UNIONPACK

As rugby union moves into a new era of professionalism, companies are bidding for a piece of the action. But can it compete with football – steeped in commercialism – to secure long-term financial supporters?

Rugby union has become a little more than packing up the rugby boots for a Saturday romp on the pitch followed by a few pints with the boys.

Having long avoided professionalism and turned a blind eye to “shamateurism”, the sport is now ready to embrace commercialism following a landmark decision earlier this summer.

Clubs, players and sponsors are lining up for their share of the action.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is understood to have signed a 1.3m deal with a sponsor for the English team. The identity of the company, rumoured to be Cellnet, is expected to be revealed soon.

Cellnet says it is in negotiations with the RFU and looking at a number of issues within the game before an announcement is made.

Rugby News editor Richard Bath says the sponsor is not keen to put its logo on the team jerseys – to avoid controversy – and has opted instead to place its name on the team’s training and leisure wear. However, it will not be long before logos and sponsorship start creeping onto British strips and into our homes through TV.

The Western Samoan and Fijian national teams have already sported their sponsors on the field. They “can’t afford not to”, says Bath.

In the month since the International Rugby Football Board announced that union is to become a fully professional game, Rob Andrews, England’s leading international points scorer, became the first significant transfer. Andrews has signed a 750,000, five-year contract with Newcastle Gosforth Club – based at the home of Newcastle United Football Club – to become director of rugby development and a player for the second division team from October.

He has become part of the sporting empire of businessman Sir John Hall – the man behind the Gateshead Metro Centre. Hall has ploughed millions of pounds into Newcastle United – and his interests in football, ice hockey and rugby are likely to be augmented with tennis, athletics and basketball.

Other such “sugar daddies”will come into the sport and buy up clubs and players, says Alun James, a spokesman for sponsorship consultancy Alan Pascoe Associates. This will put a lot of pressure on clubs that do not have this type of backing, he says.

Players will soon be scrambling to make the English side because squad members are to be offered 30,000 a year each – though this is substantially less than their Australian, New Zealand and South African counterparts, who are to receive as much as 100,000.

But those companies and individuals who want to become involved with union are scratching their heads and wondering how much it is all worth. The RFU has yet to come out with its marketing blueprint for the sport in its new era. In fact, the old traditionalism is still breezing around the halls of the RFU headquarters in Twickenham.

RFU marketing manager Richard Field says that it is too early to predict the marketing implications.

However, potential backers are approaching sports marketers and sponsorship consultancies, driven by the prospect of their name being associated with the newly professionalised sport. James says that a number of breweries and financial and insurance service companies are keen to find different ways of reaching union’s typical audience profile of ABC1 males.

“It’s a myth that agencies have sponsors queuing up at their doors. I’ve never known a sponsor to queue up, but the companies do want to talk,” says International Marketing Group vice president of marketing Julian Brand.

Brand, who was the commercial representative for the Rugby World Cup in South Africa this year, says rugby union will have to market and package itself to compete with more established professional sports for sponsorship.

“No one really knows how it is all going to work, the player’s money has got to come from somewhere. Clubs have got to create new sponsors and events for it,” he says.

Union has the difficult task of competing, not only with football, but also rugby league, which is in the throes of change as media heavyweights Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer do battle “down under” over the Super League.

Since 1991, rugby union has grown in popularity in the UK, helped by the success of the England team in reaching the final of the World Cup, only to be defeated by Australia, who went on to finish fourth in South Africa this year.

“The residual effect from the success of 1991 is that it is being marketed more effectively, it has good TV coverage and good blue-chip contracts,” says Brand. Sponsors have been backing teams for some time and paying money to them through trust funds.

Brand is adamant union will continue to grow financially and attract players to the code, regardless of its professionalism. “Obviously there are linkages to the success of the sport commercially and how much participants earn.

“Rugby union going professional, in allowing players to earn money, is not going to have a positive or a negative impact. I think money will flow in regardless. It’s an attractive sport to get into,” he says.

A proposal for a European club competition involving the 12 leading teams, playing in a round-robin competition, has generated a lot of interest in the commercial sector. But Brand warns there will be teething problems: “There are always growing pains. How the money is going to be divided up is the focus of a short-term conflict, with all the constituencies wanting a piece of the cake.”

It is these imminent conflicts that Brand says will almost certainly be blown up in the media. The sport has already shown its professional face in television advertising. Pizza Hut has decided the Rugby World Cup clash between New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu and England’s Tony Underwood was worthy of a TV campaign, which broke earlier this month.

Will Carling, while attracting a lot of unwanted publicity through his alleged relations with Princess Diana, was probably at the tail end of amateur rugby union advertising when he appeared in a non-rugby persona for a Quorn ad with his now estranged wife Julia last summer.

Now that professionalism is a reality, the danger is that the clubs and RFU will have different marketing strategies and proposals. Sacrificing the long-term benefits for the short-term gains would almost certainly be detrimental to the sport, says James.

Everyone involved in the code would agree that they do not want to see the sport make the same mistakes as others that have taken the professional path.

The mid-afternoon, two 40-minute halves of rugby could also be in jeopardy as TV companies throw their weight around. Some media commentators have speculated that TV channels will not be happy with the traditional union kick-off time and could split the game into four quarters of play, with extra ad breaks.

Rugby union has been unable to stave off the commercial reaper and players face a different game as they run from the locker room into the professional arena.

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