Rugby World Cup gaining wide popularity

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The most popular global sporting event of the year kicks off in two weeks, and no, it's not the 2007 NFL season or any soccer competition. It's the Rugby World Cup.

Most Americans and many others in other big TV markets like Germany are not even aware of the tournament. But global viewership is expected to reach new heights -- we're talking 4 billion -- given that the sport has rapidly gained a passionate following outside its traditional hotbeds of the U.K. and the Southern Hemisphere.

An event that takes place every four years like its soccer counterpart, the Rugby World Cup has gained in popularity thanks to the increased professionalism of the game in territories with long-established fan bases. That has led to the sport's biggest stars getting advertising and sponsorship deals.

England fly-half (a position similar to quarterback) Jonny Wilkinson, who dropkicked his team to the 2003 Rugby World Cup title, has been featured in Adidas commercials alongside soccer luminary David Beckham.

And the U.S. national team, known as the Eagles, recently received a prominent sponsorship deal from Sony Corp. to promote the company's Bravia line of high-end TV sets, another sign that the sport is capturing marketers' imagination.

Rugby's growing appeal also has attracted the attention of ESPN, which announced Tuesday the acquisition of rugby news and information Web site Scrum.com.

In the U.S., where sports viewers are transfixed by football, baseball and basketball, the rough-and-tumble Cup is expected to draw bigger audiences than ever because of an expanding fan base and broader TV distribution spearheaded by Setanta Sports North America, which operates a channel dedicated to international sports as a unit of Dublin-based Setanta Sports.

The sixth edition of the Rugby World Cup starts Sept. 7 and runs for six weeks. France is the main host, with a handful of games being played in rugby meccas of Cardiff, Wales, and Edinburgh, Scotland. The final is set for Oct. 20 at Stade de France in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.

In a statistic that might surprise people outside traditional rugby hotbeds, the Cup's worldwide TV audience exceeded 3 billion four years ago. Although shy of the most recent soccer World Cup (30 billion for all matches) and Summer Olympics (4 billion), it's still No. 3 on the list, For perspective, the Super Bowl in February drew about 100 million global viewers (with 93 million in the U.S.).

The International Rugby Board holds world TV and marketing rights reportedly worth more than $200 million. It has linked with two main sponsors -- EDF Energy and Peugeot -- and financial services provider Societe Generale, Visa, Heineken, Toshiba, Emirates Airline, telecommunications firm Orange and consulting firm CapGemini also have deals.

Marketing mavens note that rugby fans tend to skew toward the more educated and affluent, in line with the adage that calls rugby a ruffian's game played by gentlemen. Also helping is the game's swift pace and other TV-friendly elements like the haka, the popular pregame war dance of the New Zealand national team, the All Blacks.

Like with most sports events, the countries that host and are favorites usually provide the biggest audiences, with the U.K., France, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa likely to lead in viewership.

In the U.S. and Canada, Setanta has exclusive live rights. Subscribers of DirecTV and EchoStar's Dish can get the channel for an added monthly fee of $14.99. Setanta.com will offer pay-per-view games and subscriptions via broadband.

"Rugby is the fastest-growing sport in North America, and so we have made a real commitment to bringing all the big events and games to the expanding fan base," said Robert Ryan, head of sponsorships advertising sales for Setanta Sports North America.

Cable customers can get much of the action via programming provider In Demand, the co-venture of Comcast, Cox and Time Warner, which will offer 23 Cup matches live. In Demand has 33 million addressable homes. Consumers can pay $24.95 per game, with the final going for $29.95, or buy all matches for $199.95.

"There is a lure here because it's a marquee event," said Mark Boccardi, director of programming and product development for In Demand.

Comcast network Versus also will show some matches.

Rugby magazine estimates that 200,000-250,000 people in North America play the sport, with the IRB Web site listing 63,254 registered U.S. players. Ruggers expect more growth after USA Rugby last year named Kevin Roberts, CEO of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, as its chairman.

Setanta and other U.S. TV players didn't provide any previous viewership figures for the World Cup, citing competitive reasons and the fact that viewers watching in taverns or on PPV are difficult to measure because of a tendency for group watching. Also, this is the first time the Cup will be seen in the U.S. on a dedicated network. But Ryan is confident that "this will definitely be the most-watched Rugby World Cup in the U.S. so far."

The U.S. Eagles are in a particularly difficult pool group, bundled with powerhouses England and South Africa, the physical Samoans and Tonga, which ranks ahead of the Americans.

While this is seen as dampening the team's chances to break out and attract broader interest outside aficionados, U.S.-based fans include many expats who are expected to follow the world's best teams even when their own team is eliminated.

As for other countries where rugby is more widely played and followed, the Cup is expected to be a strong draw:

United Kingdom
England is the defending champ, with Scotland, Wales and Ireland also in the tournament. Britain's ITV has exclusive rights to the event and plans to air every match, 48 in total, spread over two channels. ITV will carry the big games, while ITV4 will show the others. Everything is streamed on the broadcaster's Web site. ITV coverage of the 2003 Rugby World Cup held in Australia peaked at 15 million viewers as Wilkinson led England to the (William) Webb Ellis trophy, named after the man who is credited with inventing rugby. Despite the time difference, coverage of England's matches in the tournament averaged more than 7 million viewers.

France
In this year's host country, French commercial broadcaster TF1 has taken over rights from pubcaster France Televisions. Network execs expect to average an audience of 5 million viewers for each of the 20 matches that TF1 will air, which include all of the French squad's games. TF1 predicts that it will turn a profit on the event, in contrast to the hefty loss it took on last year's soccer World Cup. A 30-second spot on TF1 during the opening game of the Cup -- the first organized in a non-English-speaking country -- is selling for €100,000-€115,000 ($198,000-$228,000). This rises to €175,000 ($347,000) during the final if the French team is present (the spots are less than half that if the host team doesn't make it through).  A 30-second spot during the World Cup soccer final between France and Italy cost €250,000 ($495,000) on TF1.

Australia
The youth-targeted Ten Network is the Aussie broadcaster for the Cup, securing the rights for AUS$10 million ($8.4 million) after traditional rights holder Seven Network decided against bidding for the competition (most games will be played in the early hours of the Australian morning). Ten is going full blast on live coverage. The free-to-air network is buoyed by Australians' love of rugby, which saw a record audience of 4 million tune in for the 2003 final in Sydney, and the success of last year's soccer World Cup, which peaked when 2.4 million Aussies watched the Socceroos fall to eventual champ Italy in the Round of 16 at 2 a.m. local time. In addition, sports pundits believe that the Wallabies, as the national rugby team is known, are peaking at the right time. Ten's digital high-def telecast will feature more than 115 hours of programming. Ten, whose core audience sits in the 18-49 demo, said it will make money from its telecasts. The network has sold sponsorship packages to Panasonic, Oreal and Heineken as well as iconic Australian brands Bundaberg Rum, Qantas and Harvey Norman.

Stuart Kemp reported from London; Georg Szalai reported from New York. Charles Masters in Paris and Pip Bulbeck in Sydney contributed to this report.
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