As a South African, rugby is one of the first sports I recall becoming a fan of as a kid. Along with golf and cricket, rugby makes up a large chunk of my, and much of South Africa’s, sporting memories. In the U.S., however, rugby remains a fringe sport. Today, the sport is starting to catch on beyond college campuses. This spring, the six-team Professional Rugby Organization (PRO Rugby) launches in hopes of becoming America’s next emerging sports league. Only time will tell if it succeeds.

Rugby’s closest major American sports comparison has to be American football. As the NFL and its youth leagues struggle to find a solution to its concussion concerns, rugby may become a viable contender for some of the league’s fans and athletes. Rugby’s style of arguably safer tackles and less severe football-like injuries could uptick rugby recruitment in the States. What might surprise you is that it’s actually social media that’s currently the driving force in attracting a larger audience for the sport–which could prove to be the most influential factor.

Continuing the sports upward trend from 2011, last year’s Rugby World Cup could be the tipping point in attracting a large American audience–and it’s all thanks to Twitter and other social media platforms.

Social Media and the Rugby World Cup

The 2015 Rugby World Cup emerged from England as the most successful tournament to date for a variety of reasons. In the stands, the crowds packed in at record numbers. On the paddock (field), the competition was exceptionally fierce, with New Zealand rising above all others for the championship. And on social media, engagement reached heights the sport had never seen previously–smashing the 2011 tournament record of 1.9 million posts in the early pool stages alone. Over the course of the tournament, the #RWC2015 tag was used once every .5 seconds for a total over five million. Video views surpassed 270 million views while the official website brought 25 million unique viewers. Across 204 nations, the World Cup app was downloaded 2.8 million times.

On the paddock, several factors prompted the social media outpouring, according to a Synthesio study. Upsets certainly had the social sphere buzzing. When it came to shock results, no match had the sport and its fans tweeting more than Japan’s shock defeat over my beloved South Africa. In the final match between Australia and New Zealand, individual players helped spike the conversation. Standout tries and aggressive leadership from both sides got people talking like never before. But it was the goodwill of one player after the game that generated the most discussion. When New Zealand’s Sonny Bill gave his medal to a teenage supporter, the waves of praise rolled in for him, Bill’s All Blacks teammates and the sport itself.

The latest World Cup is sure to pull new fans in, and social media’s power certainly played a significant part. However, does social media convert rugby novices into athletes themselves? That’s currently a little less clear.

But Do They Play?

While it appears that social media continues to drive new viewers to the sport, it doesn’t seem to translate to new athletes just yet. A BYU study, Rugby’s Rise in the United States: The Impact of Social Media On An Emerging Sport, found that rugby student athletes at some of America’s biggest universities weren’t swayed much by media of any form. If anything, it was word of mouth marketing that prompted individuals to step onto the paddock.  

The study found that traditional (pre-Internet) media failed to play a large role in recruiting for a number of reasons. Mainly, the game’s lack of TV time compared to other sports. However, interpersonal communication amongst family and friends of the game did serve as a prime influencer.

The players interviewed gave feedback on how the media played a role in their decision. The report states that,

“Throughout the course of the interviews, it became apparent that although the media does play a role in the lives of these players now, it certainly did not play much of a role during the beginning when they were first being introduced to rugby. As noted above, there were small instances here and there that brought the media to the forefront during the decision process, however it was quickly found that the media did not, in fact, play a very large role as a determining factor in the athlete’s decision to play. Despite that, however, the use of social media to bring others out is continuing to increase.”

That excerpt might be the prime takeaway to consider going forward. With Twitter just reaching the ten-year mark, most of the athletes interviewed were relatively young as social media began its emergence from niche Internet activity to the digital staple it became. They weren’t ingrained in social media as people just a few years younger would soon become.

Even if these players weren’t swayed by it, their use of social media is now a factor. Could this sway the findings if the study revisited the subject in five or ten years? It appears likely. Between friends and fellow athletes posting more, as well as access to highlights and full matches much easier to stream today, strangers to the sport could soon find themselves gravitating to the game in an organic manner similar to how young South Africans like myself stumbled onto the sport through TV and local playing grounds.

With the World Cup breaking social records with each tournament, two things become clear: 1. People are talking more than ever about rugby and 2. Social media continues the sport’s growth. With those two elements combined, the chatter should continue to rise as long as competition remains fierce and compelling.