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Time for a little ruck and roll — what rugby can learn from the Super Bowl spectacle

Time for a little ruck and roll — what rugby can learn from the Super Bowl spectacle
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce kisses the Vince Lombardy Trophy after winning Super Bowl LVIII against the San Francisco 49ers at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on 11 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Caroline Brehman)

Rugby is at a crossroads, and the Super Bowl and the Americans may be instructive.

The recent Super Bowl contested by the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers drew 123.4 million viewers across all platforms. Taylor Swift was on hand to watch boyfriend Travis Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs beat the 49ers 25-22 in overtime.

According to broadcast executives at CBS, the pop star is partly responsible for the boost in viewership – a 7% increase on last year’s figures – during the National Football League’s championship game.

There was no shortage of sideshows on Super Bowl Sunday, from Swift and her star-studded cheerleader squad to the quirky advertising spots – going for $7-million a spot – to the elaborate half-time extravaganza featuring Usher and Alicia Keys.

Donald Trump supporters suggested that Swift and Kelce were pushing a political agenda, and that the result of the game had been fixed in order to boost Joe Biden’s re-election campaign.

This wild and frankly laughable conspiracy theory delivered a further form of entertainment and, in the aftermath, Biden himself played along by posting on X: “Just like we drew it up.”

Speeding up the spectacle

No one puts on a sporting show like the Americans. Every year, other codes look at the Super Bowl and ask: “What can we learn from this?”

The question is particularly pertinent for a code like rugby, which is at something of a crossroads.

A day before the Super Bowl, the second round of the Six Nations played out in front of capacity crowds in the northern hemisphere. When Scotland hosted France in Edinburgh, play came to a halt whenever a player received the ball deep in their own half.

A quirk in the laws states that the defenders who are caught in the middle of this aerial battle can advance – without the risk of venturing offside and conceding a penalty – if the player who receives the ball moves forward. If that receiver doesn’t move forward, those defenders must remain static.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Taylor Swift shares the glare with Kelce, Mahomes on Super Bowl Sunday

This scenario unfolded on several occasions at Murrayfield, much to the annoyance of the crowd and the greater rugby community. Many commentators and former players have since called for an immediate change to the law, as it hampers the flow of the contest and detracts from the spectacle.

A few days later, Super Rugby Pacific – the regional southern hemisphere tournament featuring teams from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands – put out a release to confirm that the 2024 instalment of the competition would “trial” a law variation that prevents these static situations and encourages counter­attacking rugby. The trial has been sanctioned by World Rugby, which is trying to improve the spectacle of the game at various levels.

“We don’t believe that’s the spectacle our fans want to see in Super Rugby Pa­­cific,” said tournament chair Kevin Malloy. “We want to open up the opportunity for teams to counter­attack with the ball in hand and we’re confident this tweak to the law will encourage that trend and encourage exciting, attacking rugby.”

Super Bowl

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Drue Tranquill holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy during the NFL Super Bowl LVIII Victory Parade for the Kansas City Chiefs in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, on 14 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dave Kaup)

Uniqueness

The comparison between American football and rugby may appear ironic, given that the former is one of the most stop-start sports in the world. The contest spans 60 minutes, but can take three to four hours to complete because of the many commercial breaks.

Rugby, however, has long sold itself as a dynamic sport. There’s often criticism of the scrum and breakdowns, as many feel that they slow the game down. Experts will tell you, of course, that without the scrum or the line-out – which concentrates 18 of the 30 players into a relatively small space on the field – teams wouldn’t enjoy such freedom to attack.

Without defenders contesting the ball at the breakdowns, we wouldn’t have any turnovers and ultimately a counterattack against a defence that is yet to align. Without kicking in the modern game, the attacking team would struggle to disrupt or break down defensive units, and we’d have fewer tries.

There are certain aspects of the game that require tweaking – such as the law loophole that has caused such a stir in recent weeks. But, by and large, the game itself is stronger than ever. Some traditionalists have bemoaned the rise of analysts and data, but as top teams have harnessed technology in the quest to find an edge, the contest has gone to another level.

Reaching a wider audience

Whether rugby has done enough to sell itself is another story. It is here where the Super Bowl and the Americans may be instructive.

With regard to South African rugby, the Sharks have already welcomed US investors into the fold. SA Rugby is close to sealing a private equity deal with the Ackerley Sports Group, which is based in Seattle. Some continue to doubt whether the right investors are in place, but this push to sell the brand and engage wider audiences is absolutely necessary.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Leo Chenal interacts with fans during the NFL Super Bowl LVIII Victory Parade in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, on 14 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dave Kaup)

Supporters during the NFL Super Bowl LVIII Victory Parade for the Chiefs in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, on 14 February 2024. The Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers on 11 February. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dave Kaup)

SA Rugby made the right decision to pivot to the northern hemisphere (after the New Zealand Rugby Union made the inexplicable call to oust them from Super Rugby). In the wake of Covid-19, the franchises and SA Rugby have recovered, and sponsorship and commercial numbers are rising.

San Francisco 49ers safety Ji’Ayir Brown tackles Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco during the second half of Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on 11 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / John G Mabanglo)

Kansas City Chiefs safety Mike Edwards (right) intercepts a pass meant for San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk during the second half of Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on 11 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / John G Mabanglo)

The interest in tournaments such as the United Rugby Championship (URC) continues to grow. As URC CEO Martin Anayi noted after the most recent milestone was reached in January – a record 135,747 fans attended games over a single round – it’s good news for the sport and the competition.

Read more in Daily Maverick: URC went from an interesting experiment in 2022 to a world-class competition in 2023

“This is a major positive not only for the URC but for the sport of rugby,” he said. “Our clubs are innovating and collaborating to… attract new fans to rugby and this fantastic achievement speaks to their work throughout the season. Fans are turning up more often because of the engaging match-day experiences at our clubs and the competitiveness and jeopardy of the URC.”

There is a long way to go before the marquee games – such as the URC final, the Champions Cup decider and even the World Cup final – warrant comparison to the Super Bowl.

That said, re­cent developments suggest that the unions are pushing in the right direction, and that there may be a time in the near future when rugby strikes a powerful and more lucrative balance in packaging the contest and the entertainment. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    I think rugby union is doing just fine, particularly as it has shaken off the cloying and selfish influence of the NZRU. The latter should rather give up union, just play league and stop trying to force everyone else to jump to their need to compete with the Aussies’ boring one dimensional five-tackles-kick stuff. They’ve made their own bed, now they must go and sleep in it.

  • Craig Bain says:

    We must very sincerely thank New Zealand rugby for forcing us into the hands of European rugby. Even more so as a Stormers supporter, as I can’t imagine us playing in back to back finals in Cape Town in Super Rugby, and even winning the first one to boot!

  • Soil Merchant says:

    There is so much down-time during an NFL “match” that you can put on several parades, a circus and still finish with a winner.

    On average a Superbowl Final has 16minutes of Play – in TOTAL.

    Rugby is just fine as it is (Was) – I think the new reffing needs refinement, especially if you’ve converted only to be told you have to go all the way back to the 5 meter for a turn-over-ball scrum.

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