Will Rugby be the first of the mainstream pro sports to make the most of its inclusion in the Olympics?
It’s a big question. Over time, the Olympics has evolved to include more mainstream sports in its programme, such as tennis and golf. This has been a move by the Olympics to maintain relevance in the evolving sporting landscape, whilst exploiting commercial opportunities presented by some of those sports’ massive stars. Makes sense. But why do consumers and top talent within such sports seem underwhelmed by the Olympics ideal? Think about golf, tennis and the another sporting behemoth, football, and run a list of those marquee names that are NOT going to be participating in Rio come 5 August 2016. It’s a sizable list.
So why will it be different for Rugby Union?
Pinnacle Moments in the Olympics
The present model for mainstream professional sports in the Olympics certainly has its flaws. Fundamentally, the contests we’ll see in Rio over the next two weeks won’t reflect the upper echelon of those sports.
Tennis has its Grand Slams. Golf has its Majors. Football has its continental championships and World Cups, let alone the high profile Club leagues.
All of which absolutely trump an Olympic Medal for most, if not all of the competitors. It’s not to say the Olympics don’t have meaning for these sports. The Women’s Football Tournament, in particular would be second only to the World Cup, while the Men play an underage tournament.
Common to all these sports is the opportunity for massive earnings for athletes (whether it be through prizemoney or salary, and endorsements) and a tightly packed calendar of events. Not only is the prestige not necessarily there, these athletes’ earning power isn’t directly influenced by the Games – in fact it can be harmed. As such, it’s priority is lower.
Why Will Rugby 7s Be Different?
7s is a format that attracts athletes that aren’t necessarily the best of the best of the traditional game. Whilst certainly not mutually exclusive, there are peculiarities to the make-up of the elite 7s player. Therefore, there shouldn’t be a question of the best 7s athletes being unavailable to compete due traditional Rugby commitments.
7s has its own tour that is immature in comparison to the elite competitions of other mainstream sports. Importantly, the inaugural occasion of 7s being at the Olympics represents an iconic event that fits comfortably into the Rugby 7s calendar. Further, both the Men’s and Women’s World Series culminate at Rio 2016. As such, the Olympics represents this year’s ‘Super Bowl’ or Cup Final, if you will.
Of further attraction, the 7s format lends itself to a more diverse talent and nationality base than its traditional cousin – an obvious attraction for the Olympic movement. The winner of the Rugby 7s at the Olympics could very well come from a non-traditional Rugby country in both the Men’s and Women’s competitions.
Rugby truly is a global game. However, the elite level of the traditional Men’s 15s format focuses on 14 nations. Rugby 7s, less reliant on the intricacies and strength of traditional Rugby, allows others to compete on a more equal footing. The top 14 for the Men’s and Women’s Rugby 7s World Series Standings includes the following:
And these non-traditional Rugby nations are competitive in the 7s format.
The 2016 Women’s World Series saw Canada win one round, and come runner up in another. The US team has had a 4th place finish, while Russia finished runner up in Round 1. With the Men’s Series, the US team has had two 3rd place finishes, whilst Kenya won the Singapore round leg. Lesser light Samoa (who did not qualify) also has won a round.
Importantly, the Sport Needs the Olympics
The best partnerships require two willing participants. Rugby 7s can work to grow the Olympic movement. And the Olympics can work for World Rugby. The governing body of Rugby 7s has an imperative to globalise the sport and extend reach. The modified version of the game is seen as the perfect vehicle for that. So why not embrace the Olympics to showcase the sport and attract new participants and fans?
The challenge for World Rugby, the governing body of Rugby Union (and the 7s format) is to figure out where the Olympics fits in the echelon of its ‘pinnacle events’. Staged every four years, the next Rugby Sevens World Cup will take place in the US in 2018. A major tournament every two years (World Cup alternating with the Olympics), fitting in with the annual series seems like a very workable schedule – especially as the cross over between 7s and traditional Rugby players becomes less and less.
The right format, with the best players at the right time. This could be the formula for success for a mainstream professional sport entering the Olympics. The next step for World Rugby is doing all it can to have the mass populous powers, China and India, qualifying for the next Olympiad.