Tuesday 27 June 2017

Munster's hunt for naming rights deal ramps up

Selling rights for rebranding Thomond Park may upset some fans but it should also boost the province's ability to compete on the pitch

Thomond Park Stadium, Limerick Photo: Sportsfile
Thomond Park Stadium, Limerick Photo: Sportsfile
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

'What's so special about Thomond Park? The crowd. ­Simply the crowd. The atmosphere is electric." Those are the words of Donal Spring - a legend of Munster Rugby - as recorded by Charlie Mulqueen and Brendan O'Dowd in a history of that iconic rugby ground.

Future historians might be calling it by a different name, however.

Plans to sell the naming rights to the stadium are afoot and set for a vigorous push in 2017. If a deal is concluded it'll give the province a substantial financial boost at a time when it's competing with European clubs awash with money.

But it's a delicate issue. The name Thomond Park - or Thomond Park Stadium as Munster refers to it in documentation presented to potential naming rights partners - is redolent of a glorious sporting history. Doing away with it cannot help but dilute that - but if it leads to greater success on the pitch than would otherwise be the case, is it worth it?

Munster executives will probably find it an easier sell now than would have been the case a decade ago. Lansdowne Road is now the Aviva Stadium and Ravenhill in Belfast is now Kingspan Stadium - these things get easier when there is a precedent. And indeed there's precedent with Munster - Musgrave Park in Cork is now Irish Independent Park as part of a deal with the Sunday Independent's sister paper.

Munster Rugby's chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said that the province had looked at doing a deal on naming rights when Thomond was being redeveloped. There was interest but suitable terms couldn't be agreed, he said.

"I think that whole area of naming rights and everything has progressed right across Europe and across Ireland to an extent since then. It's still very much part of our commercial programme and something we're very interested in doing. I think we've got a very good product to offer people," Fitzgerald said.

"There has been a number of interested parties and presentations have been made to a number of parties . . . obviously when you're talking to multinationals and to people at that level. These are things that they put into their cycle and would look at over a period of time."

Unsurprisingly Fitzgerald would not reveal the quantum of investment Munster is looking for to do a deal, saying it was for discussion. "We're just interested in building a partnership with an ideal person where it can be beneficial for both people . . . it's not just a money figure," he said. Ulster's 2014 deal with Kingspan was worth a reported £5m over 10 years - sources believe Munster will seek more than that.

Fitzgerald acknowledges that not all fans would agree with selling the naming rights but says the vast bulk are supportive.

"People now accept that this type of thing is part of what is done in the commercial world we live in. If you go back 10 or 15 years ago I suppose it wasn't accepted as much, but I think people understand it. They know your competitors are doing it, it's part of how the whole commercial world has developed. People are much more open- and broad-minded about it. If we thought it was a huge big issue and it was something that was going to affect support we wouldn't be considering it but all our research and everything we've done says there is support from over 90pc," he said.

Fitzgerald was speaking hours before Munster took on Paris-based Racing 92 in their final pool game of the European Rugby Champions Cup. Feedback from Munster fans spoken to by the Sunday Independent chimed with Fitzgerald's comments - every one said they'd support the sale of the naming rights if it meant the team performed better.

"Given the level of opposition we're competing with both financially and otherwise, ourselves as well as other Irish provinces have done exceptionally well to be winning trophies on a regular basis at club level in Europe," Fitzgerald said. "What we want to do at the moment is to continue to be competitive, and on a reasonable, regular basis competing for trophies and winning them. And at the same time, providing the best possible facilities for our supporters, for our commercial partners. That's what we want to do."

The province has been in the news in recent times about its debt situation. Fitzgerald says Munster's commitments have recently been restructured, saying that happened "predominantly because of the economic situation and the recession and how it affected our income". Ticket sales had become sluggish but have now started to improve in tandem with the province's fortunes on the pitch.

"We spent in excess of €40m on Thomond Park and there's just over €9m now owed on it ten years later, which is a really positive position. We restructured the debt recently and we're meeting all our commitments on the restructured agreement as we stand at the moment," Fitzgerald said. "The naming rights is part of the commercial programme . . . if the naming rights never happened we're still meeting our restructured commitments." Fitzgerald said.

Sponsorship consultants Onside have been appointed to help in the process and the province is actively pitching to brands that it thinks will be a fit. As well as rugby, the stadium has also been used for concerts by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, Republic of Ireland soccer internationals, as well as weddings and conferences. Bosses at Munster will leverage that as part of their pitch to potential buyers, as well as the fact that it's one of the listed venues as part of Ireland's 2023 Rugby World Cup bid. They've gone to about ten different companies and Fitzgerald stresses that not just any company will do - Munster and the partner's brand have to be the right fit, he says.

"I'd be optimistic that we'd find a good partner. If we have to wait a little bit longer we will, but I think the atmosphere in the economy is good, I think the atmosphere in Irish rugby is good . . . you don't set yourself a deadline really but we would think that 2017 could be a good year and the timing is good."

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