases the potential audience.

What they understand is being live is all that matters, and getting as many people interested in watching live comes in second.

That second-part has never been easier with the low-cost reach of the internet. The gaming industry even mobilised the users to spread the word for them.

E-Sport is the fastest growing commercial sport in the world yet isn’t really visible through traditional mediums. They have successfully created demand for a ‘live’ product that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.

How many rugby teams keep spending money to advertise memberships, tickets, and merchandise when the game can promote itself and potentially reach millions of eyeballs for free, if you let it.

There is no better advertisement for the game than the game itself. Each game played provides moments, story, history, context. The content is rich and the story is ever-growing.

Consider the Southern Hemisphere’s struggling Super Rugby competition that is set to kick off this month, where crowds are in a long-term trend of decline due to a myriad of reasons.

The history of Super Rugby is nearly completely absent on the internet, where younger generations are most prominent, and only a few lone rangers from unofficial sources fight for its survival.

Departing NZR chief Steve Tew identified the changing demographics as a continuing challenge on his last day as CEO.

“Remaining relevant, particularly at the participation and the fan engagement level is not getting any easier. Kids are more and more impatient about what they’re going to do with their leisure time,” he said.

Almost 100% of the future fan base of every professional rugby team resides in some capacity online right now or will be if they are currently too young.

Investment in content by rugby teams in New Zealand to get in front of those eyes online has been next to nothing under Tew. The history of the game is pretty much non-existent, the digital footprint is nowhere near where it could be.

Is it any wonder why the game has a growing demographic viewership problem in this part of the world?

The goalposts moved and too much time has been spent trying to push them back to where they were instead of kicking the ball over where they are now.

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The costliest mistake in the history of Rugby