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Can rugby match soccer's popularity?

Rugby has the potential to rival soccer as an international sport as it returns to the Olympics this year for the first time since 1924, according to a new HSBC report.

By 2026, HSBC predicts the number of global rugby players to hit 15 million, nearly double the current 7.6 million, as 150 countries embrace the rough-and-tumble sport.

While that's still well off the global reach of football, or soccer, which boasts 270 million active players, according to The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), rugby's penetration into new markets could make it a viable contender to the beautiful game, HSBC said.

The bank has been a long-time sponsor of the World Rugby Sevens Series, which descends upon Hong Kong this weekend.

Noticeably, HSBC predicts women will represent 40 percent of worldwide rugby players by 2026.

25-30 percent of the 7.6 million global players are already women, Brett Gosper, chief executive of World Rugby, the sport's international governing body, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Friday.

HSBC

Leading rugby's ascent will be the sevens, a variant of the game in which teams are made up of 7 players instead of the traditional 15 and play shorter matches. Conceived by a Scottish butcher in 1883, the sevens is widely considered a more accessible form of rugby and will be played at the 2016 Rio Olympics, an event that HSBC calls crucial to rugby's future as a global sport.

More than 100 countries have already embraced the sevens and it's currently the fastest-growing women's sport in the U.S., the report said.

HSBC predicts countries will start taking rugby more seriously following its long-anticipated Olympic inclusion [announced in 2009], with funding and government support set to increase as well as the expected creation of new national competitions between clubs.

"We're already seeing evidence of this. After the Olympic decision was taken, China put together a fulltime professional women's sevens team, which has performed creditably since," the bank said.

But the initial benefits from inclusion in the Olympics will likely be seen in the development and participation of the sport rather than spectator numbers, HSBC warned.

Members of Hong Kong's rugby team at a Hong Kong Rugby Sevens 'kick off' event on April 7, 2016
Anthony Kwan - Getty Images
Members of Hong Kong's rugby team at a Hong Kong Rugby Sevens 'kick off' event on April 7, 2016

The number of global players has already doubled in less than a decade, supported by a record $492 million of funding since 2009 by institutions including the World Rugby Development Program, HSBC notes. Moreover, the number of worldwide member unions worldwide has grown by a third, from 90 to 120, with 7.6 million players globally.

The spread of sevens in developing countries will likely guarantee rugby's status as one of the world's most popular sports, the report noted.

"In Pakistan, to take one example, participation figures more than doubled in 2011 alone. In Africa, growth has been driven by a surge of young participants; according to research over 80 percent of the continent's players are under 20 years old."

The development of national sevens tournaments will be key to nurturing talent of players and coaches as well as increasing the quality of the sport, HSBC said.

"Germany, Brazil, China aren't countries traditionally associated with rugby but they've now opened up. We're also seeing lots of growth in Asia, such as India," said World Rugby's Gosper.

Despite the upward momentum surrounding the sport, plenty of challenges still lie ahead.

"Careful management will be needed to develop the two forms of the game in parallel. Tensions inevitably arise when a core form of the game (fifteens) generates the money that then finances a rapid expansion of another form, such as sevens."

These tensions are perhaps best reflected by Twenty20 cricket, the short-form of a game that demands a significant time commitment from spectators, the report stated. While Twenty20 has popularized cricket, it's also undermined the technical skills required to play the traditional long-form game and diminished the latter's attractiveness to audiences, HSBC explained.

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