One-on-One: Building Amateur Rugby Events

One-on-One features an interview with an influential member of the sports community concerning a specific topic. This month we interview Graham Oliphant, managing director of Rugby Festival Events Ltd. The organization innovated amateur rugby tournaments into a festival atmosphere with 48 games on one day with cheerleaders, DJs, food and bars, and global live streaming from four high-definition cameras broadcasting coverage around the world with seven hours of live commentary. Teams of 9-a-side (squads of 15) play non-stop 15-minute games. Editor’s Note: Interviews for this article were conducted before the shutdown.


By Sherri Middleton, executive editor of SportsEvents Magazine

Q: How did you become involved in rugby events?

I personally played rugby for three decades. Having attended and participated in many rugby tournaments in the U.K., Australia, Europe, and North America, I felt that just because traditional tournaments featured amateur teams, they didn’t need to be organized and delivered in a fairly amateur way. In 2017, I resigned from a career in the fire service in London and took the plunge to finance developing a U.K.-U.S. rugby events business and quite literally ‘walking the walk’! I particularly wanted to harness smart ways of streamlining and managing the operations side, now that software-as-a-service providers have solutions and learning from my incident management experience in the fire service. I also enjoy learning new sports marketing and sport tech trends as a way of creating a compelling product using my London event as an incubator for trying new Livestream delivery systems.

Q: Where are your events hosted?

We currently host a one-day invitational adult rugby tournament, the London9s – aka LDN9s – which last year attracted teams from 16 countries to London. With our second-biggest audience being the USA based on our Livestream audience and website traffic, I am eager to establish a reciprocal event in North America to further develop this market. More than 50 percent of our teams come from outside the U.K. and more than 80 percent in total from outside of London. This is clearly advantageous to Tourism London in promoting a considerable inbound economic benefit. We’d look to transplant in a suitable U.S. city location, driving teams from Europe and South America to the U.S. We also get all our event balls branded to represent the city we are in.

Q: When we met at S.P.O.R.T.S. last year, you mentioned the differences in the bidding process in the U.S. versus the U.K. Please explain.

The U.K. is more formal and structured. I personally prefer the U.S. bidding process as it’s more personable. Besides, my English accent doesn’t buy me as much charm and goodwill in England. I’m a big fan of developing relationships and understanding the specific needs of a venue or CVB. From there, I would look to negotiate mutually beneficial terms where both parties can win. For that reason, I don’t have a fixed bid fee. I’d look to see what we can achieve ‘in-kind’ versus anticipated numbers and agreed on targets of metrics. As all event organizers will attest, you don’t want to have to keep repeating ‘year one,’ so I’d love to establish a recurring annual event that we can grow year on year.

I would say my feedback as a relative outsider to the regular CVB approach is to ease back on telling me you have 10,000 hotel rooms and 150 soccer fields and your high-level numbers. That’s great, however, let’s talk specifics based on the needs of my event and the audience, the introductions and business assurances you can broker on my behalf if I bring this annual event from overseas to your city.

Q: Is your plan to host more events in the U.S.?

Yes. The U.S. is a key market for us. With professional rugby growing now and gaining more coverage on CBS Sports, and high school and college participation increasing, it’s certainly a sports event CVBs should be looking to accommodate.

Q: What cities are you considering? What types of venues do you need? How many athletes will attend?

Ultimately, I have to consider the needs of the audience and demographic we are attracting; young men and women 18- to 25-years-old with disposable income, largely unfamiliar with U.S. geography. We have a database of more than 400 teams, many from Europe, who are eager for ‘sports vacations’ in the U.S, therefore, selecting an instantly recognizable and attractive destination is key in helping us market the event. The front-runners would be Las Vegas and Orlando or Tampa, Florida. I’ve been impressed with several other destinations that have fantastic facilities; however, in these cases, the city is not instantly recognizable to our audience or the destination is not logistically practical or affordable for large groups. Grass or turf soccer fields are adequate as we can adapt them for rugby. We need four to six fields in close proximity with low-cost or group accommodations nearby and within 30 minutes from an international airport servicing direct flights from Europe.

Each squad is made up of 15 players with nine players on the pitch at any one time. I’d plan for 16 to 24 teams for year one to stress test the event and bed in relationships and operational setup. Then we can leverage the U.K.- and U.S.-based events to reciprocate the growth of both events. We’ve already noticed a high degree of loyalty from teams, with 80 percent of our teams returning from the previous year. This will only spiral upwards and then we’d extend to high school brackets. While these are not strictly marketed as ‘stay to play’ events, the teams do take our steer on accommodation. It’s one less burden for a team organizer. Better still, the further the teams have had to travel, typically the longer they tend to stay and wish to participate in tourism opportunities locally.

Q: As far as fans and spectators, what sort of numbers usually attend your events?

I currently market the event as ‘ticket only’ and 95 percent of the fans who attend pay in advance via our online ticketing platform. We had 250 fans attend the London event, in addition to all the participants and their support staff, so in all, about 1,000 people over the day.

Q: What are your plans as far as the expansion of the Rugby Festival?

  1. Expanding to be fully inclusive with more women’s teams. A recent Nielsen Sports report found that 84 percent of fans prefer women’s sport because it was more progressive and entertaining than men.
  2. Wheelchair rugby, which can be co-ed and there is an international market for this.
  3. Exploring more ways of enhancing sports tech to deliver the event and gather and market data from the event.
  4. More countries represented at the events.

Q: Rugby is still not as widely recognized in the U.S. as in the U.K. What are your expectations about the growth of the sport and the impact in terms of hosting events?

I was at first surprised by how few people, including those in the sports industry in the U.S., really knew about rugby. This was a wake-up call for me and it’s something I’ve now adapted in the way that I present the proposition of the sport. I try to relate the similarities and benefits in relation to football and familiar terms. I think this is one of the misconceptions in the way that U.K. rugby has been overlooked – how relatively underdeveloped the familiarity of rugby is in the U.S. Amateur rugby, high school and collegiate rugby is developing and has been around for a few decades but I think until it gets on the scholarship program, it will struggle to go mainstream. Rugby 7s is in the Olympics and the U.S. men’s and women’s teams are in the top two in the world. With such a wealth of talented high school and collegiate athletes in North America, it’s an exciting prospect for me and for rugby to fill the void. Rugby is a fast and physical contact sport with minimal equipment required. It offers athletes the opportunity to run, tackle, score – playing defense and offense all in the same game and all you need is a pair of cleats. When we have young men and women try the sport, they fall in love with it and love the intensity of it. There is also a real possibility that the USA will be granted the hosting of the Rugby World Cup in 2031. Now that’s worth planning for if you’re a CVB, don’t you think?