RugbyX: The Acceleration of Rugby
It started with American sports market where the likes of The NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL became both sporting powerhouses and entertainment juggernauts rolled into one.
In a practical sense, this means the ‘show’ being as important as the action. From cheerleaders to pre-game hyping of fans, to t-shirt cannons and halftime shows; it’s all about the spectacle.
This Americanisation of sport has seeped into other areas through the likes of the Big Bash / IPL, which epitomise the showbusiness nature of short-form cricket, which will only be reinforced further by the launch of the Hundred. We’ve also had the increasingly festival nature of Rugby 7s which has been a huge success, along with the relocation of US sports fixtures to the UK. That too, has worked.
Now we have the latest incarnation in the form of RugbyX at London’s O2 Arena. We spent the day working behind the scenes with the Barbarians, so had a touchline seat at the birth of what is potentially the future of rugby.
What we learned was the sport itself is a compelling, helter-skelter and incredibly demanding version of rugby. In simple terms, it is like Sevens but on a treadmill. It’s that fast, physically demanding and rewards supreme conditioning as well as a bold and creative approach.
It seems tailor-made for expanding into non-traditional rugby heartlands, such as inner-city schools or even state schools, where the game is under pressure. You need fewer players, less space and less coaching experience, which all relieve pressure on the schools sport system.
The off-field spectacle did not disappoint either and went full Uncle Sam on the audience. Light shows, DJs, numerous screens including a jumbotron and a state of the art pitch, allied with a hype man for the crowd and innovations such as the one-v-one method for settling ties, all placed fan entertainment at their heart. At times, it felt like rugby being played in a nightclub or on stage at Glastonbury, but it showed real potential with a demographically diverse audience in attendance.
Rugby purists may reject RugbyX as a gimmick but what does rugby have to lose? This could be a crucial tool in spreading rugby widely, enhancing the skill set of aspiring players and attracting more interest in the sport beyond traditional heartlands.
We have seen from our Rugby World Cup 2019 social media work, that the appetite for rugby is vast. We just need to reach people with accessible and engaging content.
More public interest means more eyeballs, more growth and more investment which help the game expand commercially. It’s a win-win and deserves time to explore its potential.