Capitalising on Japan – a crucial 12 months ahead for the RFU

Luke Wilson, head of partnerships at Pitch Marketing Group

When Warren Gatland slyly observed last week that England may have played their final a week early against the mighty All Blacks, Eddie Jones replied, in typical style, by reminding the Welsh coach to enjoy his teams’ third-place play-off.

In the cold light of Saturday’s defeat to the Springboks, even England’s terrier-like coach had to concede that maybe Gatland had a point. But while his team didn’t quite manage to take the extra-step required to lift the Webb-Ellis trophy, the effect of that famous victory over the All Blacks could still provide a significant platform for future success on and off the pitch, that shouldn’t be underestimated.

English sport has been riding the crest of a wave lately, and beating the All Blacks, arguably the biggest brand in Rugby and long-famed for having more than an aura of the invincible about them, added to a growing sense of belief that the English can be up there with the best in the World. A football World Cup semi-final, a Cricket World Cup win, and a Rugby World Cup final appearance; all in the space of 18 months, have created a sense that the days of English sports stars flopping on the biggest stages might finally have passed.

While the win remained elusive, the exposure of simply making the final itself should still hold great value for the RFU. The final had a peak audience of 12.8 million on Saturday, making it the second-highest UK TV audience of the year. This comes in addition to a peak audience of 10 million for the semi-final, meaning the England team were beamed into more households than any Six Nations match could ever reach. The clash with Wales in February for example, only reached a peak of 8.9 million viewers despite a much tighter score-line and a more audience-friendly 4:45pm kick off.

It’s precisely this exposure that explains why Eddie Jones’ budgets have remained ring-fenced, while the RFU has endured a difficult 18-months financially. Increasing salaries for England internationals, and a £220m agreement with the Premiership clubs, led to a tightening of purse strings, with net losses posted in each of the past six-years, excluding the financial ‘bump’ the 2015 home tournament provided. As a result, sixty-four redundancies followed in 2018, with over half at the community level, leaving volunteers to fill in the gaps left behind. And when the £26m Surplus from RWC 2015, earmarked for grassroots projects such as building artificial pitches, was also pulled, there was an even deeper impact on the community game.

While England’s run to the final exceeded the performance target of making the semi-finals, from a commercial point of view, there is no doubt winning the tournament could have fully vindicated the union’s decision to prioritise the the senior game over grassroots. It would have kept the media spotlight on English Rugby for longer, extending the feel-good story the nation has been desperate for, in the midst of years of increasingly divisive Brexit squabbles.

Although off-field success are intrinsically linked, such a heavy focus on success in Japan did feel like a gamble. Rugby’s values and sense of community are a source of great pride to the sport, and they’re also a great narrative for sponsors to align with. Mitsubishi’s activation programme for example, is built around rewarding the support of local volunteers. So, a priority now for the RFU must be re-focusing on its longer-term aims of turning around the recent downturn in participation (20,000 less between 2016 to 2018) and returning some much-needed investment to the amateur game.

A final win would have given the RFU a boost in their attempts to reverse the decline and could have also assisted their efforts to renew and attract new commercial Partnerships. With all the eggs in Eddie’s basket cracking under the weight of the Springbok pack, the job may have got a little tougher for the sales team at Twickenham.

Aside from a bumper deal with Umbro, lined up to take over when the agreement with the incumbent kit partner Canterbury expires after the Six Nations, there has been a distinct lack of  any other new sponsorships flying in, apart from (ironically) a deal with British Airways. But with branding on the roof of Twickenham – conveniently situated on the Heathrow flightpath – a key part of the deal, you could be forgiven for viewing it more as a marriage of convenience than a ringing endorsement of the RFU’s sales strategy.

So without the win the English craved, what now?

There will be enviable eyes cast towards Wembley, where the RFU’s counterparts at the FA have been successfully building a sense of pride in the England men’s and women’s teams. England aren’t world, or even European Champions, but there is a new-found sense of optimism and togetherness emanating from Wembley that has undoubtedly attracted fresh commercial interest, and a number of new deals in the past year. While this started with an U20 World Cup win, then the best senior performance at a major tournament in years in Russia, there is also a broader pragmatism and flexibility to the structuring of commercial deals at the FA, which has attracted a wider range of brands across more diverse categories. Deals with PayPal and Pokémon, supporting Grassroots Football and Futsal respectively, are evidence of this.

In Rugby meanwhile, a game which has never had the unified, global reach of football, there is still broad disagreement around how best to develop the international game. World Rugby tried, and ultimately failed, to bring in the Nations Championship while the Six Nations were busy eyeing a future investment from the CVC equity fund. If that ultimately leads, as some believe, to the tournament coming off free-to-air TV when the current deal expires in two-years, then serious consideration should be given to the damage that could be done to the visibility, participation numbers and ultimately commercial allure of rugby in England.

Champions League sponsors, like Heineken, have criticised Uefa for doing the same with their flagship European football tournament, but that is in a sport that is able to command huge sums of broadcast investment from in excess of 70 markets globally. By allowing the Six Nations to pass up an opportunity to attract more global eyeballs to the game, and the extra commercial income and growth it could have attracted in the long-term, the RFU has potentially scuppered the development of its own commercial proposition, to maintain the status quo now.

Undoubtedly, the run to the final in Japan has re-ignited national interest in the England team, so finding a way to maintain on-field results, without compromising grass-roots investment, is vital if the sport is to avoid stagnating. The recent efforts made to professionalise the women’s game are a welcome attempt to broaden rugby’s appeal, and ensure the sport is viewed as a viable investment for brands looking to align with a modern, progressive and inclusive sport. But the RFU needs to ensure it takes advantage of the feel-good factor around England now, utilising it as a platform to drive future commercial success, and ultimately build a proposition for brands that rests on something more tangible than just a logo on a roof.

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