Vancouver aspires to be a major player in world rugby

Matching international sport events with corporate world promises to deliver regional business benefits

Canada’s men’s team takes the field at BC Place stadium for the 2017 HSBC Sevens tournament | Rugby Canada 

Vancouver has a lot of nicknames: No Fun City, Least Affordable City, Most Livable City.

How about rugby city?

When the New Zealand Maori All Blacks, one of the world’s best-known rugby teams, came to BC Place stadium on November 3, it played in front of a lower bowl sellout crowd of 29,480, which occupied all 56 corporate suites and four specially created field-side suite areas. 

The game carved another notch in Vancouver’s belt as a burgeoning international rugby city. The success of the HSBC Canada Sevens tournament (Vancouver will host its third tourney next year) saw ticket sales jump 26% for last season’s mini-tournament compared with the previous year. The upstart ticket sales in a city where two of the main franchises (the Vancouver Canucks and the BC Lions) are struggling to fill seats has people thinking Vancouver might have found its international niche sport – and a lifeline for the often underused BC Place.

Rugby Canada recently announced that BC Place will host a Rugby World Cup qualifying match on January 27, 2018, when Canada is scheduled to play Uruguay.

Rugby Canada’s chief executive officer, Allen Vansen, said Vancouver appears to be following in the footsteps of a city that has already established itself as an international destination for rugby: Hong Kong. The Asian city is also an HSBC Sevens tournament tour stop and has merged many rugby events with its business community.

“Hong Kong has been around with their sevens tournament for decades,” said Vansen. “It’s kind of the grandfather of sevens.… They have a very corporate element over there, and it’s the same sort of thing. And so I think we’ve been able to start a similar connection with Vancouver.”

The Hong Kong Rugby Union holds a number of marquee events every year, including the Regal Hotels Cup of Nations, the Under 20s World Cup and a New Year’s Day Youth Tournament. Reports out of Hong Kong estimate the Sevens tournament alone generates an estimated $60 million in sports tourism revenue annually. Vansen, who attended the most recent sevens tournament in Hong Kong, said the city has done a good job at marketing the sport, something Vancouver could strive for.

“It is the thing that’s happening in Hong Kong, and everybody knows about it. And it’s taken years to build that in Hong Kong.”

Vansen added that the extra-curricular culture that comes along with rugby events can be a boon for local businesses. Fans tend to buy ticket sales in bunches, travel in groups and wear costumes while frequenting bars and hotels around the stadium before and after the match.

Hong Kong has also worked to couple tournaments with corporate events so that luxury stadium suites can be marketed to corporate buyers.

Rugby, both the 15-a-side game (40 minutes a half) and the sevens (which has short seven-minute halves), has added close to 17 million new fans since its debut at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, according to a Nielsen Sports survey done on behalf of World Rugby.

The biggest growth has come in the U.S. and Japan.

At the 2015 World Cup, the Japanese team beat South Africa, a perennial powerhouse, bringing rugby fever to the Asian country and cementing it as a solid ticket draw nationally. The men’s Rugby World Cup now attracts the third-largest audience for sporting events behind the Summer Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.

Canada is also a contender in world rugby rankings. Its men’s team currently sits at 24th, and Canada’s fourth-ranked women’s team finished fifth at the most recent World Cup in Ireland.

Michelle Collens, the manager of Sport Hosting Vancouver – which was set up by the City of Vancouver – said the real benefit lies in tying corporate events to sporting events in the city, much as Hong Kong does.

“I think what [Vancouver] could do better is how we service the corporate groups and how we leverage these events to generate other business opportunities. We’ve always pitched the idea that an event could be an incentive for a group or a meeting or conference, and I think that’s what Hong Kong is doing a really good job at.”

Sport Hosting Vancouver has a series of major sporting events lined up for the city over the next couple of years, including the 2018 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships, the 2018 International Skating Union Grand Prix Final and the 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship. It estimates that approximately $64 million will be generated in economic activity by the tournaments.

Vansen said there are no plans at this time to open BC Place’s upper bowl (which raises capacity to 54,500) for the Rugby World Cup match next year; however, strong ticket sales could change that.

“We will always look at opportunities to open up that upper bowl, if demand warrants it.”