The end to a 98-year tradition was signalled last week when the French Rugby Federation (FFR) quietly slipped out that it was finally going to sell the front of the French national rugby team’s shirt to a sponsor – the last major rugby-playing nation to do so.
When rugby union turned pro in the mid-1990s, the RFU and most of their equivalents worldwide immediately sold their shirts to sponsors. In England’s case, for example, to BT Cellnet – a deal which continues to this day with the company that BT Cellnet became, O2.
But two countries held out: France and New Zealand. And when New Zealand sold the famous All Black shirt to an American insurance company in 2012, Les Bleus became the only major national rugby team who chose to continue to take the field with unbranded shirts. Until now.
The driving force behind this volte face is new FFR President Bernard Laporte, the former head coach of Les Bleus, who proposed it as part of his successful Presidential campaign last year.
Like those original mid-90s rugby shirt sponsorships, Laporte’s motivation is naturally to generate extra cash, which he wants to use to increase the funding of French grass roots rugby.
But this is much, much more than a commercial decision by the FFR. It is also a big philosophical pivot.
Just how big is illustrated by comments in the last two years by the FFR’s then head of marketing Bernard Godet.
In March 2015 he told French paper L’Equipe that the FFR had received three unsolicited offers for Les Bleus’ shirt sponsorship, but that they had all been “rejected outright without studying them” because the French national team shirt is “a symbol".
"We remain committed to this principle and we are very proud, even if the All Blacks gave in," he said. "We are the last ones.”
And only last year he told Le Monde that the FFR would not “yield to the sirens’ money [and] sell our soul. The French shirt is ultimately a kind of flag, not to be tainted with a brand of coffee, or car, or olive oil.”
Strong stuff. And as a result Bernard Laporte offered a concession to those of this philosophy during his Presidential campaign, by proposing that Les Bleus’ shirt sponsorship should only be sold to a “a beautiful French flagship brand.”
But when the FFR revealed last week that it was going to sell Les Bleus’ shirt to a sponsor, it also revealed that it had given a first option on the sponsorship to the FFR’s top sponsors – one of which, BMW, is not French – before opening it up to all comers.
Admittedly, the FFR also stated that Laporte has set very strong guidelines for a potential sponsor, and will only approve a brand which matches perfectly with the French team and its values.
Whilst this type of statement by sporting officialdom is usually more honoured in the breach than the observance, Laporte will be under pressure in France to justify it whenever Les Bleus’ first shirt sponsor is revealed.
There’s also no doubt that there will be high demand for the sponsorship given the popularity of rugby in France, the size of the French economy, the domestic and international media visibility of the shirt, and the cachet of becoming Les Bleus’ first shirt sponsor.
And by opening up the opportunity to international brands, the FFR have significantly increased their chances of achieving a deal at the upper level of their €6m-10m (£5.2m) estimate, which would make it one of the most valuable in world rugby along with those of England and New Zealand.