Sponsors and fans answer Ireland's call as commercial success reaps rewards for rugby
The next year will be the busiest in the IRFU's history, as its marketing director Padraig Power explains to John McGee
In three weeks' time, a little bit of rugby history will be made when Ireland play the All Blacks in Soldier Field in Chicago, the home of the NFL team the Chicago Bears. It will be the first time the two sides have met on foreign soil outside a major tournament.
But the historic match is just one of several firsts the IRFU has planned over the next 12 months, all of which present their own unique set of challenges and opportunities for the union and its director of commercial and marketing, Padraig Power.
Once the Chicago match is out of the way, it's down to business for the Guinness autumn internationals in the Aviva Stadium, with matches against Canada, Australia and a highly anticipated return match against the All Blacks.
In addition, the Irish women's team will host their first autumn tournament, which will see them play the New Zealand Black Ferns, England and Canada.
Then it's business as usual with the Six Nations in four months' time, followed by the highlight of 2017, the Women's Rugby World Cup, which Ireland is hosting for the first time ever. Add to this the ongoing bid to host the men's Rugby World Cup in 2023, and it's clear that Power has a lot on his plate at the moment.
"It's probably fair to say that the next 12 months will be the busiest in the IRFU's history, but we're excited about all that's coming down the line, and it's great for Irish rugby and the brand," says Power.
"Over the last 15 years, both the game and the brand have grown substantially. In terms of popularity, rugby is probably the fastest-growing sport in Ireland and close to 2.35 million people would say that they are avid fans of the Irish rugby team. That's a phenomenal figure, given the size of the country. So the rugby brand is in good health, although we would never be complacent about it," he says.
Rugby's popularity has also translated into commercial success off the pitch and in the year to the end of April 2016, the IRFU's turnover hit €76.1m, while it turned in a healthy surplus of €7.3m. In achieving this, a 22-strong panel of blue-chip sponsors, headed up by Vodafone, have thrown their weight and their money behind the IRFU, making it one of the most marketable sporting platforms in the country.
Back in May, it was announced that Vodafone was ploughing in an estimated €15m to sponsor the national team as part of a four-year deal. As the autumn internationals and the Six Nations draw nearer, fans can expect Vodafone to step up its sponsorship activation with gusto.
"We're are very excited about the new partnership with Vodafone and we're looking forward to the next four years. All good sponsorship is based on good preparatory work and all good marketing is based on good insight, and Vodaone has done a lot of preparatory work before we even kicked off the sponsorship. Its campaign, #TheTeamOfUs, is one which will resonate very strongly with supporters.
"The challenge for us and the company is to bring customers of Vodafone closer to the team through a whole wide range of initiatives, programmes and promotions, and we've been working with them pretty much on a daily basis in the run-up to the Guinness series in November," says Power.
While the men's game has always taken centre stage, women's rugby has become an important dimension to the IRFU's activities, and the staging of the next World Cup in Ireland is expected to provide a big boost to the game.
"Hosting any World Cup is a big deal and an honour. Women's rugby is very important to us and so is diversity in sport. As a game, it has grown significantly in recent years and we will be using it as a dry run to, hopefully, capture the imagination of the country," says Power.
While hosting the Women's Rugby World Cup is indeed a big deal, an even bigger prize would be the rights to stage the men's tournament in 2023. Following Italy's decision to withdraw from the bidding last week, only Ireland, France and South Africa remain in contention.
Winning the rights to stage the tournament could bring in nearly 400,000 fans and lead to a spend in the region of €1bn, if not more. A decision by World Rugby is expected to be made in October 2017 at the latest.
"From the IRFU's point of view, it's an opportunity to do something for the country. We have a really strong team in place under the chairmanship of Dick Spring, who chairs the oversight board. We are also working with a number of advisers like Deloitte Sport in the UK and the advertising agency Irish International, which is working with us in framing the narrative and sprinkling a bit of magic dust on our story. But the objective is to mount a very serious bid," he says.
While 2023 seems like a long way ahead, in the meantime, fans who remember All Black Aaron Cruden's last-minute penalty in 2013 would probably settle for a home victory against their old foes.
Sunday Indo Business