The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Japan is set to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup (RWC), the ninth edition of the competition that will see 20 of the strongest teams in the world face off to determine who is the best of the best. The United States has again qualified, as it has for every iteration of the RWC with the exception of 1995, and its participation could translate into business opportunities for US companies in Japan.

Introduced to the United States in the mid-19th century, rugby remained popular through the early part of the 20th century, with the United States taking the gold medal at both the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games and the 1924 Paris Olympic Games.

It is likely that rugby enjoyed favor around the turn of the century as gridiron football—the sport known as American football outside the United States—was deemed too violent. Fans shied away from that game after a spate of particularly gruesome injuries and deaths, including more than a dozen gridiron fatalities in 1905 alone.

In the decades that followed, rugby suffered a sharp decline in popularity, and a resurgence has been seen only over the past 40 years. Although not as popular as the big four sports—baseball, basketball, football, and hockey—rugby today enjoys a loyal following in the United States and is quite popular at the college level.

On the heels of renewed collegiate popularity, United States of America Rugby Football Union, Ltd.—commonly known simply as USA Rugby—was formed in 1975 as the governing body of rugby in the United States.

Asked about growth in the country, a representative of USA Rugby told The ACCJ Journal: “It’s growing at an opportunistic rate. Participation numbers continue to rise, especially from the youth level. With the Rugby World Cup Sevens set to kick off in San Francisco this July, the global rugby community is also recognizing the growing popularity in the United States.”

The best Rugby World Cup results for the US team, known as the Eagles, have been single victories against Japan in 1987 and 2003, as well as a victory against Russia in 2011. After tying Canada in the first leg of their 2019 RWC home and away qualification matches, the Eagles trounced them in the second game to secure their best qualifying spot ever. Asked about this result, USA Rugby said: “Incredible. The Men’s 15s qualified for the 2019 tournament as the top side from the Americas for the first time in the 30-year history of the RWC.”

The Eagles are certainly hoping for a good showing in 2019, but are in the deep end of their pool, facing Tonga and perennial powerhouses England, France, and Argentina in their first-round matches.

With that in mind, Bob Noddin, president and CEO of AIG Holdings KK—a major global sponsor and the official insurance partner of New Zealand Rugby, which includes the defending RWC champion and top-ranked All-Blacks—noted: “There are clear favorites in all of the pools, but, as in any major tournament—as we saw in that great game in 2015, with Japan beating South Africa—it is how a team performs on the day and under pressure that matters. So, I think we can expect the United States to come into the tournament feeling bold and wanting to prove themselves as a true contender in this sport. I think we can expect a good showing and I’m looking forward to it.”

Commenting on the Eagles chances, USA Rugby said: “We plan to compete to the best of our ability. Plain and simple.”

In Japan, rugby enjoys significant popularity with fierce rivalries between top universities. Waseda and Meiji are traditional favorites, while upstart Teikyo University has won the All-Japan University Rugby Championship eight times since 2009.

Thanks to loyal and active support from students, many Japanese have at least a basic understanding of the rules of rugby—and some have a deep knowledge of the game. Arthur Matsumoto, president of LS7 Corporation and chair of the External Affairs Committee at American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s Kansai Chapter, recounted his time attending an all-boys high school in Japan. “Gym class was almost exclusively judo and rugby, and this experience made me familiar with the rules. I imagine many others in Japan had similar experiences.”

As for tourism, Noddin said: “As a major global event in the sporting calendar, the RWC will generate a lot of media attention and put an important spotlight on Japan for the period leading up to the event and beyond. With rugby very much a growing sport in Japan, and with the recent success of the Brave Blossoms [the moniker by which the Japan national rugby union team is known], we think that we are likely to see something similar to the effect the FIFA World Cup generated when it was held here and in South Korea in 2002. This included a greater interest in the sport on the whole, new players picking up the game, and new fans beginning to follow teams across the globe. It also included an influx of tourists, many of whom had not previously had Japan on their radar. Impressed by their experience here, there was great word-of-mouth about travel to Japan in general.

“For USA Rugby to be a part of the first RWC to be held in Asia, there is definitely potential for a knock-on effect, especially for US companies that can find a way to connect their businesses to the tremendous opportunity and the energy that will surround the RWC in areas that are hosting matches. It’s also important to note that RWC matches will be held across Japan, unlike the 2020 Olympics which will be limited to the Kanto area, so the opportunity is really evenly distributed across the country—and that’s tremendous.”

Hotels in the cities hosting matches, as well as those in popular tourist areas such as Kyoto, Nara, Hakone, and Nikko, are expected to see an upswing in business. A senior manager of one hotel in Kansai said, “We’ve been getting visits from overseas tour operators and it’s clear that they are looking to offer their customers activities and outings between the matches.”

It is important to note that, in addition to drawing tourists to Japan for the RWC, the extensive global television coverage is expected to show the best that Japan has to offer in terms of history and culture, as well as stunning scenery and landscapes. This exposure may inspire those watching to visit Japan in the year or two following the RWC and provide the push some need to come over and support their nation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

While baseball has a tradition dating back more than 100 years in the United States, rugby doesn’t enjoy the strong history it has in England, New Zealand, or Australia. However, the United States is again seeing rugby grow in popularity as more and more young people are being drawn to the sport.

“The sport of rugby, one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States these days and one with a long history in Japan, has so much to teach players, fans, and anyone interested in teamwork and leadership,” said Noddin. “We’re truly excited about RWC 2019 in Japan.”

Japan is looking to attract 40 million overseas tourists annually by 2020, and the 2019 RWC presents the host country an opportunity to showcase itself to the world. This exposure can be leveraged to reach that ambitious target. With the Tokyo Games and the Kansai 2021 World Masters Games following on the heels of the RWC, the rugby event offers the chance to set the stage for a sporting legacy that may last years into the future.

For US companies in Japan, participation—and hopefully success—by USA Rugby in the upcoming RWC offers excellent business potential through increased tourism and extensive media exposure.

James Souilliere has been living, writing, and editing in Japan for 25 years. He currently works in the editorial department at The Japan Times.
The Men’s 15s qualified for the 2019 tournament as the top side from the Americas for the first time in the 30-year history of the RWC.