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  • Shauna Rush


Updated: Feb 4, 2021

This article was originally published on December 18th, 2019.

2019 was a great year for rugby, with the sport seeing a ground-breaking Rugby World Cup taking place in Asia for the first time.

Japan hosted an amazing tournament that saw South Africa crowned world champions, after defeating England 32-12, while the tournament also broke a multitude of records.


After 45 games played over six weeks, fans witnessed 2,196 points scored across the 3,600 minutes of rugby played.

The enduring image of South Africa’s Siya Kolisi (@SiyaKolisi_Bear) lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, the first black man to do so as captain, was perhaps a fitting end to a tournament in which underdogs shone.

A win for Uruguay over Fiji in the group stages. While host nation Japan defeated two of the sport’s more established nations, Ireland and Scotland, to finish top of Pool A. England also dethroned much-fancied New Zealand in the semi-final before they themselves ran into an inspired, immovable South Africa side who in the end proved too strong.

The tournament was fully embraced by local Japanese fans, despite pre-tournament fears.

However, World Rugby, the world governing body for the sport of rugby union, recorded a record 99.3% match day attendance across the tournament, with 1.84 million tickets sold across the six weeks.

Unsurprisingly, the most expensive ticket for a pool stage game was for the opening match between Japan and Russia at 50,000 yen ($450). For the final, which saw a record attendance of 70,103, tickets were officially being sold for as much as 100,000 yen ($900), but ticketing resale sites saw those prices soar, with a pair of Category A tickets being sold on StubHub for an eye-watering $31,700.

Japan from the beginning of tournament planning was focusing on how to engage with international visitors. The country would welcome 400,000 international visitors, during the tournament. Many of the visitors joined local fans in sporting stylized 'hachimaki' headbands.

International visitors produced a record 437 billion Yen ($4.1 billion) economic impact delivered for Japan.

Fan Engagement

It was not just in the stadiums where the 2019 edition of the Rugby World Cup was breaking records. Around the host cities, the 16 official fan zones welcomed 1.13 million people, breaking the record previously set at the 2015 tournament in 2015.

World Rugby added that they believe that the one million barriers would have been surpassed at the quarter-final stage, had it not been for Typhoon Hagibis.

Akira Shimazu (@RWC2019Shimazu) chief executive of the Japan 2019 tournament, stated the importance of fan zones for introducing the local Japanese population to rugby “Our Rugby World Cup 2019 fan zones have introduced to Japan a whole new culture of coming together to watch and enjoy sport in an exciting, festival-like atmosphere. For many Japanese, visiting fan zones gave them their first experience of rugby and a taste of the unique and special atmosphere of a Rugby World Cup.”

The 2019 tournament also appears to have impacted fans from across Asia, with World Rugby’s Impact Beyond legacy program reporting that more than 1.8 million new participants.

World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont (@BillBeaumont) saying “Rugby World Cup 2019 has been one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all time, and certainly the most ground-breaking in terms of bringing the game to new audiences and attracting new fans to the sport we love."

With such a great response from Japanese fans, rugby now has the opportunity to capitalize. Plans are currently being drawn up for a new 12-team domestic club competition, which it is hoped would generate annual revenue of 50 billion yen (US$460 million) from media rights and sponsorship deals.

There are also calls for Japan to be given a seat at the sport's top table, as the Brave Blossoms' performance at the tournament appears to highlight the fact that the country has outgrown its current Tier Two status. Making it worthy of an invite to either the Six Nations or the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.

Reports have already started to emerge of talks between rugby’s northern and southern hemisphere superpowers over the creation of a new annual Test competition that could see a combination between the Six Nations and Rugby Championship into a global tournament, with an invitation being extended to Japan.

Broadcasting Success

The tournament also smashed records for fan engagement around the globe with 1.7 billion digital video views and an estimated worldwide broadcast audience of 400 million.

This includes Japan’s crunch Pool A game against Scotland which drew a domestic all-time record television audience of 54.8 million for a host nation.

Traditional rugby markets also produced positive results, despite early morning kick-off times. The UK produced a peak audience of 12.8 million for England’s 32-12 final defeat to South Africa. Which surpassed the Fifa Women’s World Cup semi-final between the Lionesses and the USA as the UK’s most-watched TV program of the year.

UK audiences for the tournament were also up almost a third in 2011 when the competition was last played with morning match kick-off times in the UK.

Furthermore, a plan outlined ahead of the tournament to reach new audiences was through social media proved a success. Focusing on short-form videos, with platforms such as TikTok and the #RugbyFever hashtag challenge, which was used over 25 million times in the first seven days.

A further 2.6 million people watched Siya Kolisi's post-final interview, via the Rugby World Cup’s official Twitter handle, generating in excess of 13,000 retweets and more than 50,000 likes.

“We decided to take a risk and to offer much edgier content than we ever have done. We don’t want to be a highlights reel, and it has clearly paid off on our TikTok platform, on SnapChat, and with our Rugby World Cup Daily show," explained Marissa Pace (@Marissali), World Rugby’s chief marketing officer.

“Our objective is to show just how fun rugby is and, as a traditional sport, we might be the victims of our own success sometimes, and our own image, but that is where these new platforms come through for us, and they have been delivering us results.”

The official Rugby World Cup TikTok account, which shared highlights, funny moments, and fan-generated content, ended the tournament with over 185,000 new followers.

The 2019 tournament surpassed the 400 million digital video views accumulated during the previous edition, in England, just two weeks into the tournament, ending up with 1.7 billion digital video views, more than four times as many as the English edition of the tournament 4 years ago.

“It’s the old adage: you have to fish where the fish are,” explains Pace. “You have to present the content that people want to consume, and that is ever-changing. We can’t just stick with the traditional platforms anymore.

“We have to adopt what people’s schedules are, where they are consuming content, how they are consuming content, and I think every international sports federation’s objective is to seed the next generation of viewers and we are taking that very seriously.”

Sponsors also jumped on board with the successful social media push, creating some great product activations. The most memorable probably coming from Canon, which used its Free Viewpoint Video System to show viewpoints and angles that are not possible with conventional cameras. Which created an experience for fans whereby they feel as if they are watching the action unfold on the field.

Merchandise Growth

This was a particularly rewarding event for World Rugby’s merchandise, with the eight tournament suppliers licking their lips at how one of Asia’s most populous and economically healthy nations responded to the tournament.

Sportswear provider Canterbury had to rush to supply more Brave Blossoms jerseys as shirts flew off the shelves, with 200,000 apparently sold ahead of the hosts’ quarter-final against South Africa.

Those sales even surpassed the expectations of World Rugby, with pre-tournament sales on the tournament’s official online store having outperformed those of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, by more than 50%.


After World Rugby's success in Japan, they have already confirmed plans to return the tournament to a dual award strategy for future hosting rights in the 2027 and 2031 editions, with the idea of pairing an established and emerging rugby nation.

It is also expected that one of those World Cups will be staged in the U.S. which is viewed by World Rugby as a major growth market for the sport, the same way Japan was ten years ago.

However, the hosting ball was passed from Japan 2019 to France 2023 in November. Giving time for the sport to develop in other countries


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