LONDON/NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - The most popular
global sporting event of the year kicks off in two weeks, and
no, it's not the 2007 NFL season or any soccer competition.
It's the Rugby World Cup.
Most Americans and many others in other big TV markets like
Germany are not even aware of the tournament. But global
viewership is expected to reach new heights -- we're talking 4
billion -- given that the sport has rapidly gained a passionate
following outside its traditional hotbeds of the U.K. and the
An event that takes place every four years like its soccer
counterpart, the Rugby World Cup has gained in popularity
thanks to the increased professionalism of the game in
territories with long-established fan bases. That has led to
the sport's biggest stars getting advertising and sponsorship
England fly-half (a position similar to quarterback) Jonny
Wilkinson, who dropkicked his team to the 2003 Rugby World Cup
title, has been featured in Adidas commercials alongside soccer
luminary David Beckham.
And the U.S. national team, known as the Eagles, recently
received a prominent sponsorship deal from Sony Corp. to
promote the company's Bravia line of high-end TV sets, another
sign that the sport is capturing marketers' imagination.
Rugby's growing appeal also has attracted the attention of
ESPN, which announced Tuesday the acquisition of rugby news and
information Web site Scrum.com.
In the U.S., where sports viewers are transfixed by
football, baseball and basketball, the rough-and-tumble Cup is
expected to draw bigger audiences than ever because of an
expanding fan base and broader TV distribution spearheaded by
Setanta Sports North America, which operates a channel
dedicated to international sports as a unit of Dublin-based
The sixth edition of the Rugby World Cup starts September 7
and runs for six weeks. France is the main host, with a handful
of games being played across the English Channel in the rugby
meccas of Cardiff and Edinburgh. The final is set for October
20 at Stade de France in Paris.
In a statistic that might surprise people outside
traditional rugby hotbeds, the Cup's worldwide TV audience
exceeded 3 billion four years ago. Although shy of the most
recent soccer World Cup (30 billion for all matches) and Summer
Olympics (4 billion), it's still No. 3 on the list, For
perspective, the Super Bowl in February drew about 100 million
global viewers (with 93 million in the U.S.).
The International Rugby Board holds world TV and marketing
rights reportedly worth more than $200 million. It has linked
with two main sponsors -- EDF Energy and Peugeot -- and
financial services provider Societe Generale, Visa, Heineken,
Toshiba, Emirates Airline, telecommunications firm Orange and
consulting firm CapGemini also have deals.
Marketing mavens note that rugby fans tend to skew toward
the more educated and affluent, in line with the adage that
calls rugby a ruffian's game played by gentlemen. Also helping
is the game's swift pace and other TV-friendly elements like
the haka, the popular pregame war dance of the New Zealand
national team, the All Blacks.
Like with most sports events, the countries that host and
are favorites usually provide the biggest audiences, with the
U.K., France, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa likely to
lead in viewership.
In the U.S. and Canada, Setanta has exclusive live rights.
Subscribers of DirecTV and EchoStar's Dish can get the channel
for an added monthly fee of $14.99. Setanta.com will offer
pay-per-view games and subscriptions via broadband.
"Rugby is the fastest-growing sport in North America, and
so we have made a real commitment to bringing all the big
events and games to the expanding fan base," said Robert Ryan,
head of sponsorships advertising sales for Setanta Sports North
Cable customers can get much of the action via programming
provider In Demand, the co-venture of Comcast, Cox and Time
Warner, which will offer 23 Cup matches live. In Demand has 33
million addressable homes. Consumers can pay $24.95 per game,
with the final going for $29.95, or buy all matches for
"There is a lure here because it's a marquee event," said
Mark Boccardi, director of programming and product development
for In Demand.
Comcast network Versus also will show some matches.
Rugby magazine estimates that 200,000-250,000 people in
North America play the sport, with the IRB Web site listing
63,254 registered U.S. players. Ruggers expect more growth
after USA Rugby last year named Kevin Roberts, CEO of
advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, as its chairman.
Setanta and other U.S. TV players didn't provide any
previous viewership figures for the World Cup, citing
competitive reasons and the fact that viewers watching in
taverns or on PPV are difficult to measure because of a
tendency for group watching. Also, this is the first time the
Cup will be seen in the U.S. on a dedicated network. But Ryan
is confident that "this will definitely be the most-watched
Rugby World Cup in the U.S. so far."
The U.S. Eagles are in a particularly difficult pool group,
bundled with powerhouses England and South Africa, the physical
Samoans and Tonga, which ranks ahead of the Americans.
While this is seen as dampening the team's chances to break
out and attract broader interest outside aficionados,
U.S.-based fans include many expats who are expected to follow
the world's best teams even when their own team is eliminated.