International rugby referees have the difficult job of officiating one of the world’s most physical, technical, and fast-paced sports. With an increasing global audience across northern and southern hemispheres, more and more eyes are firmly fixated on this elite pool of match officials taking charge of RBS 6 Nations, Super 14, Pro 12 and European Champions Cup games. The pressure has never been higher on these individuals, nor has the exposure and presence of their sponsors.
Rugby Union has evolved considerably on both the international and domestic fronts in the past number of years. The game has taken enormous commercial strides with large sponsorship investments being made right across the globe. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a cluttered landscape of team and competition sponsors.
In saying that, one such platform, that we believe has not been leveraged to its full potential is sponsorship of the match officials. This platform has been dominated by an exclusive few in the past with long standing partnerships that continue to grow.
Whether in open play, at set pieces (scrums, lineouts.), or utilising a TMO’s (television match official) multiple angles, the match referee and their team of officials maintain a constant presence throughout each game. This presence not only remains on the pitch; Jaco Peyper making difficult decisions while officiating powerhouses New Zealand & Ireland, but also off the pitch; Nigel Owens racking up over 1 million views for his ‘this is not football’ YouTube clip.
Some will argue that match officials are the centre of attention for the wrong reasons; poor decisions, inconsistency, ‘he’s offside all game ref’, and so on, but the fact of the matter is that match officials will always be in the spot light in this ever-evolving sport. The team of 3 officials are the facilitators of this fast-paced game, and with law changes, amendments, and trials ongoing, all eyes and cameras look to the match officials for the blow of the whistle and wave of the arm. As a result, this makes the sponsorship of match officials on the international stage, and at every level of the game, a very attractive, unique and valuable property for brands.
Certainly, within the northern hemisphere, there have been two brands who have long associated themselves with match officials, while a third brand partnering with the revamped European Championship Cup has begun to make some noise. #respecttheref.
Emirates Airlines lead the way in World Rugby as main sponsors for the overarching governing body of the sport. Emirates manages to benefit from and leverage its association with World Rugby during all international competitions and series despite tournament rights and sponsor restrictions. Whether the 6 Nations, Rugby World Cup, Guinness Series, International friendlies or tours, Emirates World Rugby match officials are at the heart of the action on the pitch – and on the touchlines too in their ‘Fly Emirates’ kit!
‘Should have gone to Specsavers Ref’, a familiar comment that can be heard without fail at Pro 12 games and many domestic games these days. Official sponsor of match officials, Specsavers have long been associated with this competition and as a result, it would be difficult to imagine match officials sporting a different brand on their gear.
Tissot, Official Timekeeper of the European Championship Cup, this year took an innovative approach to their partnership with EPCR. Not only are their core values aligned with the competition and what it represents such as teamwork, respect, discipline, and a love of the sport, but they have now turned their sights to the hardest working team in the competition, match officials; specifically aimed at respect towards referees. “One of the most important and fundamental values of rugby is respect, it is an intricate part of our sport”, said Nigel Owens at the launch of the campaign. In an era of increasing lack of respect in the game, Tissot have taken the lead in tackling the issue.
These partnerships allow unique engagements with rugby’s global fan base. With a growing following around the sport, the availability of these partnerships will decrease while the cost will continue to increase. Deals already extended into the millions of euro’s and with Emirates contract due for renewal after the Rugby World Cup Japan 2019, the most prestigious sponsorship within rugby may become available.
In summary, it is clear the game is continually growing, the role of match officials is becoming more pivotal and the sponsors involved are receiving increased exposure from game to game. However, in saying that, it is clear that these sponsors still rely on mass exposure and do not leverage the opportunity to its full potential. Tissot have taken a step in the right direction running their social media campaigns around Nigel Owens but in general, it still lacks the same input that you would see from a team sponsor. Who is to say that in seasons to come, sponsorship of match officials will see a multitude of sponsors represented on their sleeves, shorts, socks, jerseys and even whistle. Why stop there, why not open sponsorship of yellow and red cards or the sinbin area. What is clear though is the interest and need from fans to get behind the scenes access of the game. The question is, will sponsors recognise an untapped opportunity to give fans access to their favourite referees both on and off the pitch or continue to rely on exposure through logo placement? With value increasing around these unique properties, is this certainly an untapped market for commercial sponsors.
One thing is for sure, I will be keeping a keen eye on the referee Wayne Barnes this evening as he takes charge of Ireland v Wales, try and count how many times he becomes the centre of attention!