Having watched a bit of the Rugby World Cup, and read a little bit about it, I’ve reached the conclusion (not an original one) that the structure is radically defective. Most of the games I’ve seen so far have had all the tension of the annual grudge match between the Brisbane Lions and the Toowong Under 12s (Reserves). There are only half a dozen teams that are serious contenders,and, as I understand it, the pool + elimination final setup means most of them will never play each other. Meanwhile, we get to watch game after game with scorelines like 300 to minus 10.
What’s needed here is two top pools of four (the finalists from the previous cup) with the bottom team in each pool eliminated after the pool matches, and two second division pools with the top qualifiers making it through to the finals. This would mean that most of the interesting matches would actually be played.
Then there’s the estimate that 4 billion people will watch the Cup. Those who’ve seen such statistics in the past know that this is calculated by counting the same people over and over again as they watch different matches. Even so, there are no more than 40 games scheduled, implying an average audience of 100 million. The only hard number I’ve seen is the Australian audience for Australia’s first game, against Argentina, which was about 2 million. Let’s be very generous and suppose that the same number of people watched in Argentina (a soccer-mad country where rubgy is the pastime of a tiny minority). That still leaves us short 96 million – presumably these are people who are passionate enough about rugby to watch a game in which they have no direct interest. Where in the world are that many rugby fans going to be found? The New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders and the Welsh are pretty keen, as are white South Africans, but that’s only about ten million people altogether. Rugby is a significant minority sport in the rest of the British Isles and in France and you might get another ten million potential viewers there. The US and Japan may have teams here, but I doubt that the average American or Japanese is even aware that the Cup is being played.
To sum up, if you supposed that the entire rugby-following population of the world, men, women and children, all watched every match, you might get something approaching a billion viewers in total. I’d guess, though, that a realistic estimate is closer to 100 million.