With Asia leading the growth, Rugby World Cup 2015 was the most-connected and social rugby event ever, recording major growth in live audiences, online penetration and new markets, according to a study by Repucom, commissioned by World Rugby. Overall, the number of live Rugby World Cup television viewers grew by 48 percent on the 2011 tournament, driven by growth in Asia, Europe and targeted emerging rugby markets. Rugby World Cup 2015 set new viewership and coverage records in 27 markets as 16,000 hours of action was watched by 70 percent of the viewing population in key markets, underscoring World Rugby’s strategy of prioritizing free-to-air over pay TV in targeted markets.
The impressive television audience growth was supplemented by Rugby World Cup’s comprehensive digital presence, with the results helping to paint a picture of a sport that continues to reach, engage and inspire new audiences around the world. Online, the official hashtag #RWC2015 was mentioned twice-per-second for the duration of the tournament, while on the opening day of the tournament rugby’s share of global social voice was higher than football, American football, baseball, basketball and cricket. In total, over 46,500 hours were spent on the official Rugby World Cup website by 28 million unique users during the tournament.
England 2015 v New Zealand 2011 – record audience growth: Rugby World Cup 2015 was the most-viewed rugby event ever, reaching and inspiring new audiences worldwide. The live audience grew by 48 percent to 479 million, while on-demand and digital viewing was a major growth area for the sport, particularly among younger age groups. Including highlights, repeat and digital viewing, the total audience was just over one billion. Rugby World Cup 2015 was the most-viewed major sports event of 2015, attracting the biggest sporting audience of the year in the UK, France, New Zealand and Ireland. Rugby World Cup 2015 matches were the most-viewed programmes of the year in the UK and France, while Rugby World Cup matches occupied three of the top four most-watched programmes in Ireland as two-thirds of the population tuned-in. In total, 27 markets recorded increased coverage, including strategically important markets such as Japan, Spain, Germany, Brazil, China and Georgia. Asia’s live audience increased by 221 percent with a 59 million audience increase in Japan as the halo-effect shines bright ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. European live audiences increased by 75 percent, driven by the UK, France and Ireland thanks to a record viewing platform and favorable time zone. Rugby World Cup 2015 was the most socially-engaged sporting event of the year and the most spoken-about rugby event ever, attracting 400 million views of official Rugby World Cup content across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the official website.
At the heart of the success story was Asia. The region’s total audience grew by 69 percent and live audience increased by 221 per cent, driven largely by significant audience increases in Rugby World Cup 2019 host nation, Japan. With the Japanese national team recording a first-ever victory over South Africa within their best-ever campaign, the cumulative audience across Japan increased by 59 million from 2011, delivering a record rugby audience of 25 million viewers for the match against Samoa. The total 15-minute reach was a record 31 million.
The tournament also generated over 15 million social media platform impressions in Japan, with YouTube proving a particularly popular platform: the team’s last-minute match-winning try against South Africa generated 1.3 million YouTube views alone.
Europe’s broadcast audience increased by 75 percent, led by the UK, France and Ireland where Rugby World Cup 2015 matches attracted the biggest television audiences of the year. For host broadcaster ITV, the opening match, England v Wales, England v Australia and the final all attracted audiences of more than 10.5 million, and audiences remained strong despite England not reaching the quarter-finals. With ITV broadcasting all 48 matches across its free-to-air platforms, the total three-minute reach was 40.2 million, while the 15-minute reach was just under 34 million, demonstrating just how Rugby World Cup 2015 was capturing the imagination across the host nation.
For matches involving England, Scotland and Wales, UK audiences rose by a further 27 percent when out-of-home and non-captured viewing – at work, in pubs or at home via mobile devices, for example – habits are taken into account. More than 38 percent of the audience engaged with the tournament through social media, demonstrating an increasingly youthful audience.
With its mission statement of ‘Growing the Global Game’ at heart, World Rugby set out to prioritize free-to-air coverage over revenue in targeted markets and the strategy paid dividends in target markets such as Germany, where a record number of viewers regularly tuned into big matches, and in the Netherlands, Brazil, Cuba and China, where every match was available live for the first time.
In Germany, where free-to-air live coverage was broadcast for the first time by Eurosport, the cumulative tournament audience was 6.4 million, with the number of coverage hours rising from 18 to 86. Furthermore, the German audience for the Rugby World Cup final has grown by 74 percent since 2007, the last time the tournament was played in Europe. Brazil, host of the 2016 Olympic Games where rugby sevens will debut, was another market to experience significant growth. Coverage hours grew from 50 to 235 hours compared to 2011, while the cumulative audience of 563,000 rose from 73,000 in 2011 and 283,000 in 2007.
In the USA, NBC’s live coverage of the final between New Zealand and Australia attracted more than one million viewers, up from the 800,000 which watched delayed coverage of the 2011 final in the same time slot four years earlier.
The increased media coverage, on television and through digital platforms, can already be said to have had a positive impact on the sport as a whole, with the popularity of the sport increasing in both established and emerging markets ahead of rugby sevens’ Olympic Games debut at Rio 2016 and a further opportunity to broaden the reach and popularity of the sport.
Recent Repucom research points to a 13 per cent increase in the number of rugby fans worldwide for the six-month period between May and November 2015 with significant growth seen in Japan, Brazil, Argentina and Germany.
Nearly 50 per cent of Japanese Rugby World Cup fans believe the tournament has improved the standard of rugby in the country, while 11 million more Japanese said they became interested in the tournament as it took place. In the UK, meanwhile, the Rugby World Cup has seen 2.2 million more people develop an interest in the sport including a strong following amongst women – 53 per cent expressing an interest in Rugby World Cup versus 35 percent for the FIFA World Cup.
World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “Rugby World Cup 2015 was a very special and record-breaking global celebration of rugby and these impressive broadcast figures reflect our commitment to grow the sport beyond its traditional markets. With each Rugby World Cup we broaden the sport’s reach and appeal and through an unprecedented free-to-air platform, the most competitive and compelling Rugby World Cup ever certainly inspired new audiences within existing and emerging rugby markets. Particularly pleasing was audience growth in Asia ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019 and in Brazil, where rugby sevens will make its Olympic Games debut and record numbers are getting into rugby.
“At the heart of this growth story has been our ambition to innovate and bring fans closer to the action through a seamless digital and broadcast experience. An expanded free-to-air platform within our strategy to choose exposure over revenue in key markets, has certainly paid dividends and shown the great potential and enormous appetite for the sport in nations such as Brazil and Germany.”
This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba.