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Alan Gilpin | Rugby looks for lift-off in Asia on the back of ‘two shiny moments’ in Japan

  • ‘Some nervousness’ about Japan’s relative inexperience as a major event host
  • Dentsu helping to secure local sponsors and find synergies with Tokyo 2020
  • Japanese market unaccustomed to sports hospitality 

Our interview with Alan Gilpin happens in two stages. The first meeting takes place at the All that Matters conference in Singapore in mid-September where the Rugby World Cup COO is scheduled to speak.

He is in the gateway city on his way to conduct the third inspection of Japan’s preparations to host the 2019 tournament and has stopped off at the conference to deliver a keynote address and then take part in a panel discussion about the Tokyo Olympics.

Gilpin ought to be accustomed to sharing the limelight with the 2020 Summer Games considering that the final of the rugby tournament will be separated from the Tokyo opening ceremony by a mere nine months.

But rather than skulk in the shadow of the larger event, he seems content to look at the bigger picture. 

“You know there are strengths and challenges about the close proximity of the World Cup to the Olympic Games,” he says.

“Obviously from an audience engagement perspective, you are competing for attention or share of noise with the Olympic Games. Having said that, rugby sevens is an Olympic sport, so we see great synergies in the promotion of both.”

Traditional heartlands

Japan 2019 is a watershed tournament for World Rugby as it takes the competition outside of its traditional heartlands for the first time.

The objective is to build on a passion for the game that was kindled in the country when Japan’s ‘Brave Blossoms’ beat South Africa in perhaps the greatest ever World Cup upset in 2015. Beyond that, the hope is that the tournament will help to grow the game in the rest of Asia. 

Gilpin thinks the 15-man version of the game played at the 2019 tournament offers the best chance of success at growing audiences in Japan, where the club rugby infrastructure already exists, while the seven-man version is better suited to the wider Asia region.  

“From a World Rugby perspective, it’s not about differentiating or separating sevens and 15s,” he says.

“Let’s make sure rugby is available and accessible to as many people as possible. You know, in some countries where the rugby infrastructure isn’t currently very strong, sevens is probably an easier sport to embed.

“After rugby’s inclusion in Rio we’ve seen this incredible growth in the audience for Rugby, because it’s those big shiny moments that attract a younger audience that’s important to us and important to all our commercial partners.

“It’s about the opportunity that a World Cup in a country like Japan gives us, not just to make sure that it leaves a legacy for Japanese Rugby, but that it leaves a legacy for Asian rugby.” 


Gilpin concedes that there is ‘some nervousness’ about taking the tournament to a country that is less experienced in major event hosting and – with that third inspection visit in mind – admits that preparations are at a critical period.

On November 2, with exactly two years to go until the tournament final, World Rugby will announce the match schedule meaning attention will really begin to focus on the tournament organisers.

“It’s that great landmark where both teams and fans start to plan their World Cup experience,” he says.

“Teams start visiting Japan in earnest pretty much immediately after that match schedule is announced and go through a whole series of site visits before they hone down with us the facilities they’re going to use in the tournament.”

IMAGE: Karne Hesketh of Japan scores the winning try against South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

To celebrate the landmark, the William Webb Ellis World Cup trophy has embarked, in an echo of the Olympic torch parade, on a 46-day tour of the 12 World Cup host cities that mirrors the timeframe of the six-week tournament. 

“The host city tour festival that is happening has driven lots of interest so we’re seeing lots of registrations on the ticketing website, lots of people, internationally and in Japan, signing up to receive ticket information,” says Gilpin.

He thinks the longer duration of the tournament – a necessity given the physicality of rugby – and the fact the event is countrywide rather than focused on one city, are two advantages that the event holds over the Olympics.

“People tend to stay longer, I think, for a Rugby World Cup from what we see from insights into other events, they stay longer for a World Cup and therefore spend more than they do for other events.

“Obviously Tokyo 2020 is very focused on Tokyo. For us, Japan 2019 is [about] 12 host cities and the length and breadth of Japan. I think the sponsors we’re engaging with understand that slightly different proposition.”

Having worked on the 2015 World Cup in England with World Rugby and been involved in the 2003 World Cup in Australia in his previous guise as the head of legal and business affairs for IMG Rugby, Gilpin says he knows what it is like to deliver the tournament off the back of an Olympics.

The difference this time is that Japan 2019 is the hors d’oeuvre, or ōdoburu in the local parlance, as opposed to the follow-up event. 

“My first World Cup in Australia in 2003 we were like we were in London: we were a few years after a very successful Olympics where you’re dealing with a very conditioned, big-event support base in a host territory,” he says.

“You were dealing with a very conditioned corporate market who’ve come off the back of an Olympic opportunity.”

Local partner

Gilpin says a determining factor behind World Rugby’s partnership with Dentsu, under which the Japanese agency acquired a substantial package of secondary sponsor and supplier rights for the 2019 event, was the agency’s involvement in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as the Games’ marketing agency.

“What’s good about that is they are seeing the whole picture rather than different sales competing,” he says.

“There is no question they have got a unique kind of place in the Japanese market.

“You know they’re huge marketing and advertising business in Japan and therefore very much part of the marketing strategy of those Japanese brands and able to connect us to those brands and those brands to the World Cup.

“Japanese rugby has a fantastic corporate backing. Their professional league, the Top league, is mostly teams that are owned by corporates. So there are very strong corporate backers of rugby in Japan who want to be part of the World Cup story which is great, many of whom are also involved in Tokyo 2020.”

So far, the Dentsu relationship has reaped dividends in the shape of local deals with Japanese bathroom fixtures supplier Toto and the renewal of digital imaging firm Canon’s sponsorship of the tournament. More recently still, Japanese security company SECOM has signed as a tournament sponsor and will aid delivery of the event.

Gilpin thinks the relationship with Dentsu has also helped in driving event organisational efficiencies between the Olympics and the rugby competition.

“They have a lot of people very closely involved with the organising committee which means that, again, they were able to drive some benefit for the organisation of the tournament through those rugby sponsorship deals, which is not always an opportunity that we’ve managed to bring to life in the past.”


While the event looks to derive value-in-kind from its sponsors it’s likely that it will also offer them an improved hospitality programme in return.

After leaving IMG, Gilpin made a name for himself at Prestige Ticketing, where he oversaw the award-winning hospitality programme for the London 2012 Olympics – a programme defined by uncommon levels of access. 

“It sounds very simplistic to say that but we were trying to provide very high-quality hospitality – that’s no different to the ambition of a regular hospitality provider for a big event – but we were trying to do it as close to the sports as possible,” he says.

“So, for example, at Eton Dorney for the rowing we built a facility right on the finish line with big open areas, so rather than people sitting behind glass, they were very much part of the action.”

As a further example he explains how the horses at the equestrian events passed under the hospitality areas. He also credits the London Organising Committee with building a hospitality pavilion of unprecedented scale right next to the Olympic Stadium. 

IMAGE: Gilpin and Japanese officials attend the 'Two Years To Go' ceremony in September (Getty Images)

Gilpin says the London Games were also the stage where sports hospitality started to move away from simply catering for sponsors and corporates and started to create ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences for private individuals.

“You get a lot of individuals now buying hospitality packages, not just because sometimes it is another way of getting into a sold-out event in terms of public tickets, but also because, increasingly, individuals and groups of individuals getting together like to have that kind of day-out experience and experience hospitality,” he says.

“We tried to make sure with London 2012, as we do in the hospitality programme for Rugby World Cup, that you’ve got a programme that’s accessible to different types of supporters.”

To make the programme a success, Gilpin concedes that the organisers will have to overcome a Japanese sports culture that has not typically made the most of this revenue stream. 

“Japan is really interesting from a hospitality point of view,” he says. “There’s not the same tradition of hospitality at sport in Japan.

“As a result, a lot of the venues in Japan don’t have a lot of the hospitality facilities in terms of the traditional boxes and suites and sponsor areas. 

“However, there’s a huge culture of corporate entertainment and hospitality in Japan – it just doesn’t manifest itself at sports events.

“And I think what Rugby World Cup 2019 and Tokyo 2020 will see is that coming together and there will be a lot more what we would call traditional sports hospitality as a result.” 

Another obstacle is a job-for-life culture in Japan which makes it difficult to recruit the staff for the six-year delivery period of the tournament.

Once again, Gilpin says Dentsu has proved its worth in helping the organisers to second staff from Japanese corporates. 


In spite of this help, Gilpin clearly sees the need to impress a greater sense of urgency on the hosts when we meet again at the Leaders conference in London, shortly after his third inspection visit to the country.

In June 2016 World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper praised Japan for being further ahead of previous hosts at that stage of planning, but now the message is that the country has fallen behind.

Gilpin’s concerns about the team facilities when we met in Singapore have clearly not been assuaged by the recent inspection and World Rugby has decided to go public with a warning. 

“We were concerned in the team facilities area, in particular,” he says.

“They weren’t moving at quite the pace we needed them to. We took the opportunity in our regular tournament review meetings to impress on our Japanese organising committee the urgency in some areas.

“To be fair, they’ve stepped up and understood that message. A lot of work has been done in the last few weeks to make sure we are going to be in a position to provide the confident outcomes the teams need.

“So, we’ll move forward now very closely supporting the organising committee in Japan to manage the experience those teams have.

“We’ve got 15 teams already qualified of the 20 and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for them come December.” 


The size of the task facing the sport in wider Asia is reinforced when Gilpin talks about World Rugby’s target with Alisports to create five million players in China over a five-year period from an estimated playing base of just 75,000 to 100,000.

“We’ve got to train 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials before we can start attracting players,” he says.

The likelihood of Alisports delivering on these objectives was called into question recently when stories began to emerge criticising the company and claiming that it had not delivered on a promise to organise a sevens tournament in China at the tail end of this year.

When we later put these stories to World Rugby, a spokesperson says that the event has not been cancelled and that the intention had always been to launch it in 2018 rather than this year.


The other interesting thing about the Alisports deal was the potential for the company to draw on the incredible datasets of its parent Alibaba to target new fans in the region.

When the tournament proper arrives in two years, Gilpin says World Rugby aims to be in a position where it has aggregated an increased amount of data about its fans across the region to understand and serve them better.

To this end, he thinks the recruitment of Tom Hill, Manchester United’s former global head of partnerships and operations, is also a significant coup.

“He will bring a huge amount of expertise and experience to us in that area,” he says.

“I think not only [in terms of] growing that fan base but knowing that fan base better. Being able to produce and distribute content to them that’s relevant and engaging is definitely the future of that strategy.” 

World Rugby has stated its preference for free-to-air media deals in emerging markets, an approach that was rewarded by a 221% increase in live audiences across Asia for the 2015 World Cup. 

This was driven by a 59 million audience increase in Japan in comparison with the 2011 World Cup – the halo-effect of the team’s success in the tournament and anticipation of hosting the event in 2019.

Gilpin says the media strategy for the 2019 World Cup will be to use the revenues from Western media deals to fund an adventurous digital approach in the East. 

“We think we can get the money we need to invest from the places where broadcasters will pay us the most for the rights and use the more creative and innovative ways to broadcast the sport and let people consume the sport in the territories where we’re not sacrificing any meaningful dollars,” he says.

“We know that, particularly in some of our emerging markets, if we want to reach an audience we need to be on as many platforms as possible, as freely available as possible, and on the platforms where that younger audience are engaging entertainment.

“One great example is we know that the recent Women’s World Cup in Ireland, which obviously had Japan and Hong Kong competing, was screened on Facebook Live in a number of parts of the world and received massive audiences.”

For the record, the 2015 men’s tournament also generated over 15 million social media impressions in Japan, with YouTube proving the most popular platform.

Karne Hesketh’s 80th minute try to seal the Blossoms’ victory against South Africa clearly bears repeated viewing having been watched over 1.5 million times at the last count.

Gilpin holds out the hope that Japanese interest in the tournament will endure for the full six weeks, even if the hosts, like the England team in 2015, are knocked out of the competition early.

“I think, like the English, the Japanese love big events –  it’s a World Cup –  particularly again, I think, in the context of a nationwide tournament,” he says. “If you’re in Sapporo or you’re down in Fukuoka, or you’re in Kobe, this is a World Cup in your city.”

Alan Gilpin | Curriculum vitae

Alan Gilpin studied law at Exeter University before starting his career in sport working for IMG Rugby as its head of legal & business affairs between 2000 and 2009.

From 2009 to 2014 he was the chief operating officer at Prestige Ticketing, a joint venture owned by Sodexo and the Mike Burton Group, which builds hospitality programmes for rights holders. It was here that he oversaw the award-winning hospitality programme for the London 2012 Olympics.

After that he became the chief commercial officer for Rugby Travel and Hospitality Ltd, a firm that has managed the travel and hospitality programmes for the last three Rugby World Cups in France, New Zealand and England.

Gilpin joined World Rugby as the chief operating officer for the Rugby World Cup in March 2014.  

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