Rugby is at a crossroads between growth and crisis point ahead of next year’s World Cup, according to Michael Yormark, president of Jay-Z’s agency Roc Nation Sports.
Amid a series of financial woes threatening the sport – not least in England, where Premiership clubs are fighting for survival – there is a consensus among new investors that it must develop to thrive.
“Rugby is at breaking point right now in certain markets,” Yormark said at the Leaders Week business conference yesterday. “Change is really important.
“I think the World Cup is a great moment for the sport. It’s going to be in a great city – one of the best cities in the world – when you think about Paris.
“It’s wide open from a competitive standpoint and I think the world can anticipate a great moment.
“So how do we take that, how do we use that as a catalyst to take the next step?”
Roc Nation entered rugby by signing up Siya Kolisi after he led South Africa to the last World Cup in Japan.
Since then the agency has added the likes of Maro Itoje and, yesterday, his England team-mate Ellis Genge to their roster, taken a stake in Saracens and partnered with the United Rugby Championship (URC).
“We entered the market about three years ago when we started signing players following the World Cup in 2019,” he added.
“We brought Siya over to New York for a media tour and he said ‘Why aren’t we doing this [the American way] in the sport of rugby?’. And as Martin [Anayi, chief of the URC] was thinking about the evolution of the URC and where he wanted to take it, I found him innovative.
“He wanted to be disruptive. We decided we wanted to help each other.”
Yormark believes rugby is humble and family friendly but insists that players need to be thrust to the forefront of a sport crying out for brands and marketable opportunities.
“Change needs to happen now,” he added. “There’s no better time than the moment. The next 12 months going up to the World Cup is a critical time period.
“That World Cup can be a shining moment for the sport on a global stage with all of the best players in the world playing in Paris. What a great opportunity.”
The player-led theme was consolidated through Genge, whose move to hometown club Bristol Bears was one of the more eye-catching transfers this year.
Genge said that, although the intrusive aspect would need to be managed, he would welcome a Drive to Survive-style fly-on-the-wall series in rugby – but would prefer one about his club than country.
“[Management] is where good production teams come in,” said Genge, while being filmed by two camera crews working on separate projects.
“Obviously I’m not going to let them film me sleeping. Maybe people are into that,” he joked.
“I’m open to it, I’m aware of what needs change [in the sport] and I’m aware of what needs to happen for rugby to be viewed differently.
“All of my friends think it’s chinos and blazers, and to be fair it is right now.”
There’s no quick fix but Yormark insisted media could be the way forward, and cited Chasing the Sun – the documentary about South Africa’s 2019 World Cup win – as an example.
“It was magnificent,” the American added. “As a new rugby fan I watched it and had tears in my eyes. It’s a great way to sell the game.”