Rugby is still missing a trick in way it engages with commercial partners if it is to become more relevant to the next generation

Pedro Avery
England v South Africa - International Match
Rugby can offer a lot more than it does to sponsors (Source: Getty)

Rugby is a great sport at a critical point in its development.

The international game is very popular in a small number of countries, from the six and tri nations plus a few others, such as Japan and Fiji, who play at Twickenham on Saturday.

The rugby economy is skewed toward a few major media and sponsorship markets, such as the UK and France and the important but far smaller economies of the southern hemisphere countries.

Read more: Northern hemisphere results hint at tectonic shift in rugby

The game’s global governing body, World Rugby, is well aware of this and under CEO Brett Gosper, a former advertising agency man, has a plan which looks very promising, aimed at driving viewership and participation in countries outside rugby’s core markets, using Sevens as the Trojan horse.

It’s great to see World Rugby being a dynamic force at the heart of the game, committed to expanding the sport, both male and female.

Yet there is one area that rugby, and many others sports, needs to change if it is to become more relevant to the next generation of sports fans and players. It relates to how they view the corporate sector.

Rugby needs sponsors, but not just for the money.

Too often, sponsorship is still deemed a necessary evil. The rights holders bank the cheque by selling off inventory to the highest bidder, from the perimeter boards, to the shirts through the name of the stadium.

It’s become fashionable to refer to sport sponsors as partners. But very few rights holders genuinely regard them as such.

In a partnership, there is a value exchange – give something, get something – and rugby has a lot to offer. But, like many others sports, it is barely scratching the surface.

There is so much more it can offer to its commercial partners, who in turn can help the sport reach new people.

For example, rather than viewing sponsors as a pit of money, why not see corporate partners as marketing channels.

Powerful consumer facing brands, particularly in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, talk to their audiences all day every day via advertising and content marketing.

What if they used those channels to make rugby cool and sexy to teenagers, by putting rugby at the heart of their marketing and advertising strategy?

Sevens, for example, is the perfect iPhone sport. It is quick and athletic and looks great in small bites.

What is missing is the distribution network across digital and social media channels, where young people spend most of their time.

Of course, bringing such marketing expertise to the table comes at a price.

Committed long term strategic partners will expect to pay less in rights fees, and sports administrators are notoriously short-termist.

They want as much cash as quickly as possible, often foregoing a longer-term strategic partnership in favour of a quick buck.

While this short term mindset drives the rights market, however, sports like rugby will not maximise their potential.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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