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But the sport has made tangible gains in the country in recent years, driven by the overall government commitment to developing sport across the country, and by an agreement between the sport’s global governing body, World Rugby, and Alisports. The deal was signed towards the end of last year and will see the sports arm of the online retail giant invest $100 million over the next ten years to develop rugby in China.
An initial target of cultivating a million players in China by ten years has already been superseded; replaced by a more ambitious goal of reaching that figure within five years.
Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, is working closely with his counterparts at the Chinese Rugby Football Association, itself a wing of a Chinese government structure within the sports ministry called ‘Small Ball Sports’. Thanks to the inclusion of rugby sevens on the Olympic programme from 2016, the sport has been able to tap in to significant funds and governmental goodwill and Gosper finds himself steering a ship that is gathering momentum in China.
A member of the advisory board for the Leaders Sport Business Summit in Beijing, Gosper sat down with Leaders to update on the current state of play of rugby in China, and to pinpoint the challenges and opportunities inherent in growing a non-traditional sport on such a unique international frontier.
How would you describe the current level of rugby in China?
BG: Rugby is at the foot of the mountain in China. There are probably between 75,000 and 100,000 participants in the country. The MOU with Alisports is a strong commitment and with it come some very big metrics. We were looking to get a million players by ten years, and they corrected that and said we should be able to do that within five years. That’s the goal, and the knock-on of that is the geometric equivalent in growth of referees, coaches, medics etc. Obviously there are communication and cultural issues. We’re also trying to put some major competitions into China and there are infrastructure issues – size of stadia, security requirements in terms of policing, the general non-culture of spectator sports means that you have to be pretty realistic in terms of the crowds you expect; you think China is a lot of people therefore you’ll fill a stadium easily but that’s not the case at all. The fact that we’re an Olympic sport helps hugely. The Small Ball Sports roll up into the ultimate decision makers at the National Olympic Committee. That connection is important – particularly important in getting rugby into schools; they’re on the verge of signing something called the Sunshine Programme, which is introducing mass sports like rugby that are Olympic sports into schools, and we’re about to benefit from the uplift in participation numbers from that.
What is the Alisports agreement doing for you?
BG: The deal with Alisports is both money provided to develop in exchange for IP that we would provide, and ecommerce in the way of a World Rugby shop. There are some exchanges of assets between the organisations. But we believe the government is pushing quite hard for some of the bigger private companies to get involved in driving sport, both as a health benefit, but also, in rugby terms, they like the values that are conveyed by and pushed by the sport of rugby throughout the world. So their goal in the nearest future is to get into the HSBC Sevens World Series, but they harbour some ambition also to host a Rugby World Cup at some point in the future that we can’t define. They’re quite bullish. The deal is about high visibility. The reach of Alibaba as a platform is interesting for us. It doesn’t preclude us at this point from using some other linear terrestrial channels in China to gain that exposure and they see the benefits of that. There’ll be some exclusive content but also non-exclusive. What we’re also trying to do is drive a tournament very quickly – as early as this year – which will be a kind of masters sevens tournament. It’ll be a test, and a bona fide tournament. We’re just trying to tie down a stadium for that in Shanghai in October.
Is there a model you’re following for growing the game in China?
BG: The accessibility and visibility of football makes it a category of its own; and then to find sports that are very compatible, on governance and marketing, it’s very hard to extrapolate the experiences of other sports, although we follow them pretty closely to see if there’s any learnings at all. I think we’re more likely to gain from experiences we’ve had in sizeable markets that have grown fast in recent years. I guess the United States, although incredibly different to China, does provide some lessons in terms of our mass participation programme, which is Get In To Rugby; that’s your big uptick programme of providing minimal equipment and laws and getting people to touch the ball and providing the opportunity to touch the sport. That gives us a good idea of what the uptake could be. But you’ve also got to have that inspirational leap: you’ve got to have professional codes in sevens and fifteens; the profile of the Olympic Games means you’ve got to very quickly have a competitive Chinese team, whether it be men or women, and sevens rugby lends itself to a very quick implementation of a credible, viable competitive programme. We’re seeing teams like Germany and Spain stepping up and being close.
How often are you and your senior team over in China?
I’m there twice a year at the moment, and our development people probably four or five times a year. We’re moving someone in to Beijing now full-time to manage things a bit more; and of course our tournaments people are there quite regularly if we get this tournament off the ground. We have a very strong union in Hong Kong. That is China, albeit not mainland China, but it’s a resourceful and consequent union; their experience in dealing across China is also something that we lean on to a certain extent.
What are the major challenges of developing a sport in China?
From the conversations with Alisports to the MOU was very quick. But because you’re not dealing with a country that has a very strong, broad sporting culture, not everyone you deal with has a good sense of what we mean when we’re talking about events, what we mean when we’re talking about the development of the sport; we take things for granted in the western world because sport has been so central to what’s done in schools, people’s leisure time etc. People don’t have the natural instincts around sport, which means things move a lot slower, and there’s a bit less emotion in it from the Chinese side. It’s all very business like, rational and clinical. But sometimes things don’t move quite as fast because there’s not the comfort or familiarity on their side. That’s a theory, rather than researched fact! That’s my sense. I think we also underestimate the breadth of people involved in decision-making. It tends to be wider, more channels, more people to bring along with you than most western nations where that authority has been delegated to fewer people.
Brett Gosper is CEO of World Rugby. He is also a member of the Advisory Board for the Beijing edition of the Leaders Sport Business Summit.