July 20, 2016
As rugby sevens makes its bow at the Rio Olympics, players, fans and sponsors believe that the shortened version of the game could be about to break out as a real commercial force.
Like almost every Brazilian, André Luiz Nascimento Muniz da Silva’s greatest childhood ambition was to become a professional footballer. This August, he will run out for his nation in Rio de Janeiro with an oval ball in his hand, as rugby sevens makes its bow at the Olympics.
‘Boy’, as the 28 year old is known on the sevens circuit, grew up in “humble” conditions in São Paulo, and used to blag free bus rides to football trials, ducking the barrier and winking at the conductor. He showed promise as a speedy right winger – at 15 he could run the 100 metres in just over 11 seconds – yet failed to convince any of the top clubs in Brazil’s most populous city to take a punt on him. Aged 16, he accepted that his football dream was over. Boy was disconsolate.
When he first tried out rugby union at São Paulo Athletic Club, he expected it to be American football. His pace opened doors, and his talent for sevens was spotted in 2011, and he soon became a regular on the wing for Brazil. Now, on the biggest stage of all – in the land where the round ball is king, to boot – Boy and his rugby sevens teammates will be transformed from sporting minnows to stars, albeit fleetingly.
It could be their breakout opportunity, and the sport’s. Sevens has often operated in the shadow of rugby union, which has transitioned into a professional game over the past two decades, emerging as a commercial force, albeit only in a cluster of playing nations. The Olympics, however, means a potential TV audience of hundreds of millions and rugby sevens will be the first team gold up for grabs.
“Not even when I wanted to be a footballer did I imagine I would have a chance to play at the Olympics,” da Silva tells Raconteur. “It’s hard to understand even now; it seems like such a big deal. I can’t get my head around it.”
He still works five days a week at a bureau de change in São Paulo to supplement his meagre income from rugby. The Brazilian sevens players effectively operate as semi-professionals, and many have juggled jobs to survive.
With funding from the Confederação Brasileira de Rugby tight – and just 16,000 registered rugby players countrywide – it is little surprise that they will have to overcome a yawning chasm in quality, compared with the other 11 competing sides, to reach the Olympic medal podium. It promises to be a modern-day Cool Runnings, set to samba.
A long road
In May, the Brazilians played in London in the final leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. At a squad lunch in a hotel adjoining Chelsea Football Club’s Stanford Bridge stadium, the team ate underneath a photo of Chelsea’s Brazilians: Oscar, who earns a reported £90,000 per week, and Willian, on £85,000.
By contrast, Juliano Fiori, a tough-tackling forward for Brazil’s sevens team, is burning through his own personal cash reserves to play at the Games. The 31-year-old forward, who has a masters degree in international relations from Cambridge University, moved from London – where he was raised – to Rio in March, in order to focus on his Olympic quest.
“I’m living off my savings; my rugby salary doesn’t even cover the rent,” Fiori, currently taking a sabbatical as head of humanitarian affairs at the charity Save the Children UK, says, looking up from his plate of pasta with a rueful grin. “But I am hugely proud to represent my country and focus on the Olympics. That opportunity is priceless.”
The enormity of Brazil’s task was laid bare in London. The side lost all five of their matches over the weekend, bookended by heavy defeats to New Zealand (31-0) and Kenya (38-5). In all, the Brazilians featured in three of the ten-stop HSBC Sevens Series tournaments this term; their end-of-season record reads: played 15 games; lost 15.
“Over the last few years there has been a lot of progress made in terms of the technical side of the game, the skills of individual players, and also the understanding of the game, but there is a lot more for us to do,” da Silva concedes. “In the past there used to be a tendency to panic when a team put us under pressure and now we can deal with those situations better. In Rio…”
The team’s captain, Lucas Rodrigues Duque, cuts in across the table, gesticulating with a knife.
“Nobody owns the Olympic medals,” says the 32 year old, a qualified doctor whose sobriquet ‘Tanque’ (Tank) belies his now-toned physique. “It’s a clean slate. However, we are realistic about what our role is at the Olympics, and where our profile sits with this group of teams. Our objective is not to simply focus on medals, though. We will do our best to win games, but we also know there is a responsibility to use this moment to spread rugby and to make sure that young people in Brazil understand that this sport provides another opportunity; it’s not just all about the round ball.”
Just how big can sevens become? Legends of the full-squad game have been queuing up in recent months to predict that the abridged version, elevated by the Olympic platform, is poised to become a global phenomenon sooner, rather than later.
The former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, the most-capped international in the northern hemisphere, even says that sevens could overtake the game in which he made his name within a decade.
“I see no reason why, in ten years’ time, sevens can’t be on a par with the fifteens game, or even supersede it,” O’Driscoll says. “If you can inspire nations to take up sevens and create excitement around the brand of rugby, as we’ve seen in the HSBC Sevens Series, I think the game can grow exponentially after the Olympics.”
There is certainly new money in the game. HSBC signed up to sponsor the Sevens Series in 2010, a year after the International Olympic Committee decreed that the sport would feature at Rio 2016. With that investment, sevens is reaching and gaining traction in areas of the globe in which its elder sibling has little presence.
The traditional format is restrictive, with complex and constantly evolving rules that even international players sometimes struggle to comprehend. As such, it can seem arcane to the uninitiated. Furthermore, the top tier seems impregnable to those below. Out of the last eight world cups, New Zealand have won three, South Africa and Australia two apiece and England one.
It can also be a fairly slow game — in May’s European Cup final between England’s Saracens and the French club Racing Metro, neither side scored a try.
Sevens, by comparison, is blissfully easy to grasp, thrilling to watch, and requires little concentration. With seven players on a wide pitch, and seven-minute halves, it is a fast and open game. Reigning Sevens Series champions and Olympic favourites Fiji scored 213 tries in their 48 matches.
In many ways, sevens is the perfect 21st-century sport; each 14-minute match generating endless snippets of action, perfect for sharing on social media.
Former England star and World Cup winner Jason Robinson predicts that with a fusion of simplicity and entertainment sevens will hit the sweet spot at the Games. “No one really knows what will happen, but I’m convinced that the players will deliver and the world will take rugby to heart,” he says. “That’s because it such a simple game; the viewers won’t need to know about resetting scrums, and so on.
“I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to watch live sport to get me off my seat. In XVs you might rise once each half if someone makes a ten-metre break. In sevens you are guaranteed that excitement, because it’s end-to-end sprinting action and there is so much space in which the players can express themselves.”
Sevens is increasingly competitive, too. In the 2015/16 season, six different teams won the ten events (USA, Kenya, Samoa and Scotland have all won competitions in the last 14 months). The series has also expanded its range, with tournaments taking place in Singapore, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Dubai, and Hong Kong, the sport’s spiritual home.
Last term was the most popular campaign to date, according to World Rugby’s figures, with 715,000 fans attending the events. Further, the action was broadcast to more than 100 territories for the first time, and the 61 million video views, on YouTube and other social media channels, represented a 250 per cent audience increase across all platforms.
“Now more than ever, there are massive opportunities for sevens to reach new fans in new ways,” says Alex Trickett, Twitter UK’s head of sport. “We’re already seeing players, teams and fans interacting around the Sevens Series on a regular basis on Twitter, and can’t wait to see how this live, public conversation develops post-Rio, because there are many creative possibilities.”
Little surprise there are whispers of further expansion to the Sevens Series, to take in another event in America – where sevens is the fastest-growing sport – and one in East Africa.
Predictably, comparisons have been drawn between sevens and Twenty20, which has breathed new life – and money – into cricket. However, the shortened, more colourful version has significantly impacted upon Test cricket, whose audience numbers are further dwindling.
“Twenty20 was a complete marketing concoction to stop cricket dying,” suggests Andrew Curry, director at consumer trends specialists Futures Company. “Sevens is not that for rugby, and has been around for 130 years. It’s an existing product.
“Twenty20 completely transformed the economics of sport – though a lot of that has come off the back of India’s involvement – and showed that you can create a lot of profile from a standalone tournament.
“Sevens can become its own thing, but there are limitations. Right now there is a pitifully small number of professional players. To build the base you need the emergence of equivalent national leagues. For it to really work we need to see that second layer of the pyramid being built, but fundamentally the festival model the Sevens Series uses is hard to sustain logistically.”
Jonathan Hill, global commercial director and head of Europe, Middle East and Africa at ESP Properties, says of the sport’s potential: “Rugby is a top-five sport on a global basis, and if World Rugby get the sevens right and continue to grow it carefully, it will be very persuasive from a commercial perspective. It may well be sevens which drives rugby into other markets, so that more countries take up the sport – many people within the industry believe that.
“Sevens is a great format for all age groups, and – crucially – both sexes, and lends itself to younger people, whether playing or watching. It’s a racier model of rugby, and the brands who sponsor the sport may reflect that. The opportunity is a good one for a range of categories and brands.”
The players, however, are not in it for the brand appeal. The Brazil team, now back at their training base in São José dos Campos, in an old Ericsson factory next to a busy highway on the outskirts of São Paulo, are hoping that they, too, can break into rugby’s top order by causing an upset in Rio.
Tickets for the men’s sevens are selling out fast, but the team knows that with the country’s economy in turmoil, funding could quickly dry up and the game could wither. With that in mind, they plan to make the most of their few hours in the spotlight.
“I’m not really sure what will happen,” Juliano Fiori says. “The economic situation is not great in Brazil, as you know, so all sports – not just sevens – are not sure what will happen. The tap could turn off the day after Rio. For now we are focused solely on doing our best at the Olympics.”