Rugby on the Rise

Rugby on the Rise – Understanding the global sport’s recent growth and future in Canada

September 26, 2019 4:46 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

One of the biggest sporting events in the world commenced last week. The 2019 Rugby World Cup is being held in Japan, 10 months out from the country’s hosting of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The Final of the last Rugby World Cup (2015) was watched by an estimated global television audience of 120 million people.


The Canadian men’s rugby team is competing at the World Cup, their 9th consecutive appearance at the tournament since it was established in 1987. The 2019 World Cup also caps a four-year period in Canada which has seen expansion and increased exposure for the sport of rugby.


Rugby has a strong presence across the globe, with 9.6 million players participating in the sport across 123 countries. Commercial interest in the game is also increasing, with private equity firms recently securing investments in some of rugby’s major competitions. The 2019 World Cup also marks the first time the tournament has been held in Asia and outside of the sport’s traditional strongholds.


So how has rugby grown in Canada over the past four years? In this white paper, I will highlight four key milestones that have contributed to the rise of the sport domestically. With 2015 research indicating that rugby was the fastest growing participation sport in the US, how will the increased presence of elite-level rugby in Canada impact the sport’s popularity and long-term success in this country?


Key milestones in Canadian Rugby 2016-2019


1. Canada Sevens Established (2016)


Rugby ‘Sevens’ has played an important role in the increased global popularity of rugby. Seven-a-side rugby, a variant of the traditional 15-a-side version, is a faster paced version of the game played over seven-minute halves.


In 1999, the World Rugby Sevens Series was established, which features National Teams competing in two-to-three-day tournaments across the globe. HSBC, a global financial institution, has been the title sponsor of the circuit since 2010 and has also played a key role in its growth, for example by helping expand the women’s circuit. In 2015, Vancouver secured a four-year deal to host a World Sevens Series tournament, which has been held annually at BC Place since 2016.


“The Canada Sevens has been a catalyst for driving awareness for the sport”, says Mark Lemmon, Chief Commercial & Marketing Officer at Rugby Canada. “Many people who attend Sevens for the first time know nothing about rugby. Sevens has been a social phenomenon as much as it’s been a sporting phenomenon.”


This social phenomenon has helped the Canada Sevens become a marquee event on the Vancouver sporting calendar, attracting cumulative attendances of 70,000+ for each of the tournament editions to date. Sevens tournaments across the globe have become known for fans dressing up in costume and their party like atmosphere, with the Vancouver event being no exception.


“Until you experience a Canada Sevens you can’t put it into words”, Lemmon added. “At least 50% of the crowd is in costume. It is up there with the Calgary Stampede or Grey Cup as a top three annual sporting event in Canada, a bucket lister for any sports fan.”


2. Canadian Women Win Olympic Bronze (2016)


The international success of the World Rugby Sevens Series was instrumental in Rugby Sevens being admitted as an Olympic sport for the first time in 2016. The Canadian women’s team qualified for the initial Olympic tournament in Rio, providing never-seen-before exposure for the women’s game at the most-watched summer Olympic Games in Canadian history.


Rugby Canada reported that female rugby registrations increased by 26% in Canada in the lead up to the 2016 Olympics. Globally there are 2.7 million female rugby players, with a 28% increase in registered players reported since 2017.


“The professionalism around the women’s rugby programs has grown”, says Meaghan Howat, Rugby Canada Board Member and former Director of Rugby Sevens Operations. “If you are stagnant you will not continue to be competitive internationally, as other countries are investing more and more. Canada has a huge competitive advantage due to girls playing sport at a young age in this country.”


The Canadian women’s team made history at the 2016 Rio Olympics, defeating Great Britain 33-10 to secure the bronze medal. This was another important milestone for the game in Canada, exposing the country’s top female rugby players during the most watched sporting event in Canada.


“The Olympics put rugby into a lot of households that hadn’t been exposed to it before”, added Howat. “It introduced young girls to a sport many of them hadn’t seen before, with female Canadian rugby players also not used to seeing much of the spotlight. Having the support of the Olympic partners was important.”


3. Toronto Wolfpack (2017)


The Toronto Wolfpack are a pretty unique story in world sport. They are an expansion team that flies across the Atlantic to play in an English rugby league, entering the fold in 2017. They play a 13-a-side version of rugby called ‘rugby league’, which has some key differences versus what most Canadians know as rugby (think the CFL compared to the NFL). As some of you may know, I worked with the Wolfpack from 2017-18.


The Wolfpack have carved out a niche for rugby in the crowded Toronto sports market. The team regularly plays to crowds of 7,000+ at Lamport Stadium in Toronto, reporting a cumulative attendance of 258,229 during their three seasons of play. One way that the team has attracted fans is with a festival-like game day experience, with a craft beer garden, post-match parties at the stadium and frequent access to players.


“It is a festival with a game of rugby breaking out in the middle”, says Jon Pallet, Vice President, Commercial at the Wolfpack. “We are in the summer events market as much as the professional sports market. Our games draw on inspiration from more traditional North American sports, using our breaks in play to entertain the fans.”


While the Wolfpack’s code of rugby remains relatively unknown in this country, they seem to have established an entertaining product that has introduced many Canadians to the sport of rugby for the first time. The team has also been highly successful with on-field results, and enters the 2019 Playoffs with a strong chance of promotion to the highest level of rugby league in England ‘Super League’.


“One thousand English fans will travel to Toronto every week, that will become the new norm”, says Pallet about the prospect of promotion. “The impact of promotion is that people will very quickly realise who we are, we will become part of the mainstream sports conversation.”


4. Major League Rugby & Toronto Arrows (2018)


The Toronto Arrows are another recently established professional rugby team that compete in Major League Rugby (MLR). MLR was established in 2018 and follows a traditional North American sports league model, featuring 11 US based teams and one from Canada. The Arrows play the traditional 15-a-side game that most Canadian rugby players grew up with.


“The league is modelled after Major League Soccer, with a single entity owned by all the teams”, says Bill Webb, Toronto Arrows Majority Owner & General Partner. “We got wind of this happening in late 2017, and decided to play an exhibition season in 2018. We applied for entry into the league last summer and were accepted very readily.”


The Arrows have taken a different approach in the Toronto sports market when compared to the Wolfpack, with a focus on the rugby community and providing a professional pathway for elite Canadian players. This approach was demonstrated when seven Arrows players were recently selected in the Canadian 31-man squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup (the most from any team).


“If you wanted to play rugby professionally in Canada you had to go overseas”, added Webb. “You could represent your national team, but you had to go overseas, which can be disruptive to life. We’ve just announced our Academy, and our program will allow players to be in a high performance environment, but not lift up their roots.”


The introduction of Major League Rugby and the Toronto Arrows is another important milestone for Canadian rugby, particularly as it provides a professional pathway for elite junior rugby players. The Arrows long term success will likely be tied to MLR’s fortunes, which appears to be laying the platform for future success after failed attempts at North American rugby leagues in the past.


“MLR has expanded from 7 to 9 to 12 teams, and is slated to go to 14 teams in 2021”, says Webb. “We want to focus on developing North American talent, it’s a specific goal of the league. The Arrows will continue to focus on Canadian talent, and will earn the right to be the destination of choice for the very best Canadian players.”


The stories shared above are examples of the considerable growth rugby has seen in Canada over the past four years. Expansion teams and new tournaments have been established, creating fresh ways for the sport to engage with the Canadian public and corporate sector. Rugby participation levels have also increased, particularly among female players.


So how will the Canadian rugby landscape look in 5-10 years’ time? What does the sport need to grow further? The reality is rugby is still the fourth most popular football code in Canada, behind the NFL, CFL and soccer.


Some experts believe the Rugby World Cup being held in North America could be the catalyst for future growth.


“North America is the last untapped market for rugby, and the world is watching very closely”, says Bill Webb. “Rugby is taking off in places like China and Asia. The hope is the 2027 or 2031 World Cup will be hosted in North America, which will take the game to a whole other level in this country.”


Funding will also be a critical factor for rugby’s future growth in Canada, with Rugby Canada competing with fellow national sporting organizations for government money. However commercial revenue streams such as sponsorship remain an untapped opportunity.


“It is a matter of getting in front of people and educating them on the sport”, says Mark Lemmon. ‘We’re looking for global brands with Canadian footprints, who are interested in aligning with our values and believe in our future.”


What that future looks like for Canadian rugby will be fascinating to follow.


A reminder that T1 will also be in Japan for SponsorshipX 2020




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This post was written by Scott Lidbury

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