Women's rugby is the fastest growing sport in the world

Fast? Yes. Furious? Yes. A contact sport? Most definitely. But there’s an athletic brilliance to the game of rugby. And 2016 promises to be a pivotal year for the sport, with the Olympic Games offering a golden opportunity to attract fresh audiences and inspire a new generation of players.

When the teams take to the pitch in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it will be the first time in 92 years that rugby has been played at the Olympics. If rugby is to rival football as an international team sport, then the Olympics is the ideal catalyst to help grow the game globally.

Crucial to the sport’s expansion has been the growing popularity of rugby Sevens, the shorter format of the traditional 15-a-side game. It is Sevens that will be played at the Olympics and it is Sevens that has been instrumental in attracting a new fan base to the game. HSBC first started sponsoring the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in 2011 – and since then, the game has been growing exponentially.

There are clear parallels with cricket which has enjoyed much success with its shorter Twenty20 format of the game. Rugby Sevens is played with seven players on each side rather than 15, with each half lasting just seven minutes rather than 40. The simplicity, speed and agility of Sevens – combined with the lively carnival atmosphere – has given rugby a new burst of popularity. While the Fifteens game has been dominated by a relatively small, core group of northern and southern hemisphere nations, more than 120 countries now play Sevens.

World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, believes Sevens can complement the Fifteens version to benefit the sport as a whole. Sir Clive Woodward, who led England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 in Fifteens, said: “Sevens is this sleeping giant of rugby. I think it can really help the game develop on a world level… Rio will be the springboard to take it global.”

The simplicity, speed and agility of Sevens – combined with the lively carnival atmosphere – has given rugby a new burst of popularity

The Olympics is just the latest milestone in the rise of the game, however, key to the growth of rugby has been the work done at grassroots level using the Sevens format to inspire the next generation of players and coaches. HSBC’s sponsorship of rugby, for example, has helped to provide training for hundreds of thousands of young people around the world and helped hundreds of adults to get coaching qualifications.

Tournaments have also spurred enthusiasm for the centuries-old sport in recent years. The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series has increased in size to 10 locations including new host cities Cape Town, Sydney, Vancouver, Singapore and Paris joining alongside long-standing venues in Dubai, Wellington, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and London. The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series currently attracts more than 500,000 spectators each year and a television audience of over 400 million.

So what next for rugby? There are currently 7.6 million rugby players globally. HSBC’s The Future of Rugby report predicts that by 2026 about 15 million people in 150 countries could be participating in the game. More women will play the game. In the past three years the number of female players has risen faster than any other sport, from 200,000 to 1.7 million.

New competitions and franchises will emerge and countries that were previously considered second or third tier will do well, the report’s authors predict. This is already happening. The US, Fiji, China, Kazakhstan, Brazil and South Korea have all won medals at Sevens tournaments.

There will be issues to tackle. Inspiring a new generation of supporters means not only using social media to show games but also making the most of technology to enhance the broadcast experience. For example, on-player cameras will soon be used to highlight the game’s speed and explosive power – offering viewers a close-up look at bone-crunching tackles, or letting them share the player’s eye-view as they surge over the line.

The Olympics by itself cannot guarantee the future success of rugby but it is a good place to showcase the game. It is only by investing, nurturing the players of the future and inspiring millions that the game will grow. HSBC is proud to be part of that growth.

Looking ahead

HSBC’s The Future of Rugby report predicts that by 2026:

  • 15 million people will be playing rugby globally
  • 40 per cent of rugby players will be female
  • New playing nations such as China and Brazil will drive funding into the game

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