World Rugby eyes full unbundling of women’s rights but some joint deals ‘still make sense’

(Phil Walter/Getty Images)
(Phil Walter/Getty Images)

World Rugby is increasingly looking to unbundle commercial rights to the women’s game, following similar steps taken by Fifa and Uefa in recent years, but believes that bundled rights deals “still make sense” in certain markets.

Broadcast rights to the women’s Rugby World Cup were traditionally sold with the men’s, as were top-tier sponsorship rights with individual tournament sponsors also secured for the men’s and women’s events.

The decoupling of rights has been stepped up ahead of the 2025 women’s Rugby World Cup in England, a heavyweight commercial market for the sport.

“Where we can, we’ve unbundled”, Alan Gilpin, chief executive of World Rugby, told SportBusiness. “We’ve got brand partnerships and broadcast relationships that are specific to women’s rugby and/or the 2025 Rugby World Cup.

“We’ve quite often in our partnerships around women’s World Cup included our annual women’s tournament WXV. That gives a partner or broadcaster the opportunity to build towards the pinnacle of a women’s World Cup.”

Yet, in some markets, including the women’s inventory within a deal for the men’s Rugby World Cup has driven the best outcome, according to Gilpin. Deals with SuperSport (in sub-Saharan Africa) and Nine Entertainment (in Australia) for the 2023 Rugby World Cup also included the women’s tournament. This made commercial sense, Gilpin said, as the two broadcasters were the “best platforms to promote the women’s game”.

“We’re trying to be smart about that”, he continued. “Ultimately in the future, we want to be unbundled because that’s proving the commercial return and value of women’s rugby.”

Uefa began to unbundle the rights to the men’s and women’s Champions League tournaments in 2018. It is now close to appointing an agency to sell the Uefa Women’s Champions League media and sponsorship rights from 2025-26 to 2029-30 after running a competitive bidding process. The rights to women’s national team tournaments run by Uefa are also sold separately to the men’s.

Under its previous model running to 2022, Fifa included sponsorship rights to every national team competition under its auspices, namely the men’s and women’s World Cups, youth tournaments and lower-tier futsal and beach football competitions. This had the effect of the men’s World Cup commanding the vast majority of the value ascribed to any deal, making it difficult to develop commercial value for the women’s properties.

Fifa’s media rights sales strategy for the women’s game was more flexible during its 2019-22 cycle, with rights to the Women’s World Cup bundled with the men’s in some markets but targeted standalone deals were struck in key markets such as France or the UK. Rights to the women’s tournament were fully unbundled for the 2023 edition, leading to sky-high asking prices and a lengthy standoff between Fifa and broadcasters in Europe’s major markets (before the intervention of the European Broadcasting Union).

Sale of equity

World Rugby continues to weigh up how to best incorporate equity investment, having first held talks with private equity firms CVC Capital Partners and Silver Lake nearly four years ago.

According to Gilpin, the investment deal – when it comes – will either be an equity sale in World Rugby Events and Media, the new commercial arm formed after rights were taken back in house, or in IP housed in a special purpose vehicle for a specific event or property.

He said: “World Rugby is increasing that investment in growth year on year. Whether that’s investing more in the women’s game or identifying specific growth markets like the US. That all needs investment, [but] there is an amount of that investment we can make organically from our own revenues and there’s absolutely third-party capital investment needed in that.

“What we continue to be very active in exploring is whether that individual strategic investment by partners who can bring value to particular parts of that plan. Or, is that longer-term institutional capital, be it private equity or debt funding.”

Speaking to SportBusiness in 2021, Gilpin dismissed the idea of World Rugby of negotiating a “whole-of-sport” investment such as the deal agreed by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), one of the first sports bodies to welcome private equity funding.

“Our Olympic coming of age”

World Rugby is heading into a crucial window of exposure for the women’s game with an Olympics in Paris offering the greatest engagement opportunity since joining the sports programme at Rio 2016. Just over 12 months later, the women’s Rugby World Cup will be staged in England where the tournament’s overall attendance record of 140,000 is set to be broken.

The impact of being part of the Olympics has been felt across both the women’s and men’s games, particularly in markets where 15-a-side rugby isn’t established, Gilpin said.

“Rugby sevens and the Olympic factor is doing a job for us in growing interest, audiences and participation in other places”, he reflected.

“It’s disproportionately important in Asia and in the women’s game. Through social and digital media and TV audiences back in Rio, in Tokyo and definitely again in Paris, we’ll see audiences engaging in numbers and places we wouldn’t otherwise get.

“That’s really important but it can’t be a short-term hit once every four years.”

Ticket sales are tracking well for the rugby sevens to be held at the Stade de France, one of the sport’s iconic venues. It will mark a huge step up from the temporary stadium at Rio’s remote Deodoro Olympic Park or a competition held without fans in Tokyo.

Gilpin said: “It feels like this is our coming of age as an Olympic sport in a really important rugby market, on the back of a brilliant Rugby World Cup [in France], rugby flying in France including the [Antoine] Dupont sevens impact and with ticket sales being really strong.

“As a relatively new [Olympic] sport, it’s about making sure we’re established, thought about and we get our fair share of noise”.

Rugby’s $13m Olympic share

Having rejoined the Olympic programme in 2016 with golf, rugby sits in the bottom revenue distribution tier (alongside modern pentathlon).

Consequently, World Rugby received $12.98m (€12.05m) from its share of Tokyo 2020 revenue distribution paid out to the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) members.

Gilpin acknowledged that the governing body will be looking for a fairer return on the back of Paris 2024. ASOIF itself has been negotiating hard with the International Olympic Committee as it targets a 10-per-cent increase on the $540m received from each of Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 to split among its members.

Asked if World Rugby was looking for a revision upwards, Gilpin replied: “We’ve recognised that ourselves and golf come in at the bottom of the ladder and you have to prove yourselves over a couple of Games. In Paris we’ll really do that.

“Every sport is looking for a bigger return on what the Olympic Games generates.”

He countered that position by describing the IOC revenue as “important funding for sevens” but just a small fraction of World Rugby’s overall four-year funding cycle.

“Ultimately what the Olympics does for our sport in building participation and audiences is more important to us than the money”, he concluded, adding that money received by national unions through Olympic solidarity payments is “more important in the whole scheme of rugby sevens than our dividend from the Olympics”.