Chasing the golden egg

Is it Boom or Bust Time for Rugby?

This year, a Rugby World Cup will be hosted in Asia for the first time in the tournament’s history, marking a seminal moment for the sport. Japan staging the ninth Rugby World Cup should be seen as a positive step forward for rugby; encouraging growth in new territories, converting new fans and showcasing how the sport has the ability to embrace new cultures.

It is a shame that against the backdrop of such an important Rugby World Cup, the sport itself seems to be at odds with itself. When rugby turned professional in 1995, it was deemed an “open” game. As rugby has evolved and grown into the sporting entity it is today, there have certainly been growing pains and today that very word, open, is being put under the microscope.

As we approach this year’s Rugby World Cup, it is the notion of inclusivity, openness and the very values of rugby that are being picked apart and stress tested. For so many brands that align themselves with rugby, it is these attributes that signal a synergy between a brand, the property and its audience. If the turmoil continues, could rugby undermine its own commercial appeal to partners?

The homophobic comments made by former Wallaby star, Israel Folau, have seen the exceptional athlete ostracised by his club, country, team mates and commercial sponsors.

In the opposite hemisphere, former Irish fly half Paddy Jackson, who was embroiled in a high-profile sexual assault case, has signed for English Premiership Rugby club, London Irish. In doing so his new club has lost a string of lucrative and longstanding sponsors, such as Guinness.

By standing firm with their new signing, many are claiming London Irish is abandoning the values of the game and putting the reputation of the sport in jeopardy.

At a time when excitement and interest levels should be spiking, for all the right reasons, rugby is being brought in front of new audiences in quite the opposite manner. This has to be alarming for partners. The sport has built its foundation in its core values, and all involved are expected to prop these up – including partners. If certain parties are undermining these, the whole structure is at risk.

As a commercial entity, there is no denying rugby is playing catch-up with the likes of F1 and football, but those in charge are wasting no time in trying to get up to speed. Massive injections of cash from investors like CVC Capital Partners, is accelerating the process. Just as the actions of some players and clubs is causing alarm for the future wellbeing of the game, so is the sudden investment of this nature.

There is no denying that more money coming into the unions, leagues and teams offer the opportunity to grow rugby on all fronts, but the worry is that rugby is losing sight of where it has come from, in the pursuit of where it wants to get to.

With investment of this nature, there can be a positive impact on rugby’s sponsor landscape; increased exposure, new brands entering the sport and greater levels of activation needed for brands to get cut through. These all contribute to help growth, but this growth adds weight to the worry from some corners of the sport that rugby is freewheeling.

There is a sense that in its race to join global behemoths like F1, rugby needs to slow down, take stock and appreciate how far it has come since 1995, and also where it has come from and what it stands for. Importantly, growth is not a bad thing, and the commercial investment that comes with it has the power to ensure the future of the sport. What cannot be jettisoned in this race though are the attributes that make rugby such a unique offering to sponsors.

For those seeing rugby for the first time this Rugby World Cup, the best version of the sport needs to be put on show. A stable sport, meaningful growth and investment that is tied to the values that define rugby. For any brand considering renewing its sponsorship, why wouldn’t you? For any new sponsor, why wouldn’t you want to be part of that utopia?

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