The Rugby World Cup, which starts in six weeks’ time in Japan, is set to attract the largest number of spectators in the tournament’s history, writes John Daly.
Based on ticket sales and official hospitality programmes, England will make up a quarter of the foreign fan contingent, followed by Australia, on 15%, and Ireland on 8%.
Elsewhere, the USA and the Netherlands should make up 4% and 2.5%, respectively, with the rest spread across the burgeoning rugby nations of Asia and South America.
Tickets have been sold to fans in 170 nations, who will travel from as far north as Russia and as far south as Antarctica.
According to an economic impact study by Ernst and Young — it was commissioned by the Japan Rugby 2019 organising committee — the tournament could be worth €1.6bn to Japan. Such figures, even if they fall wide of the mark, nonetheless magnify Ireland’s losing bid for the 2023 tournament.
During the previous Rugby World Cup, held in 2015, in England, 406,000 visitors stayed an average of 14 nights during the 44-day event.
The tournament was worth €2.5bn to the British economy.
The economic benefits of the 2019 tournament will be shared among a dozen Japanese cities, where the stadiums are located.
Japan will host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games just months later.
The preparations for the world cup have created a mini-economy in Japan.
It has invested €300m in infrastructure, which has created 25,000 jobs.
Research by Nielsen Sports reveals that the sport is growing and is broadening its international appeal. According to the research, which was undertaken across 88 markets, 793m people follow rugby, while 338m consider themselves fans.
That number is said to have increased 24% in the last six years.
The fanbase includes emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the US. Although starting from a low base, that market is said to have grown 50%.
The Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018, which was held in San Francisco, attracted 100,000 fans.
It was bolstered by the nine million people who watched NBC’s coverage of the tournament, a record rugby television audience in the US.
In Japan alone, 200,000 children have taken up the sport for the first time and World Rugby, the Japan Rugby Football Union, as well as Asia Rugby, want to keep the youngsters interested, despite them having no formal youth club culture.
A charity of fans and commercial partners has pledged €1.8m to the Pass It Back programme, to help 25,000 youths from disadvantaged communities across Asia by playing rugby.
The increase in fans in emerging markets has been driven by a shorter version of rugby. It debuted in the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. That raised its profile.
The average age of a rugby fan is 36, which has fallen by two years since 2013, while the sport is increasingly attracting a younger audience in emerging rugby markets.
Thirty-six per cent of rugby fans are female.
“The research demonstrates that rugby has significant growth potential, in both traditional and non-traditional markets, and is increasingly attracting a younger audience,” said World Rugby chief executive, Brett Gosper.
“We will use the insight to guide our decision-making and approach to growing fans and participants in rugby globally,” he said.
The sport has seen strong growth in Asia, with more than one million new participants attracted by the game’s development programme.
World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont, said that the sport now has 9.2m players worldwide.
“Although there is unprecedented competition for audience attention, 2018 saw rugby’s global fanbase continue to expand, and now totals 338m across the world, driven by the sevens audience revolution in the likes of India, Brazil, and the USA,” he said.
The governing council also sees Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden as “growth territories.”
All four countries are involved in RWC 2019 qualification.
Sweden has more than 820,000 rugby followers, with the majority under the age of 34 and female, reflecting the sport’s ability to reach a new audience.
The Nordic region’s leading streaming company, Nent, will broadcast live each of the 48 tournament matches through its Viaplay service.
Its head of sport, Kim Mikkelsen, said: “Rugby continues to grow around the world and in the Nordic region the game is captivating more and more fans, reinforcing our belief that Rugby World Cup 2019 will be the most-viewed and most-engaged rugby event of all-time, driving global fan and participation growth.”
Driven by the commercial strength of Rugby World Cup, the sport continues to benefit from investments.
“Rugby is experiencing strong participation and fan growth globally, driven by the accessibility and excitement of Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games,” said Mr Beaumont.