Gear change

Around the world, countries are embracing unlikely new sports with interesting implications economically and for the way they brand themselves 

When you think of Medellín, rugby union is unlikely to be the first thing that springs to mind. Colombia’s second- biggest city may have undergone a renaissance over the past decade, but memories linger of Pablo Escobar and the drugs war that terrorised the region. Medellín has done plenty to erase its notorious reputation since then, focusing on architecture, education and involving youngsters from the barrios in activities such as music and sports. And no sport has proved more popular than rugby.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem a natural fit: this is a country so obsessed with football that other sports barely got a mention until cycling’s recent rise to prominence. Football is king in Colombia, as it is throughout South America. The Colombian national rugby team only played its first game in 1996, and with the exception of Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Uruguay, the continent has made minimal impact on the world rugby stage. But that might be about to change.

Rugby in Colombia, and particularly in Medellín, is attracting a new legion of participants and fans. As part of a push by World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body, to promote rugby all over the globe, the country now has more than 10,000 registered players, with 5,000 children taking part in the Get Into Rugby mass participation programme.

Such has been the surge in popularity in Medellín that it has built a state-of-the art rugby centre with all-weather surfaces and converted pitches that were once the domain of footballers into rugby fields. It has even introduced the sport into young offenders’ institutions. The city boasts one of the nation’s most famous players. Brought up in one of the poorest barrios, José Manuel Diosa could easily have followed the path into crime taken by his childhood friends; instead, he found rugby and showed such aptitude that he went on to represent his country as a fly-half. He is a role model to the city’s young players.

“It is astonishing and a privilege to see what’s going on in  Medellín,” explains Morgan Buckley, World Rugby’s General Manager of Development. “A new mayor came in and, using sport to change people’s lives, invested in an artificial pitch in one of the barrios. Each week, the kids come from all over the place to play like they’re following the Pied Piper.”

Charley Crockart
South African showjumper, Charley Crockart

For this new breed of rugby players, the opportunity to play the sport brings many benefits. “Physical activity is a huge benefit, but the ideas of teamwork and what rugby stands for resonate,” Buckley says. “The government has told us that the simple values of getting kids out to play, learn and experience sport are a powerful message.”

For the city, too, there are positives to come out of supporting a new sport, as Dan Jones, Lead Partner of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, explains. “If a new sport catches interest and drives participation, and if it turns people into participants who might not have taken part in sport at all, that’s a positive benefit,” he says. “What that brings is a social benefit through the good stuff that sport can bring in terms of health, education and all the spin-off benefits.”

Rugby is not the only example of a sport springing up in a part of the world you might not expect. Equestrianism is establishing a foothold in Africa, with Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe all hosting world jumping and dressage challenge competitions, while the latter has developed a national training and competition centre. Each country has at least 300 athletes competing in the sport, and those numbers are translating into international success – in 2014, Zimbabwean rider Charley Crockart won the World Jumping Challenge final. Jacqueline Braissant, Director of the International Equestrian Federation’s Solidarity programme, says the sport’s growth brings rewards to these countries nationally and globally.

“The development of equestrian sport is beneficial to the horse-breeding industry. It creates jobs for grooms, farriers, saddlers, vets and professional athletes. From a sporting point of view, equestrianism is gradually enabling these countries to become part of the international community.”

New sports are also starting to crop up in a country where a different pursuit reigns as king, although the penetration into the market is a little more difficult. Cricket may be the national sport in India, but in a nation of 1.2 billion people, other sports are looking to take a slice of the pie. One is football, and this year the Indian Super League launched an eight-team league, with the aim of becoming a global footballing superpower and qualify for the 2026 Fifa World Cup.

The game has started off positively, being the number one viewed sport in Asia and in the top five globally. The Super League’s strategy is to attract legends to play and promote the sport while developing stadium infrastructure so they can redirect people’s interest from European leagues to homegrown teams and develop a grassroots network. This included a bid to host the U17s World Cup that the Secretary General of the All India Football Federation, Kushal
Das, said would be “a gamechanger for the nation and Indian participation”.

With a new sport comes new fans, and the next step for many of these countries is to capitalise on the wave of interest. Hosting a major sporting event can not only raise a nation’s international profile, but can also help to generate significant financial revenue. “Staging a world cham-pionships or similar has economic upsides in terms of the infrastructure that needs to be built,” says Jones.

“In-bound tourism, in-bound media, the teams and the organisers also bring economic impact into the country.”

Dubai experienced this impact first-hand when some of the world’s best cyclists took part in the first Dubai Tour in February 2014. The government has been a strong supporter of cycling at grassroots level, encouraging people to take up the sport both as a healthy lifestyle choice and in a competitive environment.

And with the infrastructure and new cycling tracks – there are now around 100km of cycling paths, and a recent byway has just opened alongside the city’s tram – and the public’s burgeoning interest in the sport, the platform was in place to host a professional race. Such was the success of the inaugural Tour that the classification level for the 2015 event has been upgraded, meaning it can attract better teams and better riders.

Not that you need huge participation numbers to guarantee results. American football is a minority sport in Great Britain, but has had a dedicated following since National Football League games were first broadcast on UK terrestrial television in the early 1980s. When the NFL set its sights on cracking the global market with an overseas game in 2007, London was a logical place to start.

The introduction of the International Series at Wembley Stadium has brought substantial spoils, with talk of London hosting the Super Bowl or forming a franchise growing ever louder.

“The NFL games coming to London have brought new value to the London economy,” says Jones. “[They] will also be hoping for financial benefit back in their home market... [they] will be getting more global sponsorship and media interest, and creating new opportunities.”

That market may seem saturated, but the fact that sports-mad London can find space for American football is a further indication of the world’s insatiable hunger for sporting entertainment. Introduced properly, with the appropriate infrastructure and attention, a new sport can take off in the most unlikely of places, from Malawi to Medellín.