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World Cups – On-Field Festivals, Off-Field Frustrations

World Cups are the highlight of many a sporting fan’s calendar, sporting festivals that are exceptional global adverts for their respective games. In recent times we have been blessed with two fantastic tournaments in the sporting world, the ICC Cricket World Cup in India, and the Rugby World Cup in France, which are rumoured to have viewing figures of 2.6 Billion and 850 Million people respectively. A few weeks ago I found myself in an Irish Bar in the centre of Madrid, full of South African, English, Irish and Spanish fans enjoying a tightly fought semi-final broadcast from the Stade de France. World Cups are truly global events.

On the field these tournaments are packed full of exceptional performances, thrilling encounters and shocking upsets; the types of moments that become etched into the folklores of the two games. In India, we have already seen Afghanistan’s triumph over the holders England, Glen Maxwell’s 40-Ball Hundred, the Netherlands upsetting South Africa again and the imperious dominance of Virat Kohli in India’s batting lineup. In France, the quarter-finals produced some of the most thrilling contests imaginable, as Argentina dispatched Wales, the All Blacks toppled top-ranked Ireland, and the Springboks sent the hosts out of the tournament by a single point. Portugal achieved their first RWC victory over Fiji in the group stage, and the final proved to be a tense affair crowning South Africans as the most decorated nation in RWC history. However, whilst fans have been treated to these exceptional moments and matches that inspire and build the games, off the field these tournaments have had a tendency to leave something to be desired. 

The rugby has largely been a storming success. Aside from issues with ticketed entry to games at the opening weekend in Paris and Marseille, which caused complaints from fans unable to reach their seats, the organisers have been quick to respond to any early issues. The stadiums have been healthily packed out for all the games by neutrals and partisan fans alike, creating a mood around the tournament of a great adoration and celebration of the game, which is exactly what a world cup should be. It is a game’s biggest marketing tool, a festival of that specific sport, and that has been the sentiment emerging from France this autumn. World Rugby have provided a fantastic fan experience, and will be confident of the growth the game will experience in the aftermath of the tournament, especially in countries such as Portugal. 

The criticism levied has been down to the clampdown on sharing highlights and clips off the official channels, a result of strict licensing and broadcasting agreements. Referee Wayne Barnes had a post taken down on X showing a humorous moment from a match he officiated, and viewers in France can’t access highlights on YouTube. How can the game reach new and keen to learn fans when its viewership is being actively restricted? Planet Rugby lamented that “This video is not available in your location” and “This media has been disabled in response to a report by the copyright owner” are two quotes that will live in the memory of fans who tuned in for this World Cup.”

In India, off-field the tournament has attracted a substantial amount of criticism around ground quality, empty stadiums, ticketing issues and more. Despite being an ICC tournament, the world cup is managed day-to-day by the host nation, and the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), the most powerful national governing body in world cricket. The opening game of this tournament was between the finalists of 2019’s exceptional tournament, England and New Zealand, in the Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, and it immediately gave us a sign of what has become a major talking point amongst fans. Where are the crowds? 

Admittedly, this game was played in an extraordinary 132,000 capacity venue, which meant even the record 40,000 reputed tickets sold for a tournament opener would struggle to hide the vast empty swathes of the stadium. But it created a game devoid of the incredible crowd atmosphere so often associated with cricket in India. Around the country, in considerably smaller capacity stadiums, it has become an unfortunately and underwhelmingly common theme; if India aren’t playing, the crowd isn’t there in force. 

There are a number of contributing factors here. Firstly, it is generally understood that Indian fans are rarely ‘cricket fans’ but rather Indian cricket fans, meaning a game between neutrals won’t attract the same levels of interest from home fans. This is not a rule of thumb, and there are exceptions such as the England vs Afghanistan game, but it has generally held true. Additionally, the start time of 2pm does make it difficult for locals to attend games until the working day is over. Ticketing issues have also hurt the event, with complaints of websites showing the exorbitant tickets to be sold out, but stands remaining vacant. Furthermore, the release of fixtures only 2 months before and tickets 6 weeks prior to the start of the tournament has made it difficult for home and away supporters to plan their attendance, something BCCI officials have recognised to be a huge mistake. On arrival in India, some fans have had to travel across different cities to collect their tickets.  

Visas have also been hard to come by, a problem most clearly seen for Pakistan’s fans, left largely unable to be part of the world record 132,000 crowd at the India vs Pakistan game due to ongoing political tensions, which meant the crowd was incredibly one-sided beyond what could be deemed “home advantage”. And inside these empty stadiums, the quality of the grounds has left a lot to be desired. Dharamsala’s outfield has been so poor to the point of dangerous for the players, and the pitches offer some one-sided matches. 

Whilst it is the players who put on the shows we remember, it is the organisers who curate the experience. If these are to be festivals of sport then fans at the venues and around the world should be treated to the best possible experience, which would certainly serve as a positive force for growing the games worldwide. World Cups live long in the memory, and these two tournaments should offer many lessons in the Do’s and Don’ts of these global events. If future hosts can successfully offer the best to both players and fans, then we will be treated to some very special World Cups. 

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