Rugby is one of the most popular sports in the world, with an estimated 800 million active fans worldwide. The mass adoption of the sport in Nigeria has been a roller coaster through the years but seems to enjoy a renaissance of late with an explosion of new interest.
Let’s look at this growth in popularity and discuss rugby’s future in the country.
Growth as Part of a Broader Trend Across Africa
English expatriate oil workers were the first to play Union rugby in Nigeria. Initially, there was a surge of interest following World War II that has been mostly unmatched until recent times, following a long decline.
Perhaps the most significant cause of rugby’s current rise is due to a continental trend. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Africa is one of the fastest-growing fan bases for rugby globally. An identified 30 more million fans now follow the sport as opposed to six years ago. In fact, it’s estimated that around 35 percent of people in Africa are Rugby fans, compared with the global average of 25 percent.
Nigeria is one country going above and beyond to contribute to this remarkable statistic. In fact, a recent report on the state of global rugby found that Nigeria has one of the highest rates of club registration in the world.
Importantly, much of the growth occurs in the younger demographics. That means an interest in rugby by both players and spectators is likely to sustain growth in the future. Part of the reason for this surge in popularity is an ease of access to international matches. Additionally, with easy-to-understand rules, the game is simple for people to learn.
Attracting International Competition and Organizing Domestically
The draw of international competition to the country and domestic organizations are further fueling Nigeria’s reputation as an emerging rugby hotbed.
Such was confirmed by a recent announcement that Nigeria will host the second Middle East Rugby League Emerging Nations World Championship slated for this coming October. Players can now also benefit from a new governing body, the recently established Nigerian Rugby League Association (NRLA), which will help bring more oversight and structured competition to the game.
The NRLA has moved quickly to make Nigeria an international rugby hotbed after gaining recognition from local Olympics bodies. Their measures should be able to ensure that the popularity of rugby in Nigeria will continue to grow.
Also growing is player enthusiasm. There are enough players to divide the North into two leagues, though the South leagues have recently enjoyed their first season in which Lagos claimed the title. Additionally, there are campaigns to bring rugby to younger people in Lagos with the establishment of tournaments and new leagues.
Rugby’s visibility in Nigeria has also climbed due to several players emigrating to other countries with competitive leagues, especially the U.K. A large number of Nigerians playing in Britain has even led to the formation of the London Nigerian Rugby Club. A shining example is Maro Itoje, born in London to Nigerian parents. Itoje, a star who plays the lock or blindside flanker for both the Premiership club Saracens and the England national team, embraces his Nigerian heritage.
But with expanded opportunities for high-caliber rugby play on the horizon at home, more elite players may choose to compete in Nigeria in the future.
Still, Nigeria’s rugby fascination lags other nations like Australia where the Australian Football League (AFL) is now getting underway. AFL teams like Collingwood and Richmond, the Oddschecker favorites to win this year’s AFL championship, play in 75,000-to-100,000-capacity stadiums. Currently, Nigerian rugby clubs don’t play for those sizes of crowds, and the Nigeria National Rugby Union Team has yet to qualify for the Rugby World Cup.
But the climate for Nigerian rugby looks to change as it evolves into a major sport. With increasing popularity throughout Africa, attracting younger generations and measures by the NRLA, rugby will enjoy a bright future in the country.