Tapping into a priceless showcase for sport: MasterCard’s Mark Barnett wants the World Cup to pay off for rugby and his brand

John Inverdale
MasterCard’s ambassadors include England's rugby union captain, Chris Robshaw
For those of a certain age, the day that Erica Roe streaked at Twickenham during an England-Australia rugby international is a sporting image to rival anything that the greats of that generation, from Duckham to Underwood, Beaumont to Carling, achieved on the field of play. For Mark Barnett, president in the UK and Ireland for MasterCard, it has left a particular imprint. “It was the first time I’d ever been to Twickenham. Unforgettable. You could say priceless.” A word that those at MasterCard are obviously very prone to dropping in to sentences whenever the opportunity arises.

And if that was an “I was there” moment, then so three years earlier, was the match which saw the North of England, in those rather quaint days when teams played as districts, beat the mighty All Blacks in the quaint and beautiful Yorkshire market town of Otley. Another occasion that has passed into rugby folklore. “Except I wasn’t there,” says Barnett,” although I should have been. I was supposed to be one of the ball boys, and then the day before the game, I got called up to play for my school team. So I missed it which I have regretted to this day.” Maybe Erica was some kind of divine recompense for the burgeoning rugby fanatic.

But this autumn, even greater compensation will come his way as one of the main drivers of the company’s sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup. “It will certainly be hugely exciting,” he says, in the way that children say they’re quite looking forward to Christmas. MasterCard has links with the Champions League, the Brits and the Oliviers, but you sense these are the tickets that Barnett has had his eyes on for a while.

“I do have a real passion for the sport, and what I’m looking forward to most is showing people from countries which do not have a great rugby heritage, like Germany for example, what a fantastic game it is.” MasterCard’s ambassadors include current and former England captains Chris Robshaw and Martin Johnson, All Black legend Dan Carter, flamboyant Frenchman Sebastien Chabal and former Ireland and Lions hooker Keith Wood. You sense that Barnett will enjoy discussing rugby minutiae with the greats of the game.

Aside from the personal though, the competition is another milestone for MasterCard, and the credit card world in general, in the promotion of contactless payments. The revolution to displace cash is gathering pace all the while, with a million people tapping in and out on Transport for London services perhaps the most significant to date. Every stadium in the Rugby World Cup will accept contactless payments, with all 450 beer terminals at Twickenham primed and ready to get pints pulled and distributed in record time, so long as the round comes to less than £30. The limit is perhaps, says Barnett, a way for MasterCard to promote responsible drinking!

In marked contrast to the way Visa exerted a monopoly on credit card transactions during London 2012, MasterCard will offer incentives to those who use their product, but won’t prohibit those who are not their clients. “We believe in encouraging people to use our card, not penalising you for not having joined us yet.”

MasterCard sponsored the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. Barnett was there when the hosts won, but his links to All Black stars goes back way beyond the last World Cup.

As a young boy at Rugby School, the home of the sport, international teams that were using the pitches as practice facilities, used to have their meals with the pupils. “I remember once sitting opposite Bernie Fraser and Stuart Wilson (two of the finest All Blacks) at lunch” he says. “How could you not be inspired by that?”

And 40 years later, perhaps England will play the All Blacks in the final at Twickenham. How would Barnett describe that prospect? You’ve guessed it. Priceless.

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