What next for Full Contact rugby?

With the final act of the men’s Guinness Six Nations having drawn to a close on a thrilling Super Saturday, it isn’t just no-arms tackles that have left us speechless. Entertainment for the rugby fan this year came in many forms; long, medium and short form content were available in the palms of our hands, and that’s just the way we like it. But how important was that mix in the universal attempt to bring in new fans and grow the game?

A week before the 2024 tournament kicked off, Netflix released the much-anticipated Full Contact docuseries covering 2023’s Championship.
Dubbed rugby’s version of Drive to Survive – aptly so with the same production company involved – the weight of expectation on the series was heavier than any front-row combination. And in the modern game, that’s heavier than ever before.
As a sports agency working in rugby day in, day out, delivering content across Premiership Rugby and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) competitions, we’ve been watching the narrative very closely. We’ve observed with interest how the series has been not only received, but also launched, which tools of the trade have been successful, and how some of the storytelling that we know works so well has been experimented with.


The state of play

The context in which this series landed is a challenging one for rugby. After the consequences of the Covid pandemic caused chaos in club rugby, four professional sides in England went into administration. Attendances were falling, there was an inherently ageing demographic, and the players’ potential to promote themselves was hamstrung by a game ‘played by gentlemen’ that are bred on extreme humility. Not to mention the conceptual dichotomy of marketing the excitement of a brutally physical game while advocating player safety amid concussion court cases and fears of discouraging the next generation of players.

So the sport desperately needed something to revive interest, particularly among the younger demographic to secure the future of rugby fandom.

Step in the biggest streaming platform in the world.

The “Drive to Survive effect” has been well documented, being significantly responsible for F1’s 28 per cent US ratings increase and 10 per cent global fanbase growth, with the average fan age shifting from 36 to 32 in the last five years and female viewership doubling. But questions abound whether the same formula could be applied to rugby.

The most effective tool the F1 series used to enable fans to connect with the sport was by humanising the characters involved, and that’s exactly what Full Contact emulates.


Personality narratives

Focusing on the storytelling aspect, the series taps into the emotive backgrounds of the fiercest-looking stars in the game, revealing their personal struggles off the pitch as well as the challenges they face when crossing the line onto the battlefield. The players’ personalities shine through, creating a human connection with the audience alongside heroising them.

But just as quickly as you start getting to understand what these makes these complex beasts tick, the narrative moves on.

Having to cover six teams across five rounds with multiple storylines and main characters means the attempts at delving deeper feel superficial. The order of the episodes flitting back and forth between rounds, without giving context to what the Championship actually is or how it works in the first place, means the storytelling, at times, lacked real impact. When the target audience is explicitly new fans that may not necessarily even know how the game of rugby works, let alone the history and structure of the tournament, it’s not conducive to mass growth in interest.

And while the drama of the sport is clear to see with the cinematic match highlights and glossy slow-motion action shots, sometimes it feels contrived and overstated.

The timing of the release may have hindered the impact too, with a handful of the main stars of the show not actually playing in this year’s Championship and a significant narrative throughout being the then upcoming Rugby World Cup, which upon release was firmly in the rear-view mirror.

Yet the initial viewing figures were strong, ending its first week on Netflix as one of the top three most-viewed programmes on the platform. Furthermore, it’s been commissioned for a second season, the true sign of initial success. So we took a look at how the social marketing may have impacted this.


Social-first, short-form marketing

Despite the hits and misses in the Netflix series, it’s really important to consider the documentary as part of a broader ecosystem of messages and access points for fans.

The key to driving initial engagement? Social media marketing. The teasers and promotional material were well executed, such as Six Nations channels asking fans what the name of the series should be a few months before, then announcing the title and release date in December, both in subtle yet engaging ways. They dropped the official trailer a week before release, with all nations, leagues and relevant clubs given the video to post on their own channels and collaborating with Six Nations on Instagram. The who’s who of rugby were all invited to the premiere in London, including the biggest media outlets on social.

Podcasts were recorded live, behind-the-scenes content was captured by everyone, and interviews done with all the stars. This provided a barrage of social content for the whole industry, meaning feeds were bursting with hype on the eve of the release.

Once live on Netflix, Six Nations created memes of the best moments, released individual snippets, and posted multiple engagement-driving social pieces encouraging fans to comment. Again this was all co-ordinated with the starring players, unions, leagues and clubs, collaborating on all content to fill fans’ streams in the most effective way.
This social-first approach to marketing the series specifically targeted the younger demographic that consume the majority of their content on these platforms, with best-practice techniques and distribution strategy. This is what works for us in the domestic game, and where we see the most growth potential for clients like Premiership Rugby.


With the second series officially confirmed on the eve of the final round, the challenge will be to dig deeper: more storytelling to reveal the characters that resonate; more authenticity to provide human connection; more honesty about the controversies in the game; more of the players’ voices; more clarity in the structure splitting it episodically with round-by-round context.

It remains to be seen whether the series will have the desired effect on long-term interest growth for the sport – pick up for Drive to Survive was similarly slow before snowballing after a few series. And what will be the overwhelming narrative of the Championship which is the sporting backdrop to appreciate player personalities? No Grand Slam for Ireland to celebrate in a raucous Dublin but thrilling sport and matches in the balance until the final whistle, despite perhaps a lack of the quality overall and fewer wow moments in comparison with previous years. Dramatic finales, contentious refereeing calls and new player rivalries are rich narratives for Full Contact to explore while the Championship is still fresh in the public consciousness. And we want to see it in all its glory. Memes and all.