- James Davies-Yandle, chief executive of Y11, believes rugby union has significant untapped commercial potential
- Takeover of Ospreys intended to create a “globally-recognised brand”
- Targeting younger and more casual fans a cornerstone of development strategy
Ospreys, the Welsh regional rugby union team, goes into the first match of the re-started Guinness Pro14 season on Sunday with fresh reason to look to the future rather than backwards at a campaign during which they have won only twice.
Back in May the majority interest in the Swansea-based franchise was acquired by Y11, a sports marketing company operating out of Hong Kong but with its heart in Welsh rugby. The company is led by chief executive James Davies-Yandle, a former Wales international hockey player whose father played top-level rugby for Swansea long before the transformation of club rugby with the creation of professional regional teams by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) in 2003.
The club currently sits at the bottom of the Guinness Pro14 Conference A, but have a proud record in the competition, having been crowned champions four times. While the relative success of the franchise in its short history was one of the factors which persuaded Davies-Yandle and his partners to go ahead with the “multi-million-pound” acquisition, he is firmly focused on what is to come rather than what has already been achieved.
He believes that rugby’s time has come to challenge for the commercial rewards which have to date been largely out of its reach, that Ospreys have the potential to help lead that challenge and, in doing so, become a “globally-recognised brand as a sports organisation”.
“When we looked at Ospreys, we looked at the culture of rugby and, in particular, Welsh rugby and the way it is structured. Ospreys represents the consolidation of more than 100 years of rugby history and represents the 77 heritage-driven clubs in the region in the pro tournaments the franchise competes in. We see it as a great opportunity to build on that foundation,” Davies-Yandle says.
“Ospreys play in Pro14 which we believe is an undervalued tournament. The management of the league is very dynamic and the fact that (Private Equity firm) CVC has taken a large position in the league by acquiring commercial rights shows we share the attitude that it has great growth potential over the next five-to-10 years. With clubs from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and South Africa, it can grow into a global club league and we want to be the lead innovators from the club perspective.”
Another reason why Davies-Yandle is convinced that Ospreys was the right deal is what he sees as a change in the attitude of the Welsh Rugby Union which established the regions to create an effective pipeline of talent for the national team which remains the commercial driving force behind the sport in the country.
The history of the regions has been short and rather turbulent and marked by disputes over the structure of the regions themselves and the extent of funding and control by the WRU.
But, says Davies-Yandle, things are changing. “I was welcomed by the WRU and it felt like they were looking for this type of investment, “he explains.
“Historically the WRU has been the sustaining and funding governing body to look after the four regions and put together a pro franchise model and now they are looking ahead to the next era. I feel the franchises have to become ever-evolving, independent through self-sustainability and (stand) on their own feet to evolve into sport businesses.
“I can see the bureaucracy and the politics, but we try to stay at arm’s length and show dynamic vision in the way we are looking at the Ospreys.
“We are open to other clubs replicating what we are doing and being innovative because if we collaborate as a collective, we are going to grow faster, resulting in higher levels of on-pitch performance, and an even better product for our supporters to experience,” he says.
The key, he says, is to get rugby ready for the creation of “a better product” for supporters, something which has been difficult up until now because of the legacy of club rugby’s amateur days which he believes have slowed innovation.
“We are in a different era now and have to start to create and compete with different sports or we will be left behind,” he warns.
“Rugby is behind the curve when it comes to knowing the fans and what they want. The demographics [of Ospreys supporters] are very traditional, and we want to stay true to them whilst attracting new fans by utilising technology for insightful additional data points to discover who they are and how they want to follow us. That allows us to then build a much clearer picture and build our product offering to fully engage our diverse fan groups.
“Maybe targeting the younger, casual fan through a TikTok channel with clips of our players behind the scenes or something more traditional for a loyal regional fan whom we know much more. It’s important to get the product and the balance right through knowing our audience, from a die hard tribal fan, to our global casual fan,” he adds.
Davies-Yandle’s upbeat approach to the investment in Ospreys is ultimately built on a deep-rooted belief in the sport of rugby union itself and the values it represents, values which give it a unique attraction and worldwide relevance.
“Rugby stands for many principles and values. You are taught from a young age it is physical and contact-based and pushes you to your physical and emotional boundaries in terms of staying within the rules, working with others through difficult situations and keeping your temperament. It tests the fibre of your personality and that spews out values around sportsmanship which is at the core of the game.
“If we can build more narrative around this to the more casual sports consumer, I feel there is huge potential there.
“I live in a market where rugby is a small game but there are pockets of real prestige and appreciation of rugby union. There is a subculture of rugby in the highest echelons and that shows the fabric of the game can stretch across markets where you would never expect it would. That comes down to the game, its values and what it stands for,” he says.
As ever, translating ambition and perceived opportunity into commercial reality is never easy and Davies-Yandle says his team won’t be looking to reinvent the wheel, insisting on loyalty to existing partners while growing the brand’s international footprint.
The current roster of partners reflects the breadth of Ospreys’ appeal and includes title sponsors Protecht, kit suppliers Canterbury, UK telecoms company BT, electronics company Philtronics, tech company Power and Water and Swansea University, among others.
“We’re not looking to do anything overnight. We realise that we have to create value across many different verticals and build our footprint in different markets in order to build value for our stakeholders. We are setting out an eight-phase programme over three years and we’re currently just on the starting line managing the impact of Covid. But our objective is implementing a new commercial programme that is attractive to our partners and which enables them to build additional value and return,” he says.
Ospreys share the 21,000-seater Liberty Stadium with football club Swansea City which recently failed in its second attempt to regain a place in the English Premier League, with all the riches that entails. Even outside the top flight, City have averaged around 18,000 per home game compared to a little under 7,000 for Ospreys, suggesting there may be room for some kind of cross promotion.
While not ruling anything out, Davies-Yandle feels that more fundamental change is needed to bring back Ospreys crowds, which have been in decline for some time.
“The demographics of the two clubs are different, with the Swans’ (Swansea City’s) success over the last 5 years attracting a more diverse supporter base because of the huge exposure of the Premier League. We will always try to support each other but we will have a different strategic plan built around our communities.”
“There’s no getting away from the fact that in club rugby the number of fans has dwindled. That comes with opportunity but there needs to be change and I think we are putting the building blocks in place, re-assessing all areas of the organisation, making decisions, implementing change and bringing in new thinking through our work with data and technology.
“Also, from a WRU perspective, I can see and feel a new emphasis on club rugby. There is an intent to take all four franchises up and to build and innovate. If we can polish the product the supporters will start to come back. Welsh rugby is too important to people who live and breathe it, all 4 franchises have a responsibility to represent the Welsh game at the highest echelons of club rugby,” he said.
Applying that sheen to the matchday product in club rugby will involve creating a fresh matchday experience and engaging with new audiences in new markets by creating digital content to interest the traditional and the casual fan. But, he says, creating a ‘one channel’ media strategy to make it easier for fans to find live rugby and other content and finding a solution to rugby union’s persistent unified calendar issues will also help build the game and create new commercial opportunities.
He is also intent on building synergies between the Ospreys and other businesses in the Y11 stable. These include their Football Fives operators in 40 countries worldwide, the Legends Academy business, a multi-football academy in the Middle East and Asia, a growing portfolio of participation events including the Malibu Marathon in California and a sports technology company delivering centralised management solutions to sports organisations, based out of Dubai.
“The aim is to create something which is different to the traditional rugby business model. We have to move the needle, whilst building on our traditional roots, allowing the Ospreys to flourish on a global scale,” he explained.
“In these difficult times the biggest opportunity is to change things, to force change for the better. All sports are going through an audit…highlighting what hasn’t worked for a very long time and a lot are struggling to change but the reality is if you do not make changes there will be casualties, just look at USA Rugby and others which are on the edge.
“There are still issues in rugby which have been there since the beginning of the professional era and nobody has moved the needle on them. Now is the time to look at those fundamental problems and make hard decisions to force positive change, not to think about simply maintaining position. It is time to be innovative and be a maverick. You can’t just sleep through this. I am new and will only influence what I can control but I’m asking for the game to evolve for the better,” he adds.
“Investing in Ospreys was a business decision but made with a lot of passion behind it. We are just getting started and I believe that the Ospreys have the potential to become one of the most renowned sports franchises in the world and we have the tools to make that become a reality.