• World 12s is the latest example of sporting innovation

    What can rugby learn from this summer’s The Hundred and could it accelerate development of the women’s game?

Article:

What can rugby learn from this summer’s The Hundred?

11 October 2021

Could it accelerate development of the women’s game?

World 12s is a proposed franchise-based international rugby union tournament that the organisers claim is “a natural evolution for rugby union” and is “a new, innovative, fast-flowing and exciting concept”. It is the latest in a number of innovations the sporting landscape has seen in recent years.

With a proposed launch date of August 2022 in England, World 12s is based on the now familiar franchise model used in other sports with top players being auctioned to the franchises. According to its website, World 12s aspires to bring £250million of new financial stimulus into the global game over the next five years, while attracting a new global fan base.

With the women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 now taking place in New Zealand in 2022, the women’s format of World 12s will launch from 2023 and will be played in tandem with the men’s tournament and offer equal prize money.

World 12s has assembled a board with rugby experience from around the globe - CEO Ian Ritchie (chairman), former NZRU CEO Steve Tew (non-executive director), and former chairman of the WRU Gareth Davies (non-executive director). The board is complemented with commercial experience from other elite sports and the wider corporate world and the venture is backed by a UK-based financial consortium according to World 12s.

Promoting the women's game

Although the concept of “double-header” matches – an event whereby a women’s match is played directly before a men’s match – was viewed with scepticism by some prior to The Hundred’s launch, arguably one of the greatest successes of The Hundred was how much it boosted the attendances at the women’s games. One ticket gave access to both the men's and women's games, while men and women shared the same prize money.

Average numbers watching the women’s matches were between 7,000 and 8,000 a match. These crowds are far greater than any women’s tournament in England that preceded The Hundred and the match at Lord’s between London Spirit and Southern Brave attracted a crowd of 15,189, a record for a domestic women’s match in England.

Plans have not been released yet as to how the men and women’s competitions in the World 12s will coexist, other than they will be run “in tandem”. However, the competition and format is likely to provide a platform from which the women’s game can be promoted. In particular, intertwined and joint events could accelerate exposure and attendances.

Too much sport?

Critical to World 12s success is how it will fit into the rugby calendar. Organisers continue to hold discussions with key world rugby stakeholders, but it is envisaged that the tournament will launch August/ early September 2022, allowing it to complement the existing global rugby calendar.

The Hundred took the prime summer slot this year and was played simultaneously with the game’s other three domestic formats - the County Championship, the One-Day Cup and the Blast.

It was played during the school holidays given it is focused on bringing young cricket fans to the game, but the question arguably still remains as to how The Hundred exactly fits into the domestic cricket calendar and the same may be true of the World12s proposition.

There is growing sentiment in Rugby Union that the world’s top players are playing too much rugby. Adding another tournament to the calendar that aims to draw on the same pool of players may present a challenge.

There is also some concern whether nations and clubs will release their top stars to feature in this competition. It is perhaps difficult to see how it can succeed if they do not, unless players are willing to risk national selection by joining the World 12s for a 3 week period.

Expansion not cannibalisation

Critical to The Hundred’s ambition was the attraction of a new and more diverse crowd. As such, it was important that The Hundred not only engage existing fans that have been watching the game’s other formats, but expanded the exposure of the sport.

At a glance, this seems to have been achieved: 20% of the crowd across the tournament were children, a big increase on the T20 Blast in recent years, and a total of 21% of tickets sold were bought by women.

A great success of The Hundred was the viewing figures that were recorded. A good proportion of the matches being shown on free-to-air television clearly helped.

Although revenue from TV rights, sponsorship and contractual arrangements are complex, free-to-air channels undoubtedly provide an unparalleled level of exposure for the women’s game in particular.

Refreshing the format

A key part of The Hundred was the refresh of the traditional cricket format – 10 ball overs, 100 balls per innings, cut-off times. This attempted to attract younger and more diverse crowds to the game, with the expectation that the shorter format would mean matches last around two-and-a-half hours and maintain a high level of excitement throughout.

From what we know so far, this is also an integral part of the World 12s proposition. The altered format will include:

  • 12 players in a team – six forwards and six backs
  • 15-minute halves
  • Conversions will be drop goals only
  • Only one scrum reset, followed by a free kick
  • Scrum infringements are penalised by a penalty that cannot be kicked at goal
  • In the knockout stages, if matches are tied at full time, a golden point will decide the winner

The marketing pitch is that this will show the world’s top talents playing high scoring and high pressure rugby with shorter matches, which no rugby fan apart from the purist of purists would baulk at. The question remains, however, in the same way as early commentators questioned the difference in appeal between the T20 and The Hundred, as to how this differs fundamentally from 7s rugby.

Challenges

Whether the format is attractive to existing rugby fans, who already have the 15 and 7-a-side formats remains to be seen.

The revenues from The Hundred were split equally amongst the 18 counties. If World 12s needs to reward the clubs for releasing players from their contracts then given its international nature it could be challenging to agree how that revenue would be shared.

The Hundred, football’s quickly abandoned European Super League proposal and the introduction of unconventional new sports to the Olympics are some of the most prominent recent examples of how sports have attempted to evolve with changing audiences, trends and needs. Such innovations have been met with mixed responses from the press box and fans, but a great deal can be learned from previous successes and failures.

It remains to be seen if World 12s has the impact in Rugby Union that Kerry Packer had on world cricket in the 70s and 80s or if it goes the way of the USFL, which rose alongside the NFL in the 80s but folded after 3 years, despite a large number of high quality players and coaches.

Development of women’s sport is a key are of focus for the BDO Sports Group. We think that the World 12s initiative potentially provides a unique opportunity to raise the profile of the women’s game from 2023 but there remain some difficult hurdles to be negotiated along the way.

For more information, please contact Neville Side, Mike Prangley, and Ross McWhir.

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