World Rugby Highlights the Future of Rugby Fan Engagement at JRFU Paris Event

The JRFU hosted a lively and thought-provoking panel discussion in conjunction with World Rugby under the banner of ‘Rugby Fan Engagement 2023’ during the ‘Le Rugby Japonais Aujourd’hui et Demain’ exhibition held in Paris from 17 – 28 October. The session, which took place on Tuesday, 24 October looked at how World Rugby and its partners are working to develop and evolve fan engagement and the 360-degree fan experience within rugby’s major global events, in both the fifteens and sevens formats of the game.

Moderated by the JRFU’s Chief Marketing Officer, Ken Maki, the session brought together World Rugby’s Chief Commercial Officer, Ben Slack and Director of Experiential, Greta Cooper. They were joined by Michael Annells, Commercial Manager at Hawk-Eye Innovations, a division of Sony Sports Business.

Ben kicked off the session by outlining how World Rugy’s new EventsCo structure will see World Rugby take over the full planning and delivery of rugby’s major international tournaments, including the HSBC SVNS, World Rugby’s new global Sevens competition and in the fifteens game with WXV and all Rugby World Cups from England 2025 onwards.

Ben Slack
World Rugby’s Chief Commercial Officer

Traditionally World Rugby has acted primarily as an international sports federation, managing the development and fundamental wellbeing of the sport, while also placing particular emphasis on growing both participation and the worldwide fanbase. In terms of its major showpiece global events, up to and including France 2023, World Rugby has always outsourced the running of Rugby World Cups to local organising committees.

This is now changing, with World Rugby looking to further develop and leverage the commercial aspects of their events, along with the media rights around them, by taking full control of the organisation, development, and execution of these assets. In setting up World Rugby’s new EventsCo, the game’s governing body is building an events and media company to better operate, implement and commercialise, while also taking full responsibility for developing the fan experience at rugby’s global showpiece events.

A key element and driver for this is the broadening and building of rugby’s fan base. This is primarily around growing it from its traditional core of ‘avid fans’, to start building a following among younger age groups, while also appealing more to women and families and growing rugby’s appeal in non-traditional markets.

As Director of Experiential, Greta Cooper then led the discussion deeper into how this will look in terms of developing the matchday fan experience at World Rugby’s major global tournaments. Her team is looking at how the match day experience for a fan at a World Cup, WXV or SVNS event can be broadened so that the entertainment scope of these products goes far beyond the actual experience of just watching and enjoying the on-field action.

Greta Cooper
World Rugby’s Director of Experiential

This will include the development and evolution of the fanzone concept in terms of increasing the quality and variety of the visitor experience by bringing in more entertainment options such as music, food and beverage, merchandise and leveraging new technology in augmented and virtual reality to both entertain and educate around rugby. It also includes a refinement and optimization of hospitality and travel, while also working to better integrate and utilise the enhanced data drawn from on-field play and distributing this across digital platforms to wider audiences, be they in-stadia, in fanzones or wherever in the world they may be situated, in both real-time and on-demand.    

Michael Annells then followed by introducing some of the exciting new technology and platforms Hawk-Eye Innovations, are bringing to the world of rugby. A division of Sony Sports Business, Hawk-Eye Innovations have been at the forefront of sports officiating and broadcast enhancement technology since 2001. In addition to enhancing and refining the ever more complex world or rugby officiating, they are looking at a number of innovative and exciting ways to use technology and broadcast to attract new fans to the sport.

Michael Annells
Sony Sports Businesses, SMART Sports Commercial Manager

Following the speaker’s presentations, a Q&A session was held with a variety of questions coming from members of the audience. Topics discussed included the impact and importance of Rugby Sevens at the upcoming Paris Olympics and how World Cup ticketing operations could be enhanced in line with overall efforts to improve the fan experience. The general mood in the auditorium at the conclusion of the event was overwhelmingly positive, with the consensus among the gathered guests that this new approach would benefit the global game by bringing new fans into the sport.

Ken Maki
Japan Rugby Football Union’s Chief Marketing Officer

Commenting after the session, Ken Maki, CMO of the Japan Rugby Football Union said:

“We had an incredibly enlightening session in which our colleagues at World Rugby and Hawk-Eye shared some of the exciting new developments in the areas of fan engagement and fan experience which are being introduced to the pinnacle events in our sport and which will come into the broader game, both internationally and domestically.

“Personally, being responsible for rugby marketing here in Japan for the JRFU, I am really excited by the opportunities this new approach will bring in terms of better fan engagement to further build our fan base. I would really like to see these ideas become reality as quickly as possible and see that Japan, as a rugby market can be at the forefront of this new and innovative approach to growing our sport.

“Rugby World Cup in France showed once again how the tournament is about so much more than just the on-field action. There is incredible value, both commercially and in terms of capturing the imagination of new and existing audiences within the wider experience of a World Cup – be that for fans in-stadia, those tuning in via broadcast or through social channels. As the JRFU, we fully support World Rugby’s ambitions and strategy, and we look forward to seeing these developments come into rugby moving forward.”