This weekend, the Toyota Cheetahs from South Africa feature in the opening night of the season of the newly expanded Guinness Pro14 competition. They travel to Belfast to play Ulster in The Kingspan Stadium. With plenty to look forward to for the season ahead we look at rugby’s journey and its efforts to become a mainstream sponsorship option for brands and marketers.
It is just over 20 years since rugby union turned professional and in many ways the sport has been on an incredibly positive journey in that time, growing in numbers of fans, sponsors and in geographic spread. At the same time, there has been considerable growth in popularity of sponsorship as a powerful marketing tool. Sponsorship investment is increasing and premium properties are in short supply.
Commercially speaking rugby is still playing catch up but it doesn’t have the luxury of time to get it right. Commercial success through sponsorship is not determined by success on the field alone but by the maturity of the markets you are operating in and whether brands perceive you as a sustainable and credible option.
So, what can rugby do to grow its popularity specifically with marketers and brands?
- Compete head on with the best
Across Europe, football is dominant and football clubs are global powerhouses. In the Premier League sponsorship income from the shirt deals of the top 5 or 6 clubs’ alone (approx. £200M) might not be far off rugby’s combined sponsorship income globally. The professionalism and maturity of their sponsorship approach is dazzling, so too is their approach to marketing their brands. On these shores rugby and its varied offerings compete with the GAA, an amateur sport run incredibly professionally from a commercial perspective and powerfully marketed. They have made a success of a multi sponsor model and manage a multitude of brand relationships many of whom have recently renewed long standing partnerships.
In Ireland, the Irish Rugby Team and the IRFU compete very well and have an enviable list of supporting brands. The provinces must do more to convince on their fan numbers but marketing is something they are reluctant to invest in given commercial pressures. The recent appointment of Manchester United’s Tom Hill to World Rugby as Chief Commercial Officer is a confident statement of intent. It speaks to the market that the organisation is serious about maximising the potential in rugby’s commercial appeal.
- Shed its image as a business marketing play
To date there is still no confirmed title sponsor for the biggest rugby tournament in the world – the Six Nations. David Wheldon of RBS said of the groups’ decision to end its relationship with the Six Nations that the group was “realigning our sponsorship strategy to our customer facing brands, so we feel the time is right to look for alternative sponsorship assets that better fit with our brand strategy.” This gives the impression that the Six Nations is not a broad enough partnership option for consumer facing brands. Yet audience data in Ireland would not support this. A quick look at TV audience profiles of Ireland’s Six Nations game against England versus the All Ireland Football final, shows no demonstrable difference in key sub demographics. If anything it shows strength in the audiences which brands chase, younger and slightly more affluent.
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The RBS relationship with the Six Nations lasted 15 years, which to be fair, in rugby’s professional context is remarkably long. Quite simply the longer the partnerships can be in rugby the better, as partner loyalty is a badge of success and long-term partnerships are, in themselves, viewed as proof of sponsor effectiveness. Long term relationships are common place in the GAA with deals like Allianz and AIB spanning 25 plus years.
- Understanding its audience and its impact
In many ways rugby is more in the spot light than ever and has a commercial imperative to perform in line with its growing popularity. Rugby needs to be confident and stand over its numbers. It needs more proof of its role in return on investment for sponsors and commercial partners. It has for too long relied on personal relationships and its strong appeal to high end audiences and key business decision makers. It must go further than ever to build long term success stories with brands and invest in marketing leading research and data analytics.
Livewire’s own research into the impact of Six Nations sponsorship and brands associated with the teams and tournament, showed conclusive evidence of effectiveness (Irish data only). Brands associated with the tournament saw an uplift in key metrics such as propensity to purchase and brand advocacy with those aware of tournament sponsors.
- Innovate: The Pro14 becoming a credible option
From relatively humble beginnings the Pro14 is now a robust product. It supplied 21 players to the 2017 British & Irish Lions Squad. The 2017 final broke many championship records including attendance (44,558), peak TV viewership (637,000 – despite overlapping with an FA Cup Final) and tries scored (9). It should be shouting these numbers from the rooftops.
The Guinness Pro14 should be an increasingly attractive proposition for potential sponsors this season. Firstly, it provides a brand with a sustainable communications platform from September right through to May. Secondly, it’s a rugby brand with ambition and showing growth in key numbers but has a realistic price tag for brands who believe in its potential. The added attraction for Irish based brands will be the news that the final returns to the Aviva Stadium on May 26th 2018. There has been much made of its recent expansion but I for one, applaud the bravery and will look with great interest at the audience numbers it delivers