Kicking up support for ‘olive ball’ expansion
Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, didn’t appreciate the speed at which things can move in China until he experienced it for himself.
Last October, Alisports, an arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba, signed a $100 million partnership deal with Dublinbased World Rugby that was aimed at growing the sport in China.
Gosper and his team set themselves the aggressive tar- get of recruiting 1 million new players over the following 10 years.
Both the Chinese Rugby Football Association and Alisports argued that the target could be achieved in half the time.
“Already, in the space of a year, we have seen player participation numbers at least double in China, going from a base of about 75,000, where it had been for a few years, to adding about 100,000 players,” Gosper said on the weekend.
Invented in England, “olive ball”, as rugby is known in China, has historically been played most widely among expatriates.
Gosper said the addition of rugby to the Olympics for the first time last year made the sport more legitimate in the eyes of the Chinese public.
He said national campaigns run by World Rugby and Alisports are beginning to bear fruit in the nation where basketball and soccer are the most popular team sports.
“Alisports is looking to drive the sporting market, in terms of participation, con- tent, and e-commerce across the Alibaba platform,” Gosper said. “They see rugby in China as a growth sport. They also believe, along with the government, that rugby can help improve the health of the population.”
The partnership’s grassroots mass participation “Get Into Rugby” program has delivered equipment and spread the game in provinces around the country. During the past six months in China, 30 schools and four universities have added rugby programs.
Holding high-level rugby events in China is also a core part of Gosper’s strategy.
The 24-team HSBC World Sevens Series is the top competition in the Olympic version of the game, in which teams field seven players instead of the usual 15.
Gosper said World Rugby is planning a high-level competition in October in Shanghai that will feature the world’s top six or eight teams competing for big prize money.
“That has become the focus of most of our efforts at the moment, and a lot of the funding from Alisports would go into providing a budget for that tournament,” Gosper said.
“We think that would provide a driving catalyst for everything else.”
Part of Gosper’s optimism that the sport will catch on stems from the fact rugby is a truly global game, with many countries competing at the elite level.
As is the case with soccer, Chinese authorities are eager to support sports that have a global appeal.
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