Rio de Janeiro — Returning to the Olympics is one step for rugby. But grabbing the limelight is a bigger jump, particularly in countries like Brazil, where the sport has little following.
“It’s very hard to get on the radar in this market the way football is,” Brett Gosper, the chief executive officer of World Rugby, said Wednesday as he talked up the game in Rio, visited the venue for next year’s Olympics and watched beach rugby on a gray day on Copacabana beach.
The Olympics are sure to increase rugby’s visibility, and boost revenue. Gosper says rugby’s return after 92 years is worth about $50 million to the sports’ governing body.
That’s modest. But it’s a start for a sport that’s the most important game in several countries, but an outsider in many.
Gosper said rugby’s World Cup, which opens in September in England and Wales, will produce about $1 billion in revenue and provides about 85 percent of the body’s gross income.
“Because you are an Olympic sport you find your way onto the curriculum of schools, universities in countries like Brazil, Russia, China, Mexico, where normally you wouldn’t even be on the radar,” Gosper said. “For those two weeks, you’ll reach a global area of the world that the sport really has had trouble reaching in the past.”
The Olympic discipline is rugby sevens, one of three versions of the sport. It’s the fastest, the least traditional and could attract players from the other versions—particularly from the 15-man game of rugby union with players looking for a shot at an Olympic gold medal.
“We’ve seen players putting themselves forward, some big stars,” Gosper said. But he said the speed in sevens might tax some.
“I think the core of the teams will probably be the more regular sevens players,” he said. “It is such a different game from an aerobic fitness point of view, the running angles and so on. It’s very hard to just parachute in.”
The rugby venue is located in the northern cluster of Deodoro, far from the main venues at the Olympic Park in the western suburb of Barra da Tijuca. Deodoro will host events like shooting, rugby, field hockey and equestrian.
Gosper knows rugby could get lost among 27 other sports, more than 300 events and 10,000 athletes.
“As a new sport there’ll be a natural curiosity to our sport,” he said, citing success at multi sport events like the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China.
“We will do our best to create visibility and create interest around the sport,” he said. “But it is really up to what happens on the field, and hopefully the crowds here in Rio will enjoy what they see.”
Rugby last appeared in the 1924 Olympics as a men’s 15-a-side game, with the gold medal going to the United States—as it had done in 1920. This time it will be sevens for both men and women.
Gosper is steeped in the Olympics. His father Kevan is an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee, a former IOC vice president and an Olympic medalist.
“It’s nice to find myself in an environment I know a little about from my childhood,” he said. “The Olympics have been a part of our family household since I was born—before I was born.”
Does dad offer his opinions?
“He’s not short on giving advice,” he replied. “But it’s usually good.” AP