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Paul Smith

Director of City & Spectator Experience

As the Japan Rugby World Cup draws to an exciting finale we sat down with Paul Smith, the brains behind remarkable levels of fan engagement across global sporting events!

Four years ago, the concept of Japan facing off against South Africa for a spot in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals would’ve been scoffed at but following the aptly dubbed ‘Brighton Miracle’ and subsequent build-up to the current tournament, that is where the Brave Blossoms found themselves. This wasn’t a story that has just gripped a nation – the whole world has been tuning in.

While there has been a new endeavour about Japan on the rugby field, there has also been increased enthusiasm off it. The 2015 victory over the Springboks went a long way to igniting that, but what followed had to be carefully curated and harnessed in the right way, in order to make this year’s competition like nothing the sport had ever seen before. That job was taken on by Paul Smith, the tournament’s Director of City and Spectator Experience.

Despite his role, come Sunday morning – when Handré Pollard hoisted the kick-off high into the Tokyo sky – Paul was, like most of us, perched in front of his TV to watch the action unfold having not long returned from his latest three-week stint in Japan. Creating the world’s greatest celebration of rugby in a country where they don’t yet have a professional domestic league is no mean feat, but doing so from 6,000 miles away adds a new dimension to the challenge – Paul has spent the past two years consulting with the local organising committee, but was never on the ground for more than a few weeks at a time.

“Technology is great and allows you to do a lot of things, but there really is no substitute for getting out there, meeting the people and having these conversations face to face,”

“Technology is great and allows you to do a lot of things, but there really is no substitute for getting out there, meeting the people and having these conversations face to face,” he began explaining. “The biggest challenge is going out there, having lots of meetings and follow ups, and then ensuring that you keep the momentum going when you’re not there every day. Until they get used to how you work and vice versa, it’s quite difficult.

“The biggest challenge is going out there, having lots of meetings and follow ups, and then ensuring that you keep the momentum going when you’re not there every day. Until they get used to how you work and vice versa, it’s quite difficult.

“Once that familiarity becomes established then you can start to plan further ahead, outlining what needs to be done by the next time I went out to visit. It’s all about building those personal relationships and making sure people believe in what you’re telling them, making sure they feel the resonance and understand the relevance of what you’re asking them to do. Although we had constant contact, you can only get so far trying to build a relationship with someone over Skype, so I would fly over to Japan every few months.”

Paul has previous when it comes to World Cups, having fulfilled a similar role at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and also acting as a consultant on the recent Cricket World Cup, both of which were hosted in England and Wales. He also has experience working on international events following almost a decade at the International Tennis Federation, but Japan 2019 was a new kettle of fish. Different rules, legislations and cultural nuances all presented new hurdles to overcome.

In comparison to the UK, where stadiums are run as commercial operations, police forces are independent and privately owned third parties are regularly called upon, Japan proved to be, in many ways, the opposite. Everything from the sporting venues to law enforcement, transport hubs to stewarding are publicly owned and under the responsibility of local governance. Paul likened his approach to piecing a jigsaw together, using experiences from around the world to put together a new strategy for Japan.

“I’ve done tournaments in France, which is a little more like Japan, while the US is more similar to the UK, for example. I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world and have been involved in all these different approaches, but it goes back to the importance of getting out there to experience it first-hand. You can’t fully understand the methods and protocols of these locations unless you immerse yourself in it.”

“I’ve done tournaments in France, which is a little more like Japan, while the US is more similar to the UK, for example. I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world and have been involved in all these different approaches, but it goes back to the importance of getting out there to experience it first-hand. You can’t fully understand the methods and protocols of these locations unless you immerse yourself in it.”

But while the experience was new for Paul, there was also an element of changing the way in which sport is portrayed in Japan. In its current format, with the national sport baseball acting as the exception, sporting events are far from a spectacle. Fans arrive two hours prior to the start of the event, paying cash for their ticket on arrival, they go through security and eat their lunch in the stands, which they’ve brought in with them, with no sports presentation at all. The game starts, it plays out and you leave – that’s how things work at a Top League game, according to Paul.

The goal was to revolutionise and reinvigorate rugby as an experience, starting with the local organisation committee. Paul’s job was to get the people working on the tournament to start thinking about things that weren’t previously being considered – what happens when a fan arrives in the city for the first time? Will they know where to go? What will the atmosphere be like? Will they be able to access the information they need en route? By engaging with the fans at the earliest possible part of their journey, they are immediately immersed in the experience way before they even reach the venue.

“The very first thing I did was to get all the functional departments – about 100 people – in one room to run through a classic spectator journey, determining everything a fan would need upon arriving in a city for the very first time. We created the journey on paper so that the local organising committee would know what to expect and could put it into practice in each individual prefecture, creating a seamless experience across the country."

“The very first thing I did was to get all the functional departments – about 100 people – in one room to run through a classic spectator journey, determining everything a fan would need upon arriving in a city for the very first time. We created the journey on paper so that the local organising committee would know what to expect and could put it into practice in each individual prefecture, creating a seamless experience across the country"

“Then you add in fan zones, the giant art installations, sponsorship activations… you name it. We’ve created a spectacle that Japanese sport has never quite seen before, and its driven engagement levels through the roof which can only be positive for the sport’s reputation in Japan.

“The added bonus has been the team’s performance on the pitch. They may have fallen short against the Springboks but to have topped their pool was remarkable. That adds to the foundations that the tournament has created for Japan to really kick on and make this a lasting legacy. If the world of rugby welcomes Japan in the same the same way Japan has welcomed the world of rugby, then their progression will only continue on its current trajectory.”

 

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