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State of the Union | World Rugby’s Brett Gosper on the World Cup and beyond

World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper tell Kevin Roberts about his hopes for the impact and legacy of the showpiece 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan at the tail end of a year when plans for a global Nations Championship foundered on the rocks of resistance from the sport’s established nations.

World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper

There’s a huge image on the wall of Brett Gosper’s Dublin office of what he describes as “possibly the most significant try in Rugby World Cup history”.

It shows Japan’s Karne Hesketh scoring the last minute try that earned his team an historic victory over former world champions South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. To say the result was a shock hardly does justice to the scale of the achievement. But it also had an impact way beyond the field of play and the record books. The result lit a fuse Gosper expects to detonate an explosion of local passion when Japan, as hosts, get the 2019 Rugby World Cup underway against Russia in Tokyo on September 20.

According to Gosper, the former senior advertising executive who took over as chief executive of what was then the International Rugby Board seven years ago, the upset created “a little bit of folklore” and helped pique the interest of those who had never previously been hooked on rugby.

It not only gave a boost to a 2015 tournament in which hosts England had failed to inspire but drove a massive and immediate spike in interest in Japan, helping set the stage for this year’s first Asian World Cup.

“We saw a huge uplift in Japanese TV audiences as a result,” says Gosper. “They went from around 1.5 million for the previous game to 25 million on free to air TV for their game against Samoa – five million higher than the previous record, for the 2011 World Cup final in France. Now we are expecting a 40 million domestic television audience for the opening game in September.”

These are interesting times for rugby union and for Gosper as he looks ahead to his second World Cup at the helm. In his seven years he has overseen the rebrand of the governing body as World Rugby, seen Rugby Sevens debut as an Olympic sport, run a commercially successful World Cup in England – along with France the sport’s biggest TV market – and had the organisation’s plans to grow the game around the world stopped in their tracks by some of the senior members of the rugby club.

Karne Hesketh of Japan scores the winning try during the 2015 Rugby World Cup match between South Africa and Japan, described as “the most significant try in Rugby World Cup history” by Brett Gosper (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Rugby has played a central role in Gosper’s life. He played for Melbourne and Victoria back in Australia and was selected for the national Under 21 side. When his advertising career took him to Paris he played – and was player of the year – at Racing Club de France and turned out for the French Barbarians.

A stellar advertising career saw him working for leading agencies in Paris, New York and London where, ahead of his appointment by World Rugby, he was chief executive (EMEA) for McCann and a member of the company’s worldwide board.

So how was the transition from the entrepreneurial and somewhat mercurial world of advertising to the traditionally staid and more conservative environment of the governing body of a major sport?

“Some of the skills from my previous career have come in handy but there are always surprises,” he says.

“Two things that I may not have foreseen are the national politics, fervour within the sport and the layer of politics around the elected members and the sensitivities around that.

“The reliance on committees and the number of people you have to bring with you to reach decisions is complex and voluminous and that is certainly different to an advertising agency which is a more maverick environment.

“The other major thing I discovered is the public dimension to the role. What you say is heard and opinions are formed in the media. You are very aware of the public and fan dimension in everything you do and day.

“Twitter has helped give me a handle on the court of public opinion and, while you can’t let that rule your decision making, it provides quite useful context in the world of rugby, which is very fan-centric and where there is major layer of emotion.”

Gosper has also served under two presidents; first the Frenchman Bernard Lapasset and now former England captain Bill Beaumont.

“They have very different styles and they are facing different issues,” Gosper explains. “Under Bernard we had to deal with player welfare concerns and issues like correctly addressing concussion, a subject where I feel we really got ahead of the curve. Then there was friction between club and country and the ECPR (European Professional Club Rugby).

“Under Bill our focus has been on the creating a global calendar that works and developing the plans for a Nations Championship.”

And in this World Cup year it is rugby’s  inability to find consensus on a competitive structure that can marry the desire to grow the game in keeping with World Rugby’s objectives with the specific interests of established nations that stands out as an example of the pressures facing this and other governing bodies in sport.

World Rugby’s plan for a model designed to promote ‘the broader interests of the world game’ was abandoned in July.

Backed by investment from the Wanda-owned sports agency Infront, the plan was to roll up a bundle of rights including the (European) Six Nations and (Southern Hemisphere) SANZAAR nations to create a world league with promotion and relegation between two divisions. This, argued World Rugby, would have created more meaningful matches and increased exposure for emerging rugby nations.

The issue was, to say the least, complicated by the Six Nations’ ongoing discussions with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners – former owner of Formula 1 – which made a bid for 30 per cent of the business with an upfront payment reported to be close to £500m (€543m/$602m).

Though that deal had not been concluded at the time of writing, it remains on the cards and – while various other reasons have been tabled for failing to buy-in to the World Rugby vision of the future – it is likely the prospects of a major upfront payment and enhanced future revenues driven by a proven and highly active investor played their part.

The All Blacks’ Beauden Barrett scores his side’s third try in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

“At the end of the day they [the Six Nations and SANZAAR] made calls in the interests of their organisations,” says Gosper. It’s with more than a touch of understatement that he describes the outcome as “a disappointment”.

“We generated a significant uplift in values over a 12-year period, negating the need to sell off equity in any property in the rugby world.

“That’s not to say in the future something may not happen. We are hopeful that even if the CVC arrangement moves forward there will be a return to a discussion of the merits of some of what we were proposing,” he says.

In the meantime, a back-up plan is being formulated.

“It’s being looked at right now with the aim of ensuring high levels of competition between Tier 2s and with Tier 1s. Of course, we don’t have the money to finance these in as significant a way as we would have done [if the Championship concept had been realised] because we had a very big backer.

For the time being at least, the focus remains on the Rugby World Cup as the major driver of global attention for the sport and as the engine for development.

“We will continue to develop the Rugby World Cup brand and business to ensure we can continue to invest in these areas. It is probably a good thing that the World Cup falls now so we can get on with that.”

Gosper is hugely excited about the prospects for Japan 2019, both during the competition itself and its legacy.

“The culture in Japan is different of course but that’s all part of going to a new country. This is the biggest event the country has hosted for 17 years and there is massive excitement. We are pretty sure of a sell-out and 80 per cent of the country is aware the World Cup is happening,” he says.

“We’ve not seen ticket demand like this for any World Cup. People from around the world are saying this is my trip of a lifetime and a great reason to visit Japan.

“If Japan performs above expectations it will be brilliant and they seem to be heading in that direction.”

On the legacy front, the World Rugby Impact Beyond programme reached its target of achieving a million new players across Asia by May this year, with some 200,000 of them in schools in the Japanese host cities.

But, says Gosper, the impact is not restricted to Japan.

“Other Asian countries are appropriating this World Cup as their own and using that to promote the game at home. The context of a World Cup in an Asian time zone projects an affinity with the local markets and shows this is not just an event for European and Commonwealth markets,” he says.

“Commercially rugby is quite reliant on the French and UK broadcast markets, although in recent times that has been diluted by the rising power of the Japanese market. This time the Japanese market doesn’t sit far behind them and it is our job to sustain that after the World Cup.

“The Asian context is important so that when people from the USA, Germany, Brazil et cetera see a World Cup in Japan, it creates a global aura that confirms it as a global event and a valuable global property.

New Zealand’s players celebrate their victory in 2015 by performing the Haka in front of the Webb Ellis Cup (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The immediate future of Rugby World Cup seems assured. Commercially, Japan 2019 is likely to outperform initial expectations and beyond that there is the return to the stronghold of France to look forward to in 2023.

“We always forecast that Japan would be 20-25 per cent under the commercial level of England 2015, which was a record windfall for the game. But in fact, we will pass those revenues. The issue is that the costs are higher and that will produce a lower surplus,” Gosper explains.

“We are confident of revenues in France because, in the bid process, we auctioned-off the secondary sponsorship and supplier tiers along with the hospitality and those revenue promises have to be underwritten by the government. That’s a low risk to the government because of the track record of the competition.

“Without factoring in broadcast, France as a World Cup host is forecast to produce a surplus of £370m, compared to England 2015 (£160m), and New Zealand 2011 that was £80m.

“That’s down to the methodology of the bid process, which was required to give us uplift and certainty to be able to invest in the game going forward. We’ll be pushing through the next threshold.

“The economic activity RWC generates allows governments to feel good about underwriting a low risk event. Japan will generate some $2.97bn in economic activity. It goes on for seven weeks and attracts high-earning, high-spending travellers without imposing high-risk infrastructure costs.”

What about the next time around? Will World Rugby take a punt on another fresh host once the dust has settled on France 2023?

The US has long been considered a land of promise for rugby and Gosper doesn’t rule out a joint US-Canada bid, despite acknowledging the added complexity of a multi-nation approach.

“What’s interesting is whether you put one or two World Cups up for bids. When you put two up you are more likely to get a strategic approach. That was the case when following the comfort of England with Asia. I do think there is an appetite for that approach, in which the decisions are as strategic as they are commercial.”

Reflecting on seven years in charge, Gosper believes the sport is in good shape.

“It’s not down to me but World Rugby is in a strong situation with strong leadership. The game is on a commercial revenue wave with money invested back into the sport which is great for the future. Our Olympic connection is proving to be a terrific developer of the sport across the globe and we are making good progress on player welfare issues.”

Equally important is his belief that, more than two decades since the dawn of the professional era, the sport retains the spirit on which brand rugby has been built.

“The ethos of rugby has been preserved,” he said. “Professionalism does create pressures the amateur game didn’t have but we’ve worked hard to ensure that doesn’t undermine the ethos of the game.

“Our off fields discipline has evolved, and we have positioned rugby as a character-building sport. World Rugby is clearly seen as the voice of brand rugby. Maybe in the public’s mind the IRB may have been separated from the sport – World Rugby is more of a movement and the values remain a critical part of the sport and that is something demanded by our sponsors and the fans.”

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