- New chief executive says he has mandate to expand global audiences
- Calls for “simplicity of narrative” in the calendar are in step with World Rugby
- Admits Six Nations could package its sponsorship rights more clearly and consistently
Ben Morel took over as chief executive of the Six Nations in November last year with a clear remit. The tournament’s recruitment committee left no doubt what was expected when it declared that the NBA’s former EMEA managing director had been appointed on the strength of his track record in growing international audiences for the basketball league.
“I think I’ve got a mandate for innovation and for propelling the championship to a new era, but I would say the fundamental piece of that will definitely be how do we expand our audience globally,” he tells SportBusiness ahead of his first tournament in charge.
Initially it was assumed this would consist of helping the Six Nations to capitalise on the first ever Rugby World Cup in Japan and building on the promising foundations for rugby in the USA. But the emerging news of World Rugby’s proposal to incorporate the Six Nations into a new “Nations Championship” will ask new questions of Morel’s globalising zeal.
Our interview took place ahead of the chief executive’s trip to Los Angeles, where he listened to the governing body’s plan to build a narrative into the global rugby calendar. The proposed reforms would reportedly turn the Six Nations into a qualifier event for a global league which would pit the leading European sides against their southern hemisphere peers, creating a more meaningful set of fixtures across the summer and autumn months. Controversially, the plans are rumoured to advocate promotion and relegation in the Six Nations to allow emerging nations a greater opportunity to play top-level rugby.
Morel emerged from the meeting describing it as “productive” but stressing that the proposals must not dilute the Six Nations. He added that the new league would “need to be a substantial improvement on the current set-up” to be sanctioned by the home unions that he represents.
There are signs in our earlier conversation that he could advocate more for the new league than one would expect. Though he is of course focused on the Six Nations, the former NBA executive espouses a doctrine of centralisation and simplification that seems to be in step with World Rugby.
Asked about the standalone Autumn Internationals currently played by the international unions – which would disappear if a Nations Championship were to go ahead – he makes similar arguments about the need for more continuity in the rugby calendar.
“I think that we can do a better job at presenting the opportunity to our broadcast partners, as well as to our fans,” he says. “There are too many games overlapping and I am a strong believer in simplicity of narrative and product definition.
“There are great storylines between the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations that we can actually present a better product to the marketplace.”
For Morel to lead any sort of commercial reform at the Six Nations – or indeed tie its future to a global league – he will have to unpick a complex web of overlapping commercial deals and persuade his stakeholders that such reforms would deliver them more money. To a large degree his job is to represent the interests of the six unions competing in the tournament and there is plenty that is beyond his control.
His ambition to have more of a say in how the media rights to the autumn internationals are packaged, for instance, could founder against the individual ambitions of the unions. In the current set-up, the only respect in which the competing nations could be said to work completely collectively is in the sale of media rights to the Six Nations.
The Six Nations Committee shares €133.6m ($153.2m) in annual media revenues between the nations based on a formula that rewards the best performing teams. The same nations sell the rights to their summer tours and autumn internationals individually.
The way the Six Nations’ sponsorship rights are sold presents an equally fragmented picture to prospective partners.
“There is a lot of coexistence between team inventory and league inventory,” Morel explains. “It’s something that, is valid across many sports, but it needs to be done in a very sort of clear way and consistent way,” he says. “I am always of the belief that if you have to spend more than ten seconds explaining something, then it probably could be simplified.”
Perhaps the worst example from the existing set-up is in the telecoms category, where the England team carry O2 as a shirt sponsor, Ireland partners with Vodafone and Scotland with BT – a situation that likely precludes the Six Nations ever signing a telco partner of its own.
The on-pitch inventory available to the title sponsor is also complicated by competing union agreements. Traditionally the tournament’s title sponsor has been offered 3D logos in the centre circle and end zones of the pitch, in addition to post-pad branding, but the French Rugby Federation’s individual agreement with Société Générale makes post pad and end-zone inventory unavailable in France, which provides a large segment of the tournament’s audience.
Guinness’ new six-year title partnership with the competition promises to cut through some of these issues, though only because of the brand’s pre-existing agreements with the British and Irish unions.
Although the deal includes substantial on-pitch and pitchside inventory, Morel thinks a partner of Guinness’ stature will help to prove that the championship can provide a more sophisticated sponsorship proposition than branding alone.
“Sponsorship has evolved and we need to evolve as well,” he says. “It’s now all about digital engagement, social engagement, community relations. There’s a lot of other things that we can provide to future sponsors or existing sponsors that go far beyond the pitch, which has been historically the focus of our offer.”
To this point he reveals the partnership with the drinks brand includes associate-level sponsorship of the Women’s Six Nations and that one of the Guinness’ objectives will be to promote the women’s game. His ambition for 2020 is to give the female championship its own identity alongside a new title sponsor.
“I believe that the women’s championship is about to arrive on the global stage in such a way that it will be a terrific opportunity for a sponsor to have a very positive message around women’s sport, around a great product, as well as an association to the Six Nations from that angle,” he says.
Morel refuses to be drawn on the Six Nation’s drawn-out search for a title sponsor, preferring to focus on what its first partnership with a consumer brand will do to grow the game in new markets.
“I won’t comment on whatever happened in the past, I’m moving forward, but when I look at the global remit of a brand like Guinness, about what they’re going to bring to the Six Nations, they’re going to be fantastic partners,” he says.
The growth markets the Six Nations would like to target are easy to discern in the way it packages its international rights.
After many cycles in which rights outside the competing nations were handed over to the Pitch International agency, the Six Nations Committee carved out USA and Canada out of the most recent deal, 2018 to 2021, to focus on wider exposure. The competition is now in the second year of a deal with NBC Universal, worth around €300,000 per year.
“I share a lot in common with NBC in the sense that they are trying to do with rugby what I was trying to do with basketball internationally for the NBA,” Morel says. “We understand each other very well on what needs to be done.”
His focus on the US is understandable when you consider the tournament’s over-reliance on competing nations for the largest share of its media revenues. International rights represented just 5.3 per cent of the global media-rights value of the competition in 2018.
World Rugby’s proposals for a global league could provide a solution to this imbalance. But for the Six Nations to yoke itself to the new competition, its stakeholders will have to be persuaded that it would generate greater international broadcast revenues by virtue of the wider spread of teams. Morel’s commitment to free-to-air broadcast deals in core markets is reported to be a sticking point for the plans. There is also the question of whether it would diminish many of the things that make the Six Nations special.
“The DNA of the Six Nations, as well as the commercial revenue that it brings to the unions, is all linked to the eyeballs we’re getting. We are a unique property, based on scarcity and meaningfulness of the games. It’s easy to access and watch, and that makes it a very valuable proposition.”
For all its quirks, the Six Nations remains a commercial success in its core markets, and Morel and his stakeholders won’t take any decision to tamper with it lightly.