Rugby sevens’ Olympics debut in 2016 may help the sport’s shortened format enjoy a surge in interest similar to that experienced by Twenty20 cricket, England’s leading rugby official said.
Sevens, a fast-paced, high-scoring game with eight fewer players per team than the traditional form, was voted into the Rio de Janeiro Games by the International Olympic Committee in 2009. Rugby was last played at the Olympics in 1924.
“I think being an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016 gives it a fantastic growth opportunity,” Ian Ritchie, chief executive officer of England’s Rugby Football Union, said in an interview in London yesterday. “Like cricket, we’re looking for different types of the game. If that can engage more people it’s a good thing, we’ll get more people to watch.”
Rugby sevens has been around for more than a century. Established in Scotland, the game typically consists of two seven-minute halves and is played on full-size rugby pitches, leading to greater try-scoring opportunities than in rugby’s 15-a-side version. Those 80-minute matches put more emphasis on set pieces, big tackles and kicking for territorial advantage.
“Sevens has the potential to attract entirely new audiences to rugby,” said Ritchie, who previously ran Wimbledon as CEO of the All England Club. “It’s faster, it’s quite different to 15s. It also has the advantage of attracting different kinds of players as well: those people that are perhaps not so keen on the big physical contact.”
Twenty20, cricket’s shortest format, was introduced less than 10 years ago and has attracted new fans to matches lasting about three hours played amid music, cheerleaders and big-hitting. In contrast, elite international Test matches can last as long as five days.
The popularity of Twenty20 led to the creation of new domestic championships, notably the Indian Premier League where players can earn as much as $2 million for a two-month season.
An annual international rugby sevens series is backed by the sport’s global governing body, the International Rugby Board, and sponsored by HSBC Holdings Plc. It’s played at nine venues including Las Vegas, Dubai and Hong Kong. The last Rugby World Cup Sevens was held in Dubai in 2009 and Russia will host the next edition in 2013.
“You get a different type of spectator coming to it,” Ritchie said. “They are inclined to be younger, they are inclined to be perhaps newer to rugby, so I think every way you look at it there’s a potential plus point.”
This year, the Rugby Football Union held a sevens weekend at Twickenham in southwest London and attracted a total of 103,000 people, Ritchie said.
While Twenty20 cricket has enriched players, it hasn’t been universally welcomed, with critics saying the money on offer is luring talent away from longer forms of the game. A growth in the popularity of sevens would complement the 15-a-side format, Ritchie said.
“I don’t see it being in competition,” he said. “We’re all looking for growth opportunities and I don’t think it detracts or diminishes from the 15-a-side game. Hopefully there’ll be a spillover and it will enhance that as well.”