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Maximising the game's entertainment potential

A World Rugby ”Shape of the Game” conference in Los Angeles last week which marked a change from a focus from participation in women's rugby to expanding the fanbase.and increasing revenue.

Last week’s “Shape of the Game” conference seems to have been different. Unusually World Rugby has published a much more detailed report, with has produced some potentially important outcomes.

One of the most significant new positions is a clear focus on selling women’s rugby as a significant spectator sport.

Over the past decade or so the main focus has tended to be on developing and expanding women’s rugby as a participation sport. Announcements over the years have concentrated on (at times questionable) player numbers and participation rate data, with the international game seen more as a means to attract women and girls to take up the game.

This conference marks the first public sign of a change in direction. There is no mention of player numbers, or growing participation. The primary focus here is fans.

The Conference was told about research commissioned by World Rugby from market research analysts Nielsen which claimed that the fanbase of for women’s rugby is now 138 million strong worldwide, of whom 113 million have started to follow the game in the last five years.

This numbers sound impressive but without any information about how Nielsen defines a “fan”, or how committed that “fan” is to the game, it is difficult to know what to make of them. However, ignoring the numbers, what is clear is that the growth of the fanbase has been strongly tied to the growth in access to the game, and in particular the broadcasting of Six Nations games which effectively started in 2017.        

As a result, and possibly the first time, World Rugby is looking on the women’s game as a means of revenue generation. Nielsen claim that there is “potential” to more than double the fanbase over over the next five years, with revenue is projected to increase tenfold by 2033, equating to a four times growth in revenue per fan from today.

“Potential” is perhaps the key word, and delegates consequently were asked to consider how to make women’s rugby “as entertaining as possible to unlock new markets and revenue growth”.

It has to be said that women’s rugby is at least statistically more entertaining already, with the ball being in play more in women’s international rugby than in the men’s game (although the gap between the two closed a little between the 2017 World Cup and last year’s competition)

Nonetheless improving the “fan experience” was seen as essential to ensure powerful personalities continue to shine, with simpler terminology, technology, broadcast, and laws innovation helping to extend the sport’s reach and engage with new audiences

Engaging new audiences was also a benefit to come from a “globally aligned calendar”, which was seen as key to creating and “enhanced spectacle for elite women’s rugby”. WXV is the first step in this direction but the conference delegates spent two days looking at “how to create a new and more harmonious global calendar for the elite women’s game from 2025 onwards”.

We asked World Rugby if this meant a rethink for WXV, but they said that while the timing for WXV will be in the review the competition itself will continue after 2025.

Discussion on the calendar workshop centred on how to “deliver greater competitiveness, return on investment and set the scene for a period of unprecedented opportunity”.

Their initial conclusions were that:

* The calendar does not need to follow the men’s game
* It needs to meet player welfare, commercial, visibility and high-performance needs
* Should include defined international release periods, domestic competition windows, player rest and pre-season
* There should be greater opportunities for unions to host international matches
* The calendar should be simple, consistent and with a clear narrative

A more detailed final proposal will be presented to the World Rugby Council in October.

One headline catching conclusion was the need to consider innovations that might be unique to the women’s game. This included “exploring law amendments that will enhance the unique characteristics of the women’s game” and in particular “the use of a women’s specific elite ball”.

It is perhaps significant that the ball issue (which has been floating since before the 2010 World Cup) came out of a conference attended mainly by representatives of the top 20 unions, because much of the negative comment since this announcement has come from people from unions outside the top 20, where getting access to balls of any sort can be a challenge. However, trials of the “elite ball” will take place.

Player welfare was also discussed including how advances in welfare and enhancement of the spectacle can break new markets and inspire new audiences on the road to Rugby World Cup 2033. Specific ideas included the continued focus on smart mouthguards to gather essential player workload data in training and playing environments; more contact training guidance and game-wide adoption of women’s specific tackle and contact ready programmes to drive injury-prevention

Embracing technology that can assist with quicker, accurate decision-making by officials and increase pathways for women’s match officials was also seen as important in making the game more attractive.