World Rugby claims rise in following driven by U.S., India and China

The Rugby World Cup Sevens attracted over 100,000 fans to AT&T Park, San Francisco across three days of competition in July 2018. Lachlan Cunningham - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

A study published by World Rugby claims the sport now has a global following of almost 800 million people, with non-traditional markets like the U.S. and India driving its worldwide growth.

The research, which was carried out by market analytics group Nielsen Sports, says that out of rugby union's 793 million followers, 338 million consider themselves "fans", an increase of 24 percent from 2013.

World Rugby says there are now 33 million fans in both the U.S. and China, while there are 25 million in India. Described as "emerging markets" by the sport's governing body, those countries are now said to account for around 30 percent of the sport's global fanbase.

World Rugby also claim audiences in emerging markets have doubled in the past four years, largely thanks to the inclusion of rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It says 63 percent of rugby fans across Asia, North America, South America and Africa became interested after being inspired by shorter forms of the game, which are easier to understand and more accessible to first-time viewers.

The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, for example, featured rounds in Dubai, Hong Kong and Las Vegas, while the recent Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco attracted over 100,000 spectators across three days of competition at AT&T Park.

The publication of the study coincided with the India leg of World Rugby's Trophy Tour, which saw the Web Ellis Cup visit the country for the first time. The Tour is part of the build-up to Japan 2019, the first Rugby World Cup to be played in Asia, and further highlights World Rugby's global plan to take the sport to new markets. The trophy will visit the U.S. in March 2019.

Further findings assert that the average age of a rugby fan has fallen by two years to 36, while women and girls make up 36 percent of all fans worldwide.

Nielson Sport's Research Director Charlie Simon told ESPN that the study asked representative sample groups from a selection of 36 countries the question "How interested are you in rugby union?"

A "fan" was defined as someone who self-categorized themselves as either "very interested" or "interested" in rugby, while the definition of a "follower" was extended to someone who also said they were "a little interested".

Researchers put the question to 1,000 people (2,000 for China) from each country, before extrapolating the data to arrive at their overall figures. They also surveyed different groups, though still representative of their country's population, twice a year over a four-year period in order to measure growth.

World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper added that the study demonstrates "significant fan-growth" and reflects a sport that is "effective in attracting a new, younger audience in non-traditional rugby nations".