The momentum of Rugby World Cup is not just a high water mark but a tidal wave which washes over you.
Senior Vice President of IMG Media, has worked on the Rugby World Cup since 1991.
Nick Chesworth, Senior Vice President of IMG Media, has worked on the Rugby World Cup since 1991. Now, as anticipation of this year’s event grows, he talks to Sport Media & Finance about the commercial development of the tournament and the role an effective media strategy has played in growing the popularity of the sport worldwide.
Rugby’s 2015 RBS Six Nations Championship is up and running but while the annual clash of the giants of European rugby union will be as fiercely contested as ever, it is far from being the most important event on the rugby calendar this year.
In fact the Six Nations may, in some ways, be seen in some quarters as an amuse bouche, a taster for the autumn action when New Zealand’s iconic All Black’s bring their Hakka, tactical brilliance, technical excellence and power to England to defend their World Cup crown.
The Rugby World Cup has done more to change the face of a sport than more or less any other individual event and the fact that it has done so in only seven editions is a remarkable achievement in a sport which
sport which is often tarred with the brush of conservatism but which has consistently proved willing to take risks and innovate when the right opportunity arise.
And much of Rugby World Cup’s success is down to the way that television, and more recently digital media, has been used to bring to life a sport which was a closed book to much of the world for a century or more.
Rugby’s conservative image is not entirely undeserved. In fact the Rugby World Cup nearly didn’t happen at all because a number of key Unions (national governing bodies) opposed the very idea and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to participate in the inaugural event in Australia and New Zealand in 1987.
But according to Nick Chesworth, Senior Vice president at IMG Media, every subsequent edition of the event has seen significant progress on the broadcast and commercial fronts, allowing the governing body World Rugby (formerly the International Rugby Board) to invest in development in countries previously outside the mainstream rugby community.
The result is a virtuous circle which has seen Rugby World Cup earn its place at global sport’s top table.
“That first World Cup was really less significant to rugby than the old Five Nations championship. It wasn’t until 1991 that the first concerted attempt was made to sell TV rights which had, until then, just been traded within the parish boundaries of rugby”.
Chesworth speaks from experience. At the time of the 1991 World Cup he headed the rugby operation at CPMA, the London-based agency which acted as commercial partner for the tournament. He moved to IMG along with the rights some years later and has been with Rugby World Cup every step of the subsequent journey to England 2015.
It’s worth taking a second to consider exactly what the parish boundaries of rugby were back then. At the time the IRB had 30 members and was dominated by the British nations, a handful of other countries in Europe – most notably France – Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the South Pacific. South Africa remained a strong rugby nation but were not invited to take part because of the apartheid policies of the government of the time.
The point is that there were simply no grounds for claiming rugby to be a truly global sport. But things have changed.
TV distribution of the 1991 edition ensured that Rugby World Cup had a global footprint for the first time and by the time a re-born South Africa hosted in ’95 the number of IRB members had more than doubled.
“The point is that TV pushed rugby into markets such as Asia and Eastern Europe which had not had significant exposure to the sport before. Suddenly the IRB had the money to fund programmes and develop applications for membership When you start to generate money you have a foot on the ladder”, said Chesworth.
South Africa saw Rugby World Cup come into its own. The tournament coverage benefited from the footprint which had been established and became a major news story in its own right. Nelson Mandela’s endorsement of the event as a symbol of his Rainbow Nation and the unforgettable pictures of him presenting the William Webb Ellis trophy to Springbok’s skipper Francois Pienaar went global.
“Off the back of South Africa we doubled the value of the rights going into the 1999 World Cup in Wales but that was a difficult tournament in some respects. While Wales were hosts games were also played in all the other British countries as well as Ireland and France and working across so many different territories creates challenging logistics”, Chesworth explained.
But things were different in 2003 when Australia hosted the World Cup single handed. “It followed the Olympics and I think that’s the reason it was the first really grown up World Cup”, Chesworth said.
The experience of the Olympics helped ensure there was a fully functioning organisational structure in place and, for the first time, the broadcast sales covered the same areas as the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cup. The fact that England, which is the biggest market for rugby, were winners helped enormously”, he said.
“Before that video sales didn’t amount to much but they just went off the scale”, Chesworth said.In Australia 90 per cent of seats were sold, it was the event when digital delivery really started up and all in all it was a genuinely world class event.“It set the standard for the next editions in France and New Zealand and we knew that in Rugby World Cup we now had an event which really looked like a ‘world’ event”.While the number of territories where RWC was available had already reached what Chesworth describes as ‘saturation point’ he pinpoints the quality of the broadcast content as a turning point.
“There are lots of examples of how broadcasters were getting behind Rugby World Cup including in Italy where Sky Italia dedicated a channel to the tournament so that viewers could immerse themselves in everything which was going on”.
And the new levels of coverage of the tournament had an impact on sponsorship.
“The big thing for sponsors was that Rugby World Cup is no longer a matter of suck-it-and-see. It is now recognised as a major strategic opportunity for brands and that makes a big difference.
Brands are able to activate effectively in different markets all over the world and that in turn promotes the competition. It (the momentum) is not just a high water mark but a tidal wave which washes over you”, Chesworth said.
This year’s event promises to take Rugby World Cup to a new level in terms of the quality of the broadcast and digital experience on offer.
It will, says Chesworth, be the first data rich Rugby Wold Cup an event which caters ‘for the casual viewer and the geek’ alike.
“Content will be available across all platforms and there will be amazing comprehensive amount of material on offer to support the live events”, he said. “There will be TV crews embedded with the squads to get close than ever to the behind the scenes stories and to show Rugby World Cup from an entirely fresh perspective.
The broadcast coverage itself will set new standards. As well as extensive use of spider can the host broadcasters will have up to 34 cameras working at a Grade a games”.
And it is not only the pictures which are designed to amaze. A new audio configuration will enhance sound capture even in the middle of the field to better capture the impact and the sheer raw power of the game.
Given the complexity of the laws of rugby and the techniques of the players, IMG media has also worked to produce strands of ‘educational’ support programming to help bring viewers unfamiliar with the sport quickly up to speed.
“We have to be careful not to be condescending in the approach but we have to appreciate there is a massive gap in the general level of understanding of the game from country to country”, Chesworth explained.
Critically the World Cup is likely to benefit from faster TMO (Television Match Official) decisions thanks to investment by governing body World Rugby in Hawkeye technology while GPS data will be collected by the participating teams from every player in every game, offering the potential for a rich diet of statistics for on screen analysts and fans accessing online.
“In short we want people to turn on when the event starts on September 18 and not turn off again until the final whistle on October 31st”, said Chesworth who is realistic about the challenge of maintaining momentum.
Rugby is a high octane, high impact sport and recovery time between games is critical not only to players’ performance but to their health and well-being. Unlike, for example the FIFA Wold Cup in which teams play twice a week”.
“There is no problem maintaining attention in the pool (group) phase because of the sheer number of games but that changes at the quarter finals and thereafter”, Chesworth explained.
We need to keep the momentum going during that final three week period and the supplementary content created will be key to achieving that”.
He points to the work done by French broadcaster TF1 as an example
example of how a creative approach has helped build the profile of the tournament as well as bolstering the bond between the national team and tis fans back home.
“At the last World Cup TF1 had a crew embedded with the French team and because of that the players became more at ease and more friendly with the journalists. Every night after the main national news broadcasts TF1 showed a six or seven minute look at life in the French camp and the players were extremely natural and open”.
“It was a great way of lifting the lid and showing what it is really like, that’s something I would hold up an example for others to follow”.
So where does Rugby World Cup now stand in the order of major world sports events?
“It is certainly bigger than, say, the IAAF World Championships right now and sits at the top table of world sport and it has made extremely positive advances in many new territories and is doing very well”, Chesworth said.
“Ideally we would like to see more eggs in the Rugby World Cup basket and that means having more competition from countries outside the very top level. World Rugby are actively pursuing ways of raising standards in countries like Canada, Georgia and the USA and I am sure they will get there. The problem is that the major teams are also improving at the same time. I think the key is to ensure that there are more professional domestic colleagues set up around the world. That would provide the stepping stone for greater competitiveness at international level”.
“TV has been the great facilitator for the development of rugby around the world and Rugby World Cup sits above all else.
Our role is to ensure that production standards reflect the aspiration and make use of the available technology and that we are creating content and utilising on-demand media in a way that is meaningful“.
Chesworth says that rights for the 2015 Rugby World Cup have delivered a 45-50 per cent increase on the previous tournament – not least because of the size of the home market and a time zone which is more attractive for much of the world’s population. That will feed into a projected surplus of around US$ 240 million which will be reinvested in the growth of the game worldwide…Strengthening the competition and making future editions of Rugby World Cup even more compelling and valuable.It is a virtuous circle which tends to suggest that just 28 years after the first Rugby World Cup, the world really is in union and the game’s time has come.