EXCLUSIVE: Team GB Wheelchair Rugby CEO Jason Brisbane Aims To Raise Sport's Profile to Retain Paralympic Gold - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: Team GB Wheelchair Rugby CEO Jason Brisbane Aims To Raise Sport’s Profile to Retain Paralympic Gold

Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby are looking to retain their Paralympic Gold medals this Summer, as they head to Paris for the 2024 Games. Team GB achieved the gold status for the first time in their history at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, and are looking to become the first European nation to achieve the feat in back to back Games.

At the helm of the team is Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby CEO Jason Brisbane, who has been overseeing the team’s preparations ahead of the trip to France. In what would be a ‘history making’ accomplishment for Great Britain, Brisbane discussed how the team is eyeing up the challenge, and the incoming obstacles on the road to the 2024 Paralympics.

Image Credit: GBWR

“I think, you know, no European team has ever medalled (besides Great Britain). So for a European team to medal twice in a row is history making again. I think the landscape for wheelchair rugby has changed immensely over the last few years, we’ve been so much more closer in terms of competition.

“If you look at the last international competition we had last year, most games have been decided by one or two points. So the margins are really, really thin. You know, I think we’ve had some changes in our sports, since Tokyo we’ve been on a on a real journey, but I think we’re in a great place.

Jason Brisbane (Right), with Team GB Gold Medalist Jim Roberts MBE (Centre) and David Pond MBE (Left) – Image Credit David Pond.

“Now, I think the team’s on a real good trajectory, and especially, you know, with the Musholm Cup, Quad Nations in a few weeks and the Canada Cup, I think that’s going to give a great idea of where we match up right now versus the rest of the world. But again, you know, you want to peak at the right time, in August. I’ll always back the team because we’ve got some great individuals there. We’ve got a great squad and we’ve got a great chance to do something special again this year.”

The side has recently competed in Denmark in the Musholm Cup, which saw Team GB take on the hosts as well as the United States in three separate fixtures with either side. Great Britain achieved one win over both the USA and Denmark, yet suffered two defeats to either nation. This mixed bag has still been a starting point for Team GB, with the defeats only coming by the narrowest of margins in Denmark.

Up next for Team GB is the annual Quad Nations tournament, which sees Great Britain take on France, Japan and the United States over in Cardiff. The tournament gets underway in two weeks time, and runs from the 16th to the 18th of April. Speaking on the anticipation for the Quad Nations, Jason Brisbane discussed the importance of the competition, in figuring out where his side ranks on the road to the 2024 Paralympic Games.

This quartet of Quad Nations sides are regarded amongst the leading teams within wheelchair rugby, yet Brisbane recognised how there are also plenty of dangerous threats from the Southern Hemisphere. The CEO explained how due to the increased global growth of the game, numerous nations pose a genuine threat to Great Britains’ gold medal retention hopes, when the sporting world comes together in Paris this Summer.

“Well that would be Australia and Canada, they’ve recently just qualified for the Paralympics, and New Zealand as well. So those are another three top teams. I mean, if you think of those three teams that you just mentioned (Japan, France and the USA) and you add in Australia and Canada, and any one of those teams could win a world championship, or Paralympics.

“They are all top teams, so again, we’ve got to be great on the day, you know, and I think especially in the Paralympics, there’s really no easy games. So it’s going a really, really exciting Paralympics, and it’s really going to going to test people not just physically but mentally.”

Whilst the on-court action speaks for itself, GBWR have recently undergone some progression to broaden the reach of wheelchair rugby to a wider audience. The Paralympics brings in the most viewers, with many fans or players gaining their first impressions of the sport when the best nations compete every four years.

Brisbane and his team are pushing to have this interested maintained throughout the year, with the upcoming Quad Nations set to be streamed live for those who can’t attend the matches in Cardiff. The GBWR CEO explained how he has been working to raise the sport’s profile ahead of the Paralympics, with a revamped social media team creating the content for the fans to enjoy, no matter where they are in the world.

Mick Armstrong – Image Credit GBWR

“We’ve just appointed a new head of marketing, guy called Mick Armstrong. So he was initially our competition officer, fantastic background in marketing, and he’s now come on board to lead in all our channels, and he has been absolutely churning that content out.

“So that’s a big piece, and we’ve got quite a few projects that we’re trying to launch ahead of the Paralympics as well. We’re also speaking to some individual agencies and individuals about trying to create a real PR channel, and create some stories so that we can feed that out to the media.

“Just make sure we’re utilising all the eyeballs and the opportunity we have this year, because they again, there’s never this many eyes on para-sport outside of the Paralympics, so utilizing the next few months is a priority.”

Brisbane speaks from experience when he explains how the Paralympics lifts the audience for wheelchair rugby, having witnessed the growth of the sport since the 2012 London Games. First coming across wheelchair rugby as a spectator before pursuing a role within the organisation, the CEO of Team GB showcased just how much the sport has grown across the country, since the UK hosted the Paralympics some 12 years ago.

“I mean, if you go right back to probably around about 2012, you know, there was around about eight teams. So then, in some ways, nearly tripling growth since then. It’s huge. And a lot of that growth is because of the additional disciplines. We have wheelchair rugby fives (variation on the 4v4 sport), which is open to anyone with a physical disability.”

“Even in the last couple of years, I think, you know, broadly since 2022, We’ve seen participation go up by about 30 to 40% say 10%. It’s a steady trickle, but I think it’s, what we’ve also got to remember is, some of our clubs run on very small numbers as well, you know, Paralympic clubs as well, who’ve been around for a while, some of these clubs do struggle with numbers.”

As Brisbane discussed, a key area that has helped the exponential growth of the disability sport is the growth of wheelchair rugby ‘fives’. This variation on the classic four vs four format that is played at the Paralympics has many differences, most obviously being the additional two players on the court at any given time. But more importantly, the ‘fives’ version of wheelchair rugby does not follow the strict disciplines of disability classification, which enables more players to pick up the sport.

In traditional wheelchair rugby, players are given a graded discipline which correlates to their disability. The system scores from 0.5 to 4.0, with the players on the higher end of the scale have greater ball playing skills, whilst the players on the lower end have less manoeuvrability and hand-eye coordination due to the extent of their disability. A team can have a maximum on-court score of 8.0 at any given time, between the four on court players. Brisbane explained how the more lenient disciplines in wheelchair rugby fives, has helped the growth of the sport.

“Well, as I said, you know, wheelchair rugby fives allowed us to grow exponentially, and allowed us to be in far more far more many places, in and around the country. So again, to open up that, that funnel, especially for people that are eligible for the Paralympic discipline.

“I think it’s slowly taken off internationally as well, I know Australia have recently just announced that they’re going to be introducing wheelchair rugby fives, and then, you know, there’s countries in South America. So it’s slowly growing, and I think it’s, again, the more people that can pay this sport the better.

“I think for us, it’s definitely a key part of what we do. We’ll continue to drive that and ultimately, it’d be a great place to be for there to be an international pathway for fives, but I think that’s going to take a while, whilst the rest of the world catches up. So, now we’re going to look at creating as many opportunities to as we can for the domestic clubs, and for people to have some kind of pathway to excellence in wheelchair rugby fives, alongside the Paralympic discipline as well.”

In a previous interview for Ruck, we spoke with former Red Roses prop and Team GB Wheelchair Rugby ambassador Shaunagh Brown. The Harlequin highlighted the goals in place for increased spectators for wheelchair rugby, with Brisbane echoing the front-rower’s thoughts for more eyes on the sport in the year-round calendar. As Brisbane discussed, there are plentiful tournaments for Great Britain fans to watch and support, with the challenge coming in establishing solid broadcast deals and spreading the sport’s message to the world.

Image Credit: Jason Brisbane

“I mean, that’s really kind of underpins that vision of being a showcase disability sport, in the UK. We know people love watching this sport, so we need to create more opportunities for people to be able to come in and watch the sport. There’s going to be far more spectators that can watch the sport than probably can actively play the sport.

“So, for us, you know, how do we find better venues for our domestic leagues, which pretty much run all year round? How can we find better venues so that we can start bringing spectators to watch our domestic competition? But also, how can we then balance that out with having high quality elite competitions in great venues that we can build on year on year, which allows people to come in and witness the sport in the flesh.”

In terms of the broadcast deal that Brisbane is helping to nail down for the upcoming 2024 Quad Nations tournament, he added;

“We’re just in the last kind of bits of just contracts, and what have you. So we won’t necessarily be on terrestrial (television), but we’ll definitely be on either a streaming platform, or digital platforms as well. So yeah, really pleased with that.

“We’re really looking at building on that event year on year, you know, our, our visions is to showcase disabilities for you know, we know people love the sport. So, we’re really using this (2024 Quad Nations) event this year, which is actually going to be not just a great event in terms of the quality of countries that we’ve got, you know, Japan, USA, France, it’s going to be a really high quality competition.

“So, again, trying to continue that momentum from the 2023 European Championships we had last year. And, again, just keeping wheelchair rugby at the front of people’s mind and remind people how much is going on.”