Rugby pins hopes on the World Cup

Rugby Football Union (RFU) chief executive Francis Baron has spent the past ten months trying to halt the continual infighting that has dogged the growth of the sport since it turned professional. Now, in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup, he is ready to sell the game to the public.

Baron wants to expand the sport’s appeal from its core 25- to 45-year-old ABC1 men to attract a younger, 16- to 24-year-old market.

However, one of the main levers for changing this is out of Baron’s hands. The RFU has a five-year deal worth £87.5m with BSkyB which allows the TV company to exclusively show a large bulk of live club and national rugby played in the UK. Although the revenues were welcomed, the effect of that deal is to restrict the amount of rugby shown on terrestrial TV and so hamper the growth of its fan base. The deal is now generally considered as a mistake.

The England versus Scotland Five Nations game shown on Sky in February attracted 622,000 viewers. International rugby on the BBC regularly attracts 3.5 million viewers, and can reach as high as 6 million for crunch games.

This week Baron, former chief executive of First Choice Holidays, has launched the governing body’s first advertising campaign to boost the viewing figures, and the profile of the sport.

Advertising agency Lowe Howard-Spink has been retained for a £1m tactical campaign, which will promote four England warm-up games – against Canada, the US and two All Star games – in advance of the Rugby World Cup in October.

LH-S managing director Paul Hammersley says: “Part of the purpose of this campaign is to prove that advertising can work for the RFU – the idea is to put bums on seats.” The campaign will cover national press and radio.

However, LH-S will also carry out some more basic marketing for the RFU. For instance, it will build the body’s first database, so the RFU can begin to communicate regularly with what it claims are 10 million people in the UK who play the game, attend matches, or watch the sport on TV.

Baron also has a further £1.5m to spend on above-the-line advertising during and immediately after the Rugby World Cup.

The World Cup is the second global sports tournament to be held in the UK this year, and Baron does not want the event to become the missed opportunity that the Cricket World Cup is being labelled.

He says: “The Cricket World Cup didn’t invest enough in its marketing. As a result it got off to a quiet start, and had trouble recovering from that. We don’t want to miss the boat.”

One sponsorship agent connected with this year’s Cricket World Cup goes further: “Fundamental errors were made. The marketing was virtually non-existent. Stars like Aneka Rice and Caprice, who know nothing about the game, were rolled out to front the sport and were ridiculed by the press. Nothing shows the poor organisation of the competition more than the fact that the championship’s theme song by Dave Stewart was released on the day after the England team was knocked out of the tournament.”

Baron is now trying to bring order to a game that was almost out of control three years ago. When the game turned professional in 1996 the clubs rushed to import star players from abroad on huge salaries. However, on average they played to crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 in stadiums that hold up to 30,000 because, as M&C Saatchi Sponsorship chief executive Matthew Patten points out: “Mass support of rugby in this country is with the national sides not the clubs.”

Two things resulted. Wages were slashed, and owners, players, and administrators looked around for someone to blame. This led to a succession of RFU secretaries and chairmen passing through the organisation at an alarming rate. The decision was finally taken to appoint the body’s first chief executive and give him the power to redirect the sport.

The RFU has lost £13m since turning professional, yet its staff levels increased by 59 per cent. Baron has therefore slashed the organisation’s bureaucracy, cutting the number of committees from 56 to four. Over 30 staff have gone from the RFU’s Twickenham headquarters, including director of marketing Richard Field. Baron has taken on this role himself. He says: “I will do the job for another year before I look for a specialist.” He also expects the RFU to break even at the end of its financial year, next summer.

In order to attract a younger audience, the RFU will improve the quality of Twickenham, and may focus media attention on younger players. The Premier League will establish a central marketing fund for the domestic game which will promote the sport at club level.

Observers believe these moves are good for the sport. Patten says: “Rugby is a much stronger package commercially than cricket. It was able to get eight sponsors compared with cricket’s four for its World Cup. In addition, the national rugby side is quite strong so they should go far in the competition.”

He adds: “A lot of brands want to see rugby succeed. There are a lot of sponsors which want to get their hands on the sort of audience that rugby attracts.”

Baron’s task is to do what English Cricket Board chairman and former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin could not. To take a traditional British sport and breath new life into it for a young generation.

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