Embattled RFU tries to lift game’s appeal

Five years after turning pro, English rugby is mired by infighting. How will commercial director Paul Vaughan find a way through?

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is relying on its newly appointed commercial director to boost the game’s standing and fill its coffers.

But the RFU could be hoping for the impossible from Paul Vaughan, executive vice-president of sports marketing agency Octagon Marketing, who is due to become RFU commercial director in February: his appointment comes amid some of the biggest rows in English rugby history. If Vaughan thinks his new job will allow him to enjoy the game “without the bruises”, he might like to think again.

Earlier this month, former England captain Rob Andrew finally left the RFU’s Club England Committee following a 14-month struggle to get his eponymously-titled plan for the game’s development implemented in the face of countless rows with Tom Walkinshaw (chairman of EFDR and owner of Gloucester) over the future of rugby.

That Andrew blames the game’s unwieldy system of management for the inability to find a coherent plan bodes badly for Vaughan.

The RFU says Vaughan’s position “is a further step in creating a strong professional management team to deliver on our strategic objectives over the next eight years.”

The game turned professional five years ago is now at an impasse. In that time, the RFU has struggled with sponsorship deals, structural changes to the league and infighting with the clubs. How will Vaughan be able to create a coherent brand, let alone promote it and make it profitable?

Vaughan has done his fair share of rugby deals: he was behind the Lloyds TSB’s sponsorship of the Six Nations Championship, Zurich Financial Services’ sponsorship of the Premiership and is putting together a commercial package for the British Lions.

His primary job will be to create a brand people can identify with. He says: “There are a number of approaches. New Zealand developed the All Blacks as a shop window. The England team has to be the window of the game, not the RFU.”

He will also take responsibility for generating revenue, marketing and sales activities, including sponsorship, merchandising and the RFU website. “The future of the sport depends on getting kids involved and keeping them there,” he says. “The RFU is a big business, but in real terms, it needs someone to come in and look after the commercial side of the business,” adds Vaughan.

After three years of recording losses, the RFU recently announced a &£14.5m profit for last season. Operating profits of &£5.6m were up 59 per cent and 23 per cent up on revenues at &£32m. But some sports industry insiders believe the RFU has taken too long to recognise the need for a commercial director.

M&C Saatchi Sponsorship chief executive Matthew Patten says the RFU has too many parties to serve and all the conflicts so far have stemmed from commercial issues.

Patten believes although the sport is among the top five played and supported in the UK, the RFU has a difficult branding problem, firstly because of the confusion between Rugby Union and Rugby League, and secondly because, like cricket, the international game is more popular than the club level.

Tim Crow, new business manager of sports agency Karen Earl, says the RFU’s problem is that it turned professional “overnight”, whereas the southern hemisphere unions had been run “as professional” before making the move officially: “It should have given itself a year’s grace, and let itself in slowly,” he says.

Crow says costs incurred with suddenly having to pay players salaries has hurt most clubs, and the &£87.5m BSkyB five-year deal to show club and international matches was also a mistake – “too long and for not enough money”.

He believes Vaughan will have a tough job if the RFU doesn’t manage to settle its differences with the clubs.

Vaughan could look to other examples to make rugby a mass-market game. South Africa markets the game so the traditional audience is satisfied and other products, such as the Super 12 League, are aimed at younger people.

Six months ago, the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) appointed former Coca-Cola global brand manager Phil Anderton to the new post of marketing and commercial director.

Since his arrival, attendance has trebled for the internationals, a &£100,000 TV campaign has been launched and a major TV deal with an as yet unnamed terrestrial station has been signed.

Vaughan is sure of one thing: “It will be about how we can take the game to the public, not about the public coming to the game.”

But if Andrew cannot find a way through the mire, how will Vaughan fare? He could be in for a bruising experience.

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