The Sunwolves’ entry into Super Rugby is unlikely to grow the game around Asia, according to the sport’s new rights owner in the region who believes showcasing more local action online will have a greater impact.
The Tokyo-based franchise, which will also play matches in Singapore, began the Southern Hemisphere competition with a 26-13 home defeat against South Africa’s Lions on Saturday after a tumultuous preseason spent trying to assemble a team.
The expansion into Asia is expected to increase the revenues of tournament organizer SANZAR, but New Zealander Tim Martin, who has scooped up the rights to show Super Rugby matches in 23 Asian countries, wondered what else a Japanese entrant brought.
“I don’t think the Sunwolves will do a huge amount for Asian rugby,” he told Reuters in an interview in Singapore this week after securing the rights deal.
“I think they will do a lot for Japanese rugby but they won’t do a lot for Malaysian rugby. I don’t see how those dots join.”
Martin, a former advertising executive, made waves when his Coliseum Sports Media snapped up the rights to show English Premier League soccer matches in New Zealand using his online platform in 2013.
He took a bold leap then for a fledgling start-up — albeit backed by a U.S.-based billionaire — but believes Japan would have been better off taking a conservative approach to growing the game after the World Cup win over South Africa last year.
“Why leap into Super Rugby, which is the hardest, most competitive rugby competition in the world,” he said.
“The Sunwolves could be a disaster, I hope not and I don’t think they will be but they could. Nobody wants to watch a team get whipped.”
As well as showing the Sunwolves and Super Rugby around Asian countries, he also bagged Rugby Championship matches, European internationals and domestic action from England, France, South Africa and New Zealand among others.
He admitted the $14.99-a-month subscription could prove too costly outside the expat-heavy markets of Hong Kong and Singapore and did not expect many people in Myanmar or Bangladesh to subscribe and watch the English league final.
But he said his online model meant no increased cost for running matches in multiple countries and opened doors to the inquisitive few in Bhutan and beyond.
He believed adding local rugby to his portfolio would help attract audiences and showcase a pathway to the elite, adding he also planned to make some All Black internationals free to view.
“I think we have to make rugby bigger in Malaysia and Singapore and Korea and I think that’s about getting younger people into it and access to more content and all that stuff,” he said.
With rugby’s inclusion in the Olympics this year, the sport is tipped for big growth in playing numbers.
Martin said the number of Asian unions had doubled to 32 in the last 10 years and that there were 400,000 registered players in Asia — outside of Japan.
“I reckon rugby in the region can become a significant thing. It’s right on the cusp,” he said.
He said he wanted to eventually grow from 23 countries to 200, leaving the sport’s traditional bases, like New Zealand and England, alone and showing rugby online to new audiences around the world where television companies have overlooked the game.
Asia, though, with its young, tech-obsessed population that could easily access his platform, was first priority. He said New Zealand and the bigger unions had failed to maximize their name by selling individual rights in different markets like he has.
“There are a whole bunch of fragmented unions. Its chaotic, we think there is a role for an aggregate,” he said.
“It will help turbo-charge the game’s growth.”