With close to 20 million people expected to watch the Rugby World Cup final later this year, rugby is beginning to attract a global appeal few may have thought possible back in 1987 at the first world cup in New Zealand.
Add into the mix that Rugby 7s is now an Olympic sport with the subsequent mass investment and funding from the likes of Russia and the USA and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise the marketing and brand potential for rugby is reaching unprecedented heights. You only have to walk through Waterloo station and see the cartoon giants of the England rugby team to realise just how omnipresent rugby is right now.
This is not to say that all the media coverage has been 100% positive, rugby is notoriously physical. Although bravery, character and mutual respect are the marketing buzz words the game prides itself on, so too are injuries, rehab, operations, concussion and early retirement; terms which don’t hold quite the same commercial resonance.
Now consider the recent $1billion settlement in the NFL for athletes sustaining head injuries through their playing careers and you can begin to see the market potential for technology solutions addressing rugby’s greatest headache, player welfare and safety.
Players are bigger, faster, stronger and more powerful than ever before; funnily enough, the collisions and impact are not getting smaller. We are approaching a point of critical mass where, quite simply, something has to give. In the last year alone there have been many widely publicised issues around concussion with the likes of George North, Mike Brown and Jamie Cudmore having extended periods away from the game. My worry is that the elite end of the game is the tip of the iceberg. It is scary to consider the amount of concussions that might go unnoticed, or are ineffectively dealt with in amateur rugby, or even junior rugby.
Rugby needs a solution and sooner rather than later. Technology in sport has a rapidly rising stock, look at the impact of Billy Bean and ‘Moneyball,’ or the continued success of ‘Team Sky’ in the Tour de France. Technology is making waves, and it would be naïve to ignore it.
That said, it is not as simple as having a great idea, receiving funding and putting it into place. Rugby has to have new technology passed and endorsed by the game’s governing bodies and unions. So the question arises, what is being developed, what will it change, and perhaps more crucially what isn’t being considered that could be used with immediate effect?
There is certainly a rush to innovate, but what are the parameters for creativity? What is the framework and infrastructure for positive change? How can we distinguish between technology gimmick and revolutionary new equipment?
Equally, there is a responsibility to ensure the gap between elite and grassroots does not widen. New technology is fantastic, but to drive the game forward it has to be accessible.
There are no clear answers currently. That’s why this next period of development is so exciting.