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James Thompson | How can brands activate with no rugby fans in the stands?

James Thompson, senior account manager at Cake, looks at creative ways rugby union's sponsors can activate and leverage their partnerships as the sport prepares to return behind closed doors.

While professional rugby in England looks to return in mid-August and give us something to talk about other than a new global calendar or ongoing salary cap issues, there remains the intriguing question of how rugby will look without fans.

We’ve already seen football adopt crowd noise, cardboard cut outs of fans and increased branding for sponsors but for rugby there is a need to really integrate the fans into the product more if possible.

As a game still in its infancy as a professional sport and broadcast deals that pale in comparison to its Premier League counterparts, rugby clubs are still relatively reliant on matchday revenue, so keeping fans and sponsors engaged so they come back is vital.

James Thompson

Rugby has always been on the forefront from a UK broadcast perspective, with mid-match interviews from directors of rugby and cameras allowed in the changing room too, giving viewers access a football fan can only dream of.

But why stop there? Surely, now is the time to open this up further and really enhance a viewer’s experience moving forward?

Taking inspiration from other sports and entertainment, rugby rights-holders and their sponsors should look to embrace the chance to be creative and engage with their audiences in new and unique ways.

Pre & post-match entertainment

Many large-scale sporting events have embraced the need to provide some form of pre-match or even half-time entertainment. While the Super Bowl is perhaps the pinnacle of the two-worlds colliding, on a much smaller scale most Premiership Rugby clubs provide some sort of live band in the bars at games.

More recently, we’ve seen music artists get creative with how they connect with their audiences in lockdown. Whether it be an impromptu Instagram Live concert from the likes of Chris Martin or John Legend to Travis Scott and Marshmello performing live on the popular game, Fortnite, there are opportunities to collaborate.

Harlequins, host of the annual Big Game, usually try and secure a headline act to perform at half-time and help boost ticket sales, but what’s stopping them from looking to create a similar experience for those at home watching the matches moving forward?

Embracing the culture

While live music and pre-match entertainment has become a big part of the matchday experience, another significant factor is the ability to enjoy a beer (responsibly) during the game.

The likes of Heineken and Guinness have a long, storied relationship with the sport and while there may not be able to sell pints at matches, they can look to enhance a fan’s matchday experience at home instead. They could help facilitate pre and post-match entertainment but also create a bespoke watching experience for super fans. This could range from rewarding fans with product or even facilitating a watch-a-long experience with some of the brand ambassadors.

Networking

The ability to interact with legends of the game and use rugby as an opportunity to network is one that appeals to sponsors. While sponsors will be robbed of this opportunity at a match itself, there are ways to get creative. Using the ever-popular video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, brands can replicate pre-game, half-time and post-game analysis and interaction with brand ambassadors. Giving key customers or prospects an opportunity to have direct access to the games legends and the ability to ask questions, through a closed Zoom group is one that brands can explore.

Enhancing the viewing experience

While the above looks at how Premiership Rugby and sponsors can leverage their digital platforms at this moment, there are further opportunities for broadcasters too.

The NFL leads the way with in-game innovation, with initiatives such as “mic’d” up players, giving fans unique access to players. While rugby isn’t quite as stop and start as the NFL, who wouldn’t want to hear what the likes of Joe Marler or Ellis Genge have to say throughout a game? We already have countless soundbites from referee Nigel Owens but why don’t we allow the players to show their personality as well?

While clubs and players aim for an August return in the UK, rights-holders, brands and broadcasters should also be using this time to try and do something a little different in these unprecedented times.

James is a Senior Account Manager at Cake. He has five years of sports sponsorship and integrated marketing experience, working on high-profile domestic and global campaigns.

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