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Rugby union is betting that new leagues and changes to its international calendar will power growth in markets such as the Americas and Asia, as the sport’s governing body looks to court investors.
Ahead of Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final in Paris between New Zealand and defending champions South Africa, World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said the new competitions could unearth other challengers to the sport’s dominant forces, which would bring commercial benefits.
The governing body this week unveiled a two-division league for international sides from 2026, a move Gilpin expects to increase the opportunities for outside investors in the sport such as private equity.
The scale of the changes underlines rugby’s race to keep up with the rapidly evolving business of sport, amid fierce competition for top broadcast deals, pressure to reach fans who increasingly follow events online and a permanent battle for audience attention.
“What this biennial competition will do is obviously provide more meaningful fixtures that we know fans want,” Gilpin told the Financial Times. “The fact that there’ll be a kind of final of that creates a quasi kind of world championship, if you like, in men’s XVs, but we don’t think that’s a threat to the World Cup.”
Plans are also under way to expand the next men’s World Cup in 2027 in Australia from 20 teams to 24. World Rugby intends to push back the draw for the next tournament so that it better reflects international rankings following criticism that top sides such as France and Ireland were eliminated too early this year.
Calendar changes will aim to reduce clashes between club fixtures and the international game, which the ruling body hopes will help attract external capital to support its growth plans.
“We’ve got a really ambitious strategic plan across investing more in the women’s game, investing more in Sevens, and obviously all the stuff we’re talking about here in men’s XVs,” Gilpin said. “We can’t do all of it as quickly as we would like unless we find some partners to help us fund it.”
The World Rugby chief downplayed suggestions that the top flight, which will mainly consist of the powerful Sanzaar teams (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina) and the Six Nations (England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), would perpetuate the gap between the sport’s best sides and up-and-coming countries.
Promotion and relegation will not be introduced until 2030, depriving some emergent nations of the chance to compete against the world’s top-ranked sides in the new competition. Gilpin said World Rugby was committed to strengthening the second tier to catch up with elite sides.
The US, which is set to host the 2031 men’s World Cup and the women’s edition two years later, is among the nations that will compete in the second tier.
Helping the US to improve is a priority in the years before those tournaments, as World Rugby seeks to emulate other sports, such as Formula One racing, that have grown from a weak starting point in America.
“Division two is going to have some really interesting markets in it,” Gilpin said. “USA, Spain, other parts of South America, other parts of Asia, so I think we’ll have some really interesting conversations about how we try and drive value together over the long term.”
The significance is that countries such as the US and Spain will now know “years in advance what they’re selling”.
“Suddenly they’ve gone from no certainty to 11 games certainty every year,” he added.
The next phase of discussions over the next six months will centre on how to commercialise the new competitions, with talks planned with media, broadcasters and other partners.
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