Sarah Massey understands the transformational impact that sport, and particularly rugby, can have.
Massey was in the Ellis Park stands 28 years ago as Nelson Mandela handed the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar in an iconic moment that transcended Rugby World Cup 1995.
“It was only afterwards that I really appreciated that was such a moment in time, for sport and for humanity,” Massey, who was working for the organising committee that day, admitted.
Almost three decades on, Massey is the Managing Director of the Rugby World Cup 2025 Local Operating Company (LOC) and she is confident the tournament can have a similar momentous impact on the visibility of the women’s game.
RWC 2025 will be the first Rugby World Cup to be staged under the joint-venture model and on Tuesday World Rugby and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) with support from the UK Government started the two-year countdown by announcing the eight cities and venues that will host the action.
For the first time in the history of the women’s event, those venues will be spread across the host nation as the LOC attempts to capitalise on the success of RWC 2021 and the growth of women’s sport in general.
It is the intention of the LOC that every team, including the Red Roses, will play in more than one region of England in order to expose the tournament and its competitors to as many fans as possible.
Speaking about the decision to take the tournament to Sunderland, Salford, Northampton, York, Bristol, Exeter and Brighton as well as London, Massey said: “It shows the growth of women’s rugby, and it shows the ambition that we have as an operating company.
“I think that’s one of the things that demonstrates how we’re growing the game is to move it around the country and to bigger venues, so we expose this incredible sport to more audiences and engage more fans.
“Everything we want to do around this Rugby World Cup is about raising the standards from previous women’s tournaments, both on and off the pitch” and this is just one way we see that comes to life.”
The success of RWC 2021 highlights the growth the women’s game is currently experiencing. The tournament was the most well-attended in history while an average of more than 1.8 million people watched the final on TV and streaming services – achieving a 65 per cent broadcast share in New Zealand.
Fans have continued to flock to matches since that sold-out RWC 2021 final at Eden Park as national attendance records have fallen at an incredible rate. In April, for example, a world-record 58,498 people filed into Twickenham to watch England beat France.
“Our aim is to keep building on those successes. The record attendance at Twickenham for the Red Roses match in April is something we want to capitalise on, but this time we want to fill every single seat with excited and enthusiastic crowds.” Massey added.
“Alongside this it’s important to try to grow those attendances during the pool matches that don’t involve the Red Roses and we will be working hard to ensure this happens”
“We are also looking to demonstrate the growth in the value of the event in terms of increasing commercial revenue and broadcast and media rights”
The start of the two-year countdown to RWC 2025 comes at a time when women’s sport in general is flourishing.
On Sunday, Spain beat England to claim the nation’s first FIFA Women’s World Cup title at the end of a tournament that broke new ground in Australia and New Zealand.
And record attendance and broadcast figures are not only confined to football and rugby, with netball, cricket and numerous other sports undergoing a growth spurt in recent years.
“I think the beauty of what we’re doing now is that it doesn’t matter what sport it is, the groundswell of interest in women’s sport is becoming really clear and it’s not just a one-off,” Massey, who has previous experience in hockey and athletics, explained.
“It hasn’t just been a one-off [in England] because we won the Euros, it’s been a continual build and that only helps other sports.
“So, the Euros has helped us, netball has helped us, cricket has helped what we’re going to do, and this is how I see rugby contributing to the overall vision globally for exposure and visibility of women’s sport.
“For me, it’s about the fact that all these women’s sports are helping each other to grow and gain visibility, credibility, authenticity. Alongside this we are seeing so many more women being appointed to leadership positions and heading up major sporting events across the globe. That brings role models, it brings credibility and ultimately brings real change.
Having started working in rugby before the game had gone professional, Massey has witnessed a huge amount of positive change during her career.
And, as she looks towards RWC 2025, she believes there is scope for so much more. “What’s really exciting is the opportunity to grow a women’s sport within a sport that already has such a huge global footprint and interest,” Massey added. “Because of the ecosystem that rugby has, there’s a massive ability to grow Rugby World Cup 2025 and make it into an iconic event within women’s sport.”