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An Unsporting Decision

Owen Evans looks at the rationale behind UK telecoms operator BT’s multi-million pound naming rights deal with the home of Scottish rugby, Murrayfield.

With a trophy cabinet boasting Six Nations wooden spoons rather than Rugby World Cups, at first glance BT’s four-year, £20 million multi-faceted partnership with the SRU (Scottish Rugby Union) last month seemed curious to say the least.

While the deal will see BT’s money reinvested into four new academies, Scotland’s rugby sevens team and the country’s club league and cup competitions, the biggest talking point was the telecoms giant becoming naming rights sponsor of the iconic Murrayfield stadium, home to the national side.

In July 2013, BT signed a deal with the SRU for BT Sport, its pay-TV channel rival to BSkyB in the UK, to sponsor the shirts of Scottish teams Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby.

 

The SRU, which is reported to have debts of £11 million, told SportBusiness International that it had been looking for a naming partner for Murrayfield since the beginning of 2012. According to Dominic McKay, the SRU’s all-encompassing director of commercial operations, communications and public affairs, critical to any deal was the new partner sharing its name with Murrayfield. He said BT “recognised the importance of that from day one”.

“Our conversations with BT on this go all the way back to November 2012. I guess the first development was getting BT Sport on Glasgow’s shirts, and then we arrived at our biggest partnership to date,” he said.

It appears from the outside to be a win-win situation for the SRU. Its debts are potentially wiped out in one deal, money to improve the bottom end of the game, and a title sponsor for its home of rugby that is unlikely to irk its supporters, or in reality change them from still simply referring to the venue as Murrayfield.

Less obvious, however, is why BT was motivated to invest in a national side that has less Six Nations wooden spoons than only Italy. Scotland has also only reached the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup once, in 1991, so international brand exposure is not what it could be compared to other national sides.

Nevertheless, BT’s real motivation appears to be centred around non-sporting reasons: supporting the brand outside its headquarters in London is currently one of BT’s key sponsorship objectives, according to Richard Young, commercial director for BT.

“We’re about the future, so we don’t judge what we do on the past,” he told SportBusiness International. “If you look at what happened this year, you’ve got Glasgow Warriors in the final of the RaboDirect Pro12. We are also really excited about what Scottish rugby is planning in terms of academies – we look to build at a grassroots level as well.

“If all our endorsements were about brand exposure then we would only concentrate on a few hardcore teams and sports. For us, it is far bigger than that. We have to be confident that the partners we are working with have similar values than the ones we do.

“Also, if you look at Scotland and what we are doing there at the moment, we are investing massively in fibre-optic broadband and rolling that out. We probably have about six or seven thousand employees in the country.

“So, actually, it is more important to us that we reach out to our employees, and Scottish rugby is very popular throughout the country. Rugby is really something that brings Scotland together, and it is also a lot less tribal than other sports, so we’re really comfortable with what we’re doing here.”

Wider Issues

In addition to BT’s deals with Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby, BT Sport also adorns the shirts of three Welsh teams (Scarlets, Newport Gwent Dragons and Ospreys). BT Sport also has a naming rights deal for the home ground of Cardiff Blues’ Cardiff Arms Park.

“The BT presence in Scotland goes far beyond just our flagship product in BT Sport,” adds Young. “If you look beyond that, we also provide telephony in the country, broadband, a lot of B2B services and global services through work with the government and local services.

“What BT does in Scotland is multi-faceted and sport is only one part of that, but it helps bind it all together.”

An interesting side story to the sponsorship deal could come out of BT’s ongoing competition with BSkyB, and the fact that in the UK, the Six Nations is broadcast on public-service broadcaster the BBC. In Brazil, media giant Globo is known for a policy that sees commentators and pundits banned from referring to a brand if it is the naming rights partner of a stadium, or in some cases, an entire sports team.

So is BT concerned that TV rivalry could damage the brand exposure of its new partnership?

“Ultimately, when the branding is present, there will be limitations to what [rival broadcasters] can do,” says Young. “It is not as if this is the first stadium to get a naming sponsor, and there is never an issue.

“We think broadcasters will be professional about this and respectful to the wishes of the SRU by using the correct brand, BT Murrayfield.”

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