April 17, 2024

Grand Depart

Experienced In Technology

How digital is driving the Rugby World Cup’s bid to be the world’s third biggest sport event

11 min read
How digital is driving the Rugby World Cup’s bid to be the world’s third biggest sport event

The Rugby World Cup is one of several major sports properties that claims to be the third largest sporting event in the world – after the Fifa World Cup and Summer Olympic Games. That claim might be difficult to verify, but the commercial growth of the tournament over the past three and a half decades is indisputable.

That the inaugural edition of the Rugby World Cup, hosted by Australia and New Zealand, was held as late as 1987 speaks volumes of how the still-amateur sport had resisted all attempts to organise a true world championship.

Now in its tenth edition, the Rugby World Cup is a global spectacle and major television event, with technology playing a pivotal role in reaching new markets. More than 2.5 million tickets have been sold for France 2023 and the tournament is expected to attract a global television audience in excess of the 857 million people who tuned in for the 2019 edition in Japan, which itself represented a 26 per cent increase from England 2015.

The media and technology operation has grown in tandem with the development of the event and must now support an ever-expanding cast of stakeholders, whether its organisers, athletes, or fans at home or in the stadium.


An average TV audience of 15.4 million watched France's Rugby World Cup opening win on TF1.

The 2023 Rugby World Cup final will be held at the Stade de France in Paris on 28th October (Image credit: Getty Images)


A digital history

The Rugby World Cup’s claim to be the third biggest sporting event in the world isn’t without substance. Unlike other team sports with a greater global profile, such as basketball, international rugby is still viewed as the pinnacle of the game with all its major stars taking part at the tournament – health and form permitting.

Inevitably, the most lucrative sources of broadcast revenue are countries where rugby is a major sport or a significant minor pursuit, such as the UK and France. There are audiences in non-traditional rugby nations thanks to a global community of enthusiasts and expatriate fans, while the novelty value of such a physical event will attract more casual observers in a similar fashion to the Super Bowl. Indeed, there is a long tradition of television coverage in places like the US and Germany.

Similar to the Fifa World Cup, World Rugby’s preference is for at least some free-to-air (FTA) coverage in key territories in the hope of attracting more fans to the sport and giving commercial partners valuable exposure. Large potential audiences and government regulations make this feasible.

But pay-TV is a common route to market, especially in non-traditional rugby nations. The tournament’s relatively long duration – France 2023 lasts more than a month – and a significant inventory of weekend games make it an attractive proposition for sports-specific services if a favourable deal can be struck.

The tournament’s digital operations have predictably grown exponentially in the past two decades. An official website first arrived for Australia 2003, official social media channels followed in the late 2000s, and an official mobile application arrived in time for New Zealand 2011. The app was downloaded more than three million times, with users watching more than 17 million videos, while mobile visits to rugbyworldcup.com exceeded those from PCs for the first time.

Today, those digital platforms are powered by Sony’s Pulselive, which built and designed the current iteration of the Rugby World Cup’s website and app. 

Meanwhile, the Rugby World Cup’s official Facebook page now has 4.6 million likes, its YouTube channel has 1.4 million subscribers, its Instagram account has 1.2 million followers, and its Twitter (or X) account has 1.1 million followers. It also has 1.7 million followers on TikTok.

France 2023 will see another new innovation – the launch of World Rugby’s direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform, RugbyPass TV. The governing body acquired RugbyPass as part of a rights deal with Sky New Zealand and has relaunched it as a global direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform offering exclusive content, archive footage, and live streams of matches in markets where no local broadcast deal exists. Its analogous to Fifa+, which performs the same function for world soccer.

What’s clear is that digital is no longer just complementary to World Rugby’s media strategy – it’s front and centre.


Broadcast overview

World Rugby believes the broadcast deals it has struck and its plans for over-the-top (OTT) distribution mean this edition of the tournament will be the most widely viewed Rugby World Cup ever. 

Whereas local broadcasters were responsible for providing pictures at early Rugby World Cups, global feeds for this year’s tournament will be supplied by Host Broadcasting Services (HBS), which reprises its role from Japan 2019. HBS will use remote production technologies wherever possible to lower the carbon emissions of its operation and aid World Rugby’s sustainability strategy.

The success of a Rugby World Cup is so often tied to the fate of the host nation and the enthusiasm of the general public. The French team is one of the favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy in Paris on 28th October, helping fulfill the former criterion, while widespread FTA coverage should assist with the latter.

Commercial broadcaster TF1, which has been a media partner of the Rugby World Cup since 1991, will broadcast 20 live matches, including three France pool games, the semi-finals and the final. The remaining 28 fixtures have been sublicensed to rivals M6 and France Televisions.

Despite rugby union’s strong following in all four of the UK’s constituent nations, the Rugby World Cup is not on the UK government’s ‘crown jewels’ list of protected events that mean FTA coverage must be available. The sole exception is the final itself.


In many ways, this is an ideal scenario for World Rugby. Commercial FTA broadcaster ITV has held the rights to the tournament since 1991, giving the event wide exposure, while the freedom for pay-TV channels to bid for the rights helps drive up the value of the contract.

ITV paid a reported UK£30 million for the rights to the 2003 and 2007 tournaments, a figure which doubled to UK£60 million for the next two editions in 2011 and 2015. The 2015 Rugby World Cup took place in England, meaning greater potential interest from the British public and more primetime fixtures to sell advertising around. Unfortunately, the host nation failed to deliver their end of the bargain and crashed out in the pool stage.

The value of ITV’s current contract is unknown but it does include the rights to the Women’s Rugby World Cup and the World Rugby U20 Championship. Welsh-language service S4C will show matches involving the Welsh national team.

Across the Irish sea, matches will be split between state broadcaster RTÉ and commercial service Virgin Media Television, with both showing the final. In Italy, pay-TV channel Sky Sports has the rights, with Rai showing matches involving the Italian national team and the latter stages of the competition.

In rugby-mad New Zealand, only a handful of matches will be on FTA TV. As part of the deal that saw World Rugby acquire RugbyPass, Sky New Zealand has coverage of all 48 matches, with six games available on its FTA channel Prime and on news website Stuff.co.nz. This includes the national team’s opener against hosts France and a selection of knockout fixtures. The remaining All Blacks games and knockout fixtures will be shown on tape delay.

In Australia, all games will be shown on streaming service Stan Sport, with every Wallabies match and the final available on FTA network Nine. In South Africa, SuperSport has the rights to all 48 games as part of a deal covering sub-Saharan Africa, with FTA channel SABC securing a last-minute sublicensing deal for 16 matches that includes every contest involving the Springboks.

Argentinian fans are covered by ESPN’s Latin America deal, while three broadcasters share the rights in Japan – public service broadcaster NHK, Nippon TV, and J Sports.

World Rugby has struck deals in several other markets, details of which can be found in the SportsPro commercial guide. As mentioned, RugbyPass TV’s live coverage will be available elsewhere.


The Tech Stack

While the World Cup might only last a few weeks, planning the event’s digital and technology operation has been several years in the making. With 60 sites, 10,000 organisational staff and 6,000 volunteers – not to mention the world’s media and millions of fans – it’s a highly complex operation that involves global and local vendors. 

World Rugby’s flagship technological partnership is with Capgemini, which is well known for its work with the World Rugby Sevens Series and was ‘official technology and consultancy sponsor’ the last time the Rugby World Cup was held in France 16 years ago.

Back then, its focus was on the delivery of the official website, IT systems and statistic platforms. This time, it has a more elevated role as ‘global digital transformation partner’ and has been working on a range of projects designed to help digitise the tournament since it signed the deal two years ago.

Specifically, it has been tasked with using data analytics, cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) to drive fan engagement, create new insights for players, coaches, and administrators, and to make operations more efficient.


When a major sporting event comes to France, Orange is usually involved. At Rugby World Cup 2023, the company is acting as ‘official telecom operator’, and is responsible for connecting all competition and non-competition venues with high speed networks using more efficient and reliable unified IP architecture.

This includes the International Broadcast Centre (IBC), which will be served with a secure, ultra-high-speed Broadcast Contribution Network to deliver pictures around the world. All equipment installed will be reused for other events or left in place permanently, building on the telco’s previous work with the Tour de France and looking ahead to its role in delivering the 2024 Paris Olympic Games next summer.

UK-based developer Sage will provide organisers with its Sage X3 financial management platform and payroll software, while US tech firm HP will supply laptops to the event’s social programmes.

Japanese technology firm Canon continues its long-running partnership with World Rugby and is designated official imaging supplier. In this role, it will provide technical support, such as product loans and camera and lens maintenance, to more than 800 journalists, 400 photographers, 300 TV crew, 300 agency staff and 70 radio personnel throughout the tournament.

Swiss watch manufacturer Tudor is official timekeeper, although a row between the firm and match officials means its timepieces will not be worn by referees on the pitch. A shot clock will appear on in-stadium big screens and on television indicating the 90 seconds a player has to complete a conversion and the 60 seconds to take a penalty.

Another new initiative is the use of Signify’s AI technology to block and report abusive and objectionable social media content to protect athletes, officials and coaches.

Meta Rugby World Cup

Meta is running a range of social media activations across the tournament (Image credit: Meta)


What to look out for

Working with Opta, Capgemini has created three new insights that will be showcased for the first time at a major international rugby tournament. The metrics are based on analysis of three years of data from international test matches and are designed to give viewers on television and on digital channels a greater understanding of what they are seeing on the pitch.

‘Pitch position insights’ determines from which ‘zone’ of the pitch an attacking team is most likely to score a try and the likelihood of a team successfully defending a scoring opportunity that starts in a certain area. By combining these two datapoints, viewers can achieve a greater understanding of what they’re seeing in front of them.

‘Expected points’ (XP) is similar in design to the expected goals (XG) metric in soccer. It calculates historic data to offer a prediction of how many points a team would be expected to score based on field position, the number of players on each team, and how many minutes are left on the clock. This data is shown in an on-screen graphic that lets viewers know the team’s odds if they were to take a penalty or opt to go for a try.

Finally, ‘momentum tracker’ uses AI to analyse every minute of a match to offer an indication of which team has the upper hand at any point in a game.

Capgemini has used Opta data to create new insights (Image credit: Capgemini)


The official mobile app has had a refresh, with an emphasis on match highlights and social ‘story’ features, while World Rugby is launching its first-ever official fantasy rugby game. Powered by data from Genius Sports, ‘RWC 2023 Fantasy’ employs similar mechanics to other popular games such as Fantasy Premier League, tasking users with assembling a team of 15 players with a fixed budget. Points are then awarded depending on the selected players’ real-life performances.

World Rugby hopes the gamified experience will attract new fans to both the tournament and the sport of rugby union, whilst also deepening engagement with existing fans who will watch more matches to keep up to date with their team. RugbyPass TV will host a special fantasy RWC 2023 Fantasy show to support the launch as part of its original and shoulder programming slate. The absence of an official video game, however, is notable.

Finally, Facebook’s parent company Meta has launched a range of Rugby World Cup-themed features across its social media platforms as part of its role as the official social media and augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) supplier of the tournament.

The tech giant is adding Rugby World Cup stickers and AR filters to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, many of which feature 20 fictional ‘Superfan’ characters based on mascots and other imagery from each particiating nation.


The official mobile app has had a refresh, with an emphasis on match highlights and social ‘story’ features, while World Rugby is launching its first-ever official fantasy rugby game. Powered by data from Genius Sports, ‘RWC 2023 Fantasy’ employs similar mechanics to other popular games such as Fantasy Premier League, tasking users with assembling a team of 15 players with a fixed budget. Points are then awarded depending on the selected players’ real-life performances.

World Rugby hopes the gamified experience will attract new fans to both the tournament and the sport of rugby union, whilst also deepening engagement with existing fans who will watch more matches to keep up to date with their team. RugbyPass TV will host a special fantasy RWC 2023 Fantasy show to support the launch as part of its original and shoulder programming slate. The absence of an official video game, however, is notable.

Finally, Facebook’s parent company Meta has launched a range of Rugby World Cup-themed features across its social media platforms as part of its role as the official social media and augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) supplier of the tournament.

The tech giant is adding Rugby World Cup stickers and AR filters to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, many of which feature 20 fictional ‘Superfan’ characters based on mascots and other imagery from each participating nation.


This is the second instalment of a new series of special reports into the technology and media strategies of some of the biggest properties in world sport. Future editions of The Tech Stack will be available exclusively to SportsPro+ subscribers. You can find out more about SportsPro+ and how to subscribe here. 

Leave a Reply

Copyright © All rights reserved. | Newsphere by AF themes.
x