Rugby Sevens: A high-octane season, but where now for the fast-moving sport?

(CNN) – With the dust settling on the recent sevens rugby season, it’s time to take stock of what the future holds for the sport.

New Zealand capped off this term with World Cup titles for its men and women in San Francisco, adding to Commonwealth Games golds for both earlier in the year.

The men’s Sevens World Series finished with South Africa as champion, while the women’s series ended with Australia as the victor — though Fiji men and New Zealand’s Black Ferns pushed both respective winners to the wire, making the final legs all the more tense.

World Rugby have also recently renewed their partnership with series sponsors HSBC, inking a new four-year deal. That news comes hot on the heels of World Rugby announcing that the World Cup saw 100,000-plus tickets sold.

However, there are a few thorny issues to contend with going forward…

The dates for next season’s series are already set. In October, it all starts again for the women, who will play in Colorado for the first time. They will have six legs, while the men will have 10. And there will be two weekends in the season when the men and women will play at the same venue (in Dubai in late November and in Sydney in February).

Importantly, next season’s sevens series will see the qualification process for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics begin in earnest.

Note, though, that in September of this year, World Rugby will also finalize its preferred make-up and destinations for the men’s and women’s series for the 2020 season and past 2023.

“We had 19 unions express serious interest,” World Rugby’s head of competitions and performance, Mark Egan, explains. “We had 14 unions then put in an official tender. We’ve evaluated all those tenders, we met with our executive committee (in San Francisco) and updated them on the evaluation of those tenders. We’ll make a final announcement in September with who the hosts will be for the next iteration of the series.”

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper also adds to this: “There were new cities and new countries among those 19,” and that next on the slate after the series layout is decided is where to hold the next Sevens World Cup.

Shaping the series is no small task. World Rugby and its sponsors must consider the profitability, level of facilities and services and cost base of existing events weighed against any new venues.

For example, some athletes in San Francisco joke that they would like to see the men’s series leg for Las Vegas moved to California. Some insiders suggest that such a move would please a few existing sponsors. Yet World Rugby must assess where a move away from Vegas, which has a low cost base and was a fine point from which to start growing awareness of the game in the States, could take them.

Then there is how any move fits into the plan for shared events.

“We’d like to use the men’s game and promote the women’s game,” Gosper says. There is rising clamor to have more that six series legs for the women, and World Rugby see the solution as having one venue for men and women more often.

Egan lays it out: “We’d like to see women’s series grow to eight tournaments and ideally have five or six combined events. So if you look at it, we’ve got Dubai, Sydney, Paris and others who have expressed an interest in hosting combined events. New Zealand have expressed a strong interest.

“There are events like Hong Kong — we’d love to see the women play on the Hong Kong stage. But we’ve got to make sure that we don’t do anything to diminish what we currently have with the men’s tournament and we don’t diminish the player welfare facilities and services that are provided to the teams. You have to make sure that if you combine them together, that it would work for both sets of athletes.”

According to some on the circuit, a major stumbling block for this is the resistance of many male players to playing more series legs over three days, rather than two, should there be a big format change. As it stands only their Las Vegas and Hong Kong legs will be played over three days.

According to a recent survey of 200 current men’s sevens players, conducted by the International Rugby Players union and Rugby World magazine, on the current tour “more than 60% of players think three-day tournaments are too long.”

Furthermore, “nearly 60% of players (said) that at times they struggle to keep up with the physical load of competing on the series while 70% struggle with the mental load.”

One tabled solution to cut down on playing load at events but still spread men’s and women’s legs over three days has proven controversial.

At the Sevens World Cup, there was a straight knockout format. So if you lost your first game, you would not have a chance to lift the trophy.

In the end, New Zealand women and men only had to play four matches to become world champions.

World Rugby are now considering if the next iteration of the Sevens World Series will adopt this format for some legs in order to accommodate an increase in combined events.

Gosper says: “This has been a bit of an experiment in a World Cup, in the format of a knockout. So we’ll look at that. Again, in the HSBC World Sevens Series we’re having increasing numbers of destinations that have both women and men, therefore that lends itself very well to the combined tournament.

“All I’m saying is, it’s not out of the question that a knockout form of a tournament could happen.

“But we’re always trying to innovate, to find new ways to add value to the broadcast proposition, but also the proposition for the fans inside the stadium. You have to reconcile all of those things. As well as the player welfare aspect.”

One source suggests that it is “50/50” whether this format will be adopted. And many fans at the World Cup enjoy the winner-takes-all nature of the knock-out system.

However, immediately after the men’s final, New Zealand’s coach Clark Laidlaw says: “I don’t enjoy the format … As a spectacle I’m sure everyone enjoyed it. But when you’ve got coaches and players livelihoods at stake, the format isn’t quite what we’re paid to do.”

The losing captain in that final, England’s Tom Mitchell adds: “I am not totally sold on the new format to be honest.” In contrast, England women’s Deborah Fleming says: “the girls have absolutely loved it… The format has worked well.”

Going beyond all of them, Wales men’s captain Luke Treharne states: “I am hoping they can this after this tournament to be honest. I haven’t heard anyone say they are particularly happy about it.”

One line heard murmured every so often is that sevens is rugby’s great vehicle for expansion.

According to a report from Nielsen Sports conducted in the wake of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where sevens was seen as a hit, almost 17 million new fans in “key markets” were turned onto the game, with women and men between the ages of 18-24 seen as the most enticed demographics.

US Rugby claim that during those Games, its website’s traffic spiked from a typical 200-300,000 daily visitors to around 35 million.

Having assessed the latest Sevens World Series, World Rugby say of the social media sphere: “The latest Nielsen Sports research demonstrating that access to sevens and its simplicity has accelerated audience interest amongst younger audiences in major global markets. 

“The 2018 HSBC World Rugby Sevens series generated record-breaking fan engagement with a 60% increase in video views from 2017.”

Which all does well to hammer home the opportunities that are there for sevens rugby.

Still, 16% of men from the circuit surveyed class themselves as amateur. Some 7% have full-time jobs and 17% say they are financially worse-off for playing on the series. Year to year, some of the very best men’s sides must worry about contracts.

We are yet to hear similar survey results from the women’s series. Yet while Australia focus fully on women’s sevens (their women are paid the same as the men’s sevens), others like England shuffle players between its sevens and 15s programs, year to year.

It is also clear the investment model for the women’s game is precarious for many unions, which have come under fire for the handling of contracts.

As we gallop towards Tokyo 2020 and a new series set-up, the game must convert any opportunities and break through into the mainstream sporting consciousness. To do that, unions must have the prized assets — the athletes — fit, fairly remunerated, and performing at their already blistering standard.

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