As the dust settles on an epic Six Nations final weekend, we look at the sponsorship practices and properties across the rugby world. We sift through the rubble and take a look at who is doing rugby sponsorship right with some examples from national sides, sponsors and competitions.
Read on to see how;
- Rights holders who understand their own value will win off the field.
- Smart activation can trump a big spend on sponsorship rights.
- Brands can help a rights holder increase the value of their offering.
A Clean Black Canvas - Carefully managing a brand to demand top dollar.
It isn’t by accident that the All Blacks have also become a force to be reckoned with off the field. They have successfully built a brand which now transcends rugby. They have carefully managed what marks appear on the famous black jersey and since 1996 Adidas were the only other brand apart from the Silver Fern to grace the famous darkness. Using the marketing nous of Adidas and carefully manicuring and cultivating the mythology, image and interactions of the national side (See the Haka in 1976 Vs 2011), they now produce a wealth of rich media which brings the fans closer to the team. All this meant that when the NZRU felt the financial imperative great enough to allow a sponsors name on their jersey, they were able to demand a rumoured €200m from AIG to be the first ever shirt sponsor to adorn the famous jersey.
Of course, there is an amazing history behind the All Blacks, but there is an amazing history and story behind every sporting team, the difference is the All Blacks have found a way to tell theirs, often in partnership with their main sponsors.
Cutting through a cluttered French market.
There is a certain lack of sophistication in the French sponsorship market, particularly around the Top 14. Large industrial firms wage war to have their logo displayed on the left buttock of Bastareaud while even the consumer brands involved in the melee rarely activate in interesting or engaging ways.
GMF, a large French insurer have circumvented this muddy ruck through a sponsorship deal with the French League and National team in a successful attempt to own rugby in France. They have carefully chosen their visibility in the Stade De France (the long stairways which punctuate groups of supporters), their TV Spots run on hard rotation during the six nations, and in store, in print and online their communication is always linked with rugby, usually by way of their four "Rugbyman" mascots. All this has culminated with some French sports marketing analysts declaring them winners of the Six Nations with YouGov polling revealing boosts in their numbers across several categories of recognition.
A reminder that sponsorship success is not always based on paying the biggest rights fee, ultimate success for sponsors is down to smart activation and a commitment to the message. By way of a successful sponsorship, GMF have also given further credibility to their partners in French Rugby.
European Rugby Cup & Six Nations - Innovation Vs Tradition?
The turbulent atmosphere which has surrounded the future of the European Champions Cup, the hasty creation of the new competition, and the unceremonious dismantling of the European Rugby Cup headquarters in Dublin did little to inspire confidence in sponsors. The club rugby oligarchs of France and England have sought to gain dominance for their league competitions over what was a prominent European tournament across all participating nations, ultimately bringing to an end one of the most iconic naming partnerships in European sport.
Heineken have smartly maintained the partnership, primarily to insure they are not usurped as the rugby man's beer of choice. All this was done under the banner of creating a more balanced and meritocratic tournament but in the short term all potential sponsors can see is instability and the shrinking of the overall potential market. A problem reflected in the tournaments inability to secure new headline partners.
On the other hand, these ructions contrast sharply with a Six Nations tournament which is as imperfect as it is unchanging in its current format. No return leg, no bonus points, no ambition for 4 weeks out of 5 - all combining to throw up a magical weekend such as this years final one, it's irresistible.
The heritage of the Six Nations remains, the organisers have refused to tinker with the format and one of the results of that is long-term partnerships with headline sponsors.
The Sponsorship Learnings for the Rugby World
The rich history of the game and it's proponents should form the bedrock for successful partnerships between rights holders and brands. There is more drama on the pitch than can ever be created in a film studio, so activation should be aligned with this drama and the values of the game.
Rights holders who understand and express these values will find the right sponsors.
Like any sponsorship in the 21st century, it's simply not enough to splash a logo on a sleeve or a buttock. GMF in France have proved that smart activation can cut through all of the noise and even AIG have backed up their massive rights spend with the All Blacks by investing heavily in telling their story.
Finally, while the sponsors have the cash, they don't always have the understanding or nous to tell the right stories. Rights holders who invest in, and understand, their own offering can increase the value of their own properties by taking the lead when it comes to activation.