A game of two halves…
I’m excited. I always am at this time of the year. Well every four years, give or take. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Well, the Rugby World Cup has made its way back to our green and pleasant land, and as you must have seen, it is well underway.
To be fair, the fact that you’re aware that the tournament is here is a great achievement for the sport. It’s come a long way since the amateur days of the first RWC in 1987. Its popularity today is not just testament to the brilliant organisation of the co-ordinators (bar some silly tickets nonsense) and England’s Rugby Football Union, but also to the official sponsors of the competition – not to mention the brands that have piggy-backed on its feel-good-factor, in an unofficial way of course.
ITV has done an excellent job too, cultivating a fine team of experts to cover the games, every one shown live on free-to-view channels in the UK – making rugby union as accessible as possible to the public.
These factors, combined with the above and below-the-line activity from O2 to support its England sponsorship by encouraging the nation to get behind the national squad, has arguably led to highest awareness of rugby union amongst Joe Public since Jonny Wilkinson kicked England to glory in Sydney, 2003.
So why have brands and sponsors focused so much activity on this year’s Rugby World Cup?
Well, as I mentioned in my previous blog, sports fans are hungry for content, and want that genuine insight to their favourite teams. Couple that with the fact that UK rugby fans consume 6x more sports content than the average viewer, and 53% of rugby fans visit YouTube each month – you have a captivated audience ready to interact and with your brand, and the opportunity to convert a new market into customers.
There’s also the financial impact. The 2015 Rugby World Cup is expected to attract more than 450,000 international visitors, and will potentially generate up to £2.2billion of output into the UK economy which translates into a contribution of £982m to the national GDP.
Of course, this kind of demand creates competition in the marketplace, meaning that the IRB can shop around for the best deals from TV companies, sponsors and official partners for the RWC, all of which provide more money for the participating nations, helping them to build state-of-the-art facilities and attract the best players in the world. This makes for a much bigger spectacle, and in turn continues to grow the sport’s popularity amongst the public.
So why did the Rugby League World Cup receive such a small share of voice in national media and lack of commercial sponsorship when it came to England in 2013? The simple answer is money.
For a game that is incredibly similar, but at the same time worlds apart, there is a gulf between the two codes which has been more evident since the start of this year’s 2015 RWC, especially when compared with the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. Now, there’s lots of reasons why there is more money pumped into rugby union, such as its more affluent audience, global popularity and the fact that it is now an Olympic sport, to name a few.
But rather than look at the RWC with envious eyes, the Rugby Football League, and potential sponsors, should see the popularity and investment in its rival code’s World Cup as a huge opportunity to help grow rugby league both in the UK and globally, attracting new players, fans and consumers to the game.
But before the game can do that, it has several issues to address, with its popularity in southern England being a major concern. The England Rugby League team regularly play games at Wembley against some of the best teams in the world, such as New Zealand and Australia, but only sold 42,344 tickets when they last played against the Aussies. Compare that to Ireland’s recent record-breaking Rugby Union World Cup attendance when 89,267 fans watched them dismantle third tier nation Romania at Wembley. That’s saying something.
The thing is I believe that the League product is much better than Rugby Union, and I’m a die-hard Union fan. But League is faster, has more big hits and spectacular tries that even the staunchest Rugby Union fan would marvel at.
So to become more commercially appealing, the RFL has several things to consider. Here are some ideas that I believe will help the game grow:
- Champion and promote the game’s superstars – profile some of the game’s characters in the media. But don’t media train the life out of them; allow them to be who they are, pushing them as pundits on owned media and with TV partners. Australia’s NRL Footy Show is a great example of how to grow rugby league’s popularity in the UK with its humorous, valuable content.
- Develop more southern teams in Super League – this is a slightly more long term strategy, and has been tried before. But the RFL needs to support the development of more elite League clubs in the south. Clubs should be developed to become potential Super League teams in Union strong-holds, such as in the West Country and Midlands, to hijack their fan base. This will increase the game’s fan base tenfold, and lead to stronger commercial product to sell to sponsors and broadcast companies.
- Create a winning national team – England’s 2003 World Cup win inspired over 100,000 new Rugby Union players and countless fans. Enough said.
By growing the popularity of the sport, there is a great chance to attract more visitors to cities across the UK, generating more output for the economy, and in turn increasing the GDP of the country. By encouraging more fans, who have been turned into brand adorers due to the increased awareness of the sport in the media, to travel to watch games and spend money supporting their national or club team will encourage more sponsors to the game, and investment in the infrastructure.
So how can Rugby League sponsors help grow the sport? Quite simply by investing in their sponsorship and doing everything that they can do to promote their team. The good news is that Rugby League fans have the same wants as Rugby Union fans. They’re hungry for insightful and engaging content from their favourite players and teams, videos of tries, as well as the chance to win tickets and merchandise, and they are tuned in to the power of sponsorship and what they can expect from brands. Meet these needs, and you have a ready-made audience just waiting to interact, and start their customer journey with you.