Fringe sports increase in global popularity

An estimated 3,000 women play rugby in British Columbia, increasing its popularity and quickly becoming less of a fringe sport. Photo courtesy of B.C. Rugby Union

An estimated 3,000 women play rugby in British Columbia, increasing its popularity and quickly becoming less of a fringe sport. Photo courtesy of B.C. Rugby Union

When North Vancouver’s Anna Rice reached the round of 16 in female singles badminton at the 2008 Summer Olympics, she became the first North American ever to do so.

Badminton and rugby are sports that have remained largely under the radar in Vancouver and the rest of Canada despite their huge international profile and their long history in British Columbia.

While badminton is extremely popular internationally – it is the second most played sport in the world, behind only soccer – it has traditionally been just a fringe sport in Canada.

However, particularly in Vancouver and the rest of British Columbia, there are signs that this trend is changing. A key factor in the growing success of badminton and other former fringe sports is the increasing participation among all sections of the population, not just the cultures and people that traditionally play them.

Rice, a five-time Canadian national badminton champion and two-time Olympian, has seen first-hand the sport’s global popularity, especially in Asian countries such as China, India and Indonesia. The men’s singles badminton final had the second highest viewership of any event at the 2012 Olympics. However, Rice, who now serves as head coach of Badminton Vancouver, has also witnessed the growth of the sport among different communities in the city.

“With Vancouver being so multicultural and having such a strong Asian influence, it’s just a natural fit that we’re becoming one of the badminton hotbeds in North America,” says Rice. “But at Badminton Vancouver we really embrace diversity and try to welcome people from as many different backgrounds and actually use that as an appeal. You can meet people from all different walks of life and cultures and yet you’re all connecting through this sport.”

The growing number of badminton tournaments being played in Canada and scholarships being offered by Canadian universities are providing more options for those who wish to play the sport competitively. However, Rice emphasizes the benefits of badminton for everyone and believes that the sport’s accessibility is largely responsible for its growth. She cites in particular the number of young girls who may not participate in other sports but are drawn to badminton.

“It’s a less intimidating sport. Even if you don’t have amazing athletic skills, you can still be good at it in other ways. What’s so special about badminton is that you can enjoy it on so many levels. It’s one of the few sports where a five year old can go out and play with their grandparents,” says Rice.

Anna Rice (far right) instructs people of all backgrounds interested in badminton. Photo courtesy of Badminton Vancouver

Anna Rice (far right) instructs people of all backgrounds interested in badminton. Photo courtesy of Badminton Vancouver

While mainstream North American leagues and teams dominate sports coverage in the media, local amateur participation in sports has always received less attention. It may be this lack of media focus that limits public awareness of and participation in sports like badminton and rugby. Soccer, by far the most popular sport globally in terms of both participants and spectators, is the most played sport among Canadian children. However, it is only in recent years that soccer has gained significant traction among adult sport fans, helped by the Whitecaps’ move to MLS and the increased media exposure that has come with it.

Rugby has deep roots in the province: the British Columbia Rugby Union was established in 1889 and representative teams from Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo have competed for the McKechnie Cup since 1895.

Despite its history and global popularity, rugby has often been overlooked by athletes and spectators. However, the sport is becoming increasingly popular, due in large part to the massive number of high school rugby programs across the province. The B.C. Rugby Union estimates that there are currently more than 7,500 boys and 1,700 girls playing rugby in high schools across B.C.

The number of boys playing rugby makes it the second most popular team sport in B.C. high schools after basketball. However, according to Jeff Sauvé, chief executive officer of the B.C. Rugby Union, it is among girls that rugby is experiencing its most dramatic growth.

“There are more than 3,000 women playing rugby in B.C., and its popularity is helped by the fact that Canada’s national women’s team is in the top five in both sevens and fifteens [two variants of rugby],” says Sauvé.

The Canadian women’s team is a medal hopeful for rugby sevens, an event that will make its debut at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Sauvé believes that the team-first mentality of rugby is a factor in its increasing popularity among people of all cultures, sizes, and levels of experience.

“Rugby can be played by people of all body types, and it takes every skill set to make a rugby team,” says Sauvé.

He says that rugby has a position for everyone, as long as you are okay with how physical the sport is.

“You’ll appreciate the camaraderie, the team building and the confidence building that it brings,” says Sauvé.

For both badminton and rugby, as well as for many other sports that have huge global followings but have long been considered fringe sports in B.C., their increasing popularity can be attributed largely to their emphasis on accessibility and diversity. Both sports are increasing their participation and profile by tapping into all demographics and encouraging people of all ages and communities to try them.