The Rugby World Cup has returned to New Zealand for the first time since the nation co-hosted the debut tournament 24 years ago.
If we judge from a purely commercial standpoint, it might rationally be expected that New Zealand may be hosting the world cup for the last time, despite the success of the sport in the region.
How big is the market?
The sport has changed a lot since New Zealand first hosted the World Cup in 1987 – it’s more professional, it has a global outlook and even an upcoming role in the Olympics.
All of this points towards an important and growing international advertising market, enhanced by strong national and club competitions across both hemispheres.
But there are still problems with the New Zealand market and what it can really acheive.
Attendance numbers have grown in each rendition of the tournament since inception in 1987, at an average of 32% for each tournament.
But in 2011 in New Zealand, the tournament is being hosted in its smallest ever market, and a single country will host all tournament games for only the third time.
Despite the development of the sport, the upcoming tournament faces the potential of generating a significant financial loss.
Even at capacity, spectator numbers at the 2011 Rugby World Cup games would fall 33% shy of 2007 attendances, meaning significant revenue shortfalls.
Additionally, broadcast times aren’t ideal for many key European markets, meaning lower projected viewer numbers and lower subsequent advertising and sponsorship on-flows.
Overall though, revenue shortfalls of up to 30% are expected for the organiser, the International Rugby Board.
Despite the commercial downside, the tournament provides other opportunities for success in a passionate and engaged rugby market.
The New Zealand bid talked of it being a worthy guardian of the event and argued a global rugby legacy could be enacted through its hosting.
From a sporting perspective, the decision aligns the event with highly engaged support, intimate venues and genuine passion for the sport across the host country.
The host market and nature of the sport also presents some interesting dimensions, particularly the positioning of the sport and its consumers.
Rugby union’s private school roots, the purity in holding off professionalisation until as late as 1995 and its relatively clean image present a mix which might make rugby fans theoretically more attractive to marketers.
In England, research has shown the rugby fan base is comprised of an elevated social class, while in Australia, Super Rugby is positioned as the premium choice in a mass entertainment market.
In both of these countries, though, rugby operates in a niche segment, where it is far from the most popular sport.
Additionally, large events such as the Rugby World Cup evoke broad popularity that seeks to move the sport beyond its core consumers, eroding some of these individualised factors.
The leading sport
In the case of New Zealand though, rugby is already the leading sport, a point of difference for many other countries participating in the 2011 event.
New Zealand is promoted as a “stadium of four million” with the country demonstrating a homogenous sport interest centred on rugby and its iconic national team, the All Blacks.
Therefore, the International Rugby Board has found a host country that is highly committed to the sport and one of the few countries where rugby would be considered the primary sport, a spiritual home even.
New Zealand’s hosting, therefore, highlights a paradox in sport marketing between commercial and sporting outcomes.
While limitations exist commercially for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, by comparison to other markets, it is placed in a passionate rugby market where it can deliver a genuine legacy.
The unique aspects of hosting an event in a small country are clear in this case – combining a committed fan base with the development of new or improved stadiums, strong government partnerships and significant economic impact for the nation with over 95,000 visitors expected for the tournament.
Sporting legacy v commercial pressures
International sport federations are often faced with balancing commercial and legacy outcomes when growing their games and delivering events.
As rugby grows beyond its seventh world cup, it will look to such more central and larger markets.
England will host the 2015 tournament, where time zone problems for key markets and ticket capacity are lesser issues, while emergent International Rugby Board member Japan has hosting rights for 2019.
Success though in sport is not always measured commercially, and with positive pre-event indicators and potential sporting and legacy outcomes, the 2011 Rugby World Cup might justify the International Rugby Board’s decision in a sporting sense – even if it is for the last time.
This is the sixth part of our Rugby World Cup series. To read the other parts, follow these links:
– Part three: Art or science? Decision making in rugby
– Part four: Rugby World Cup: Are cheats prospering?
– Part five: Rugby World Cup: The Australian situation
– Part six: Selling the Rugby World Cup
– Part seven: Rugby World Cup injuries: That’s gotta hurt
– Part eight: Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos