MasterCard Inc., a sponsor of next year's Rugby World Cup tournament in New Zealand, says research suggests the sport is growing in popularity and bringing in commerce.

In particular, the 2010 RBS Six Nations Championship, which concluded March 20, produced $621.2 million in all forms of payment for the six competing nations — France, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy, according to the research released last week.

"MasterCard has put its commitment behind rugby as we believe the sport has incredible ability to engage and connect with fans, many of whom are MasterCard cardholders and partners, across the globe," said Michael Robichaud, the Purchase, N.Y., company's vice president of global sponsorships.

"This research underscores our belief and demonstrates that rugby, while a significant sport today, continues to advance, develop and inspire more people in existing and new markets around the world."

For the study, MasterCard commissioned the Centre for the International Business of Sport at Coventry University in England to develop a report that examines the economic impact of the 2010 RBS Six Nations Championship and associated demographic trends.

The researchers compared the tournament with other major sporting events, with particular reference to analysis of attendance, television audience, visitor spending and other economic indicators.

"This study provides us with unique insights into this fan base, and includes purchase behaviors and travel patterns around major tournaments," Robichaud said.

In April 2008, MasterCard's biggest rival, Visa Inc., dropped the Rugby World Cup, which it had sponsored since 1995.

The San Francisco company "decided that it was time to let it go because the returns were not going to be there, given the limited number of countries," Antonio Lucio, Visa's global chief marketing officer, told American Banker later that year.

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