By Patrick Johnston
SINGAPORE, May 23 (Reuters) - Free-to-air TV coverage is essential if Super Rugby wants to build its profile in Asia sufficiently for the continent to host a team over the next five to 10 years, the head of the ARFU has told Reuters.
With Super Rugby set to expand from 15 to 18 teams in 2016, an Asian franchise was tipped to join Argentina and a sixth team from South Africa in the competition, which also features five Australian and five New Zealand sides.
Asian Rugby Union president Trevor Gregory thinks this is unrealistic while even the biggest stars of southern hemisphere rugby, such as All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, are virtually unknown in most of Asia.
Gregory, who also serves as chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, believes that 2021 might be a better target date for an Asian team to join the SANZAR competition and truly reap the benefits.
"You have to prepare the ground so that people are chomping at the bit to see their heroes of Super 15, which anybody in the street in Asia right now probably can't name any of them," he told Reuters in an interview this week.
"At the moment who can watch Super Rugby for free? Only the elite of our Asian community can watch that kind of level of rugby because you have to pay and the majority of Asia are not in the elite category sadly.
"If ever there was going to be an opportunity for Asia, it is going to be in five years time ... the 2019 World Cup done and out the way and ride on the back of that interest."
The rugby World Cup will be held in Asia for the first time when Japan hosts in 2019 and Gregory said the event, the third biggest sporting tournament in the world, could provide the springboard to success.
However, the huge global numbers that watch the quadrennial World Cup simply glossed over the lack of viewing figures for the sport's other events, with most fans in Asia's booming population unable to afford pay-to-watch subscriptions.
That scenario has left rugby trailing behind the likes of soccer, American football and basketball in being commercially viable for sponsors, with fans unable to form heroes and relate to the sport without regular access.
"Asia has got two thirds of the world's population, 80 percent of the world's youth, but only 5.6 percent of the (world's) rugby playing population and of that 5.6 percent - or the whole population of Asia - there is almost no free to air rugby coverage," he said.
"So your normal person in India - who sees cricket on every screen every minute of every day and therefore there is a huge commercial value in cricket in India - has never seen a Super 15 rugby match on TV."
Gregory said that world governing body, the International Rugby Board, were trying to rectify that to ensure more rugby was accessible for free for fans around the world.
However, the Englishman, who has lived in Hong Kong for over 30 years, said rugby was playing catch up in the region.
"The IRB (International Rugby Board) are working, trying to get more stuff free to air, like Super 15 and the Six Nations, out into Asia in the next five years as part of the impact program," he said
"The last World Cup was the first time rugby coverage was ever free to air in China. The NBA, the NFL and all these kinds of franchises have been pumping this stuff into China for years which is why they have so many teams there.
"All those kind of things are not in place yet. It is no good just putting it on TV in 2019 because all the people watching won't know who anyone is, they need some heroes to look up to."
Despite his concerns, Gregory said it was still possible for an Asian side to join the Super Rugby competition in 2016 - but only if a wealthy benefactor came forward to bankroll what he predicted would be a $100 million in costs for five years.
Gregory warned, though, that a new franchise in Asia could not simply succeed by recruiting foreign talent.
"I hope it happens one day, having one in Asia at some stage would be brilliant, but it really depends on the mix of players," he said.
"You don't want to have an Asian franchise that has no Asian players. If you want to tap the local market in Japan, Singapore or Hong Kong or anywhere in Asia you are going to need a local hero.
"I don't think too many Asians are going to be interested in going along and pay for a ticket unless there are going to be some Asian players."
HKRFU chief executive Vern Reid, formally with Super Rugby side Western Force, ruled out Hong Kong from bidding this time around and questioned the attractiveness of the proposal.
Reid said he was in the dark about the chances of a wealthy backer stepping in but warned potential suitors that they were only like to see returns in the sport's strong holds of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Britain and France.
"Investing in rugby outside those main markets is almost a contradiction in terms, it is almost how much you pay and what warm feeling you get yourself for running this sort of play," the experienced Australian sports administrator told Reuters.
"Unless you get the benefit of the two home finals, and you get full house of spectators in a stadium of 25, 30,000, then the notion of a return on investment (of an Asian side in Super Rugby) is almost a misnomer." (Editing by Greg Stutchbury)