Tuesday 20 March 2018

Running the rule over the Rugby World Cup

It may not have felt like a success, but the numbers behind the RWC reveal it was good for media owners, for sponsors - and the game, says Jamie Macken

Jonny Sexton flies the flag with Aer Lingus before the RWC
Jonny Sexton flies the flag with Aer Lingus before the RWC
Ad awareness during the RWC

Jamie Macken

Over half of the population declared an interest in the Rugby World Cup before a ball had even been kicked. The growing popularity of rugby here bodes well for the prospect of hosting the 2023 tournament on these shores, especially considering that (predominantly) Irish fans broke attendance records at Wembley.

At the beginning of the tournament, more than a third of people believed Ireland could go all the way and lift the Webb Ellis cup. This optimism, coupled with a positive economic outlook, provided sponsors and advertisers with a golden opportunity to channel the national excitement towards various business objectives.

The challenge for sponsors and advertisers was to leverage this excitement with strategic activations that did not interrupt the fan experience, but added to it. We at sponsorship consultants Livewire (part of Core Media Group) blogged our RWC Insider report during the tournament, assessing the impact of the RWC on fans, sponsors and brands alike - and these are some of the high points that took place off the pitch.

TV viewership

An average of 1.155 million individuals, peaking at 1.4 million, tuned in to watch Ireland beat France, breaking TV3's viewing record in the process.

With average viewership over the course of the tournament (up until this weekend) at 912,000 individuals, it is fair to say that the Rugby World Cup has been a ratings success for TV3.

This compares with an average viewership of 765,000 for RTE's coverage of the 2015 Six Nations and 759,000 for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina.

Ireland's quarter-final against Argentina was viewed by an average of 1.09 million viewers - a decrease on the highs of the France game the previous week. Interestingly, for the first time during an Ireland game, more viewers were switching off during the last 10 minutes than were tuning in.

A number of advertisers capitalised on viewer numbers. EBS had 1.4 million viewers of its advert immediately after the Ireland v France game, while AIB scored 1.1 million viewers straight after the final whistle of the Argentina defeat. The top-five spending advertisers on TV3 included Virgin Media and Eir. Both used the tournament as an opportunity to drive awareness for their brands and Heineken, Guinness and Dove. It is estimated that TV3 generated over €6m in revenue from advertising and sponsorship combined.

The location of the tournament helped ensure strong TV viewership. The 2011 tournament in New Zealand meant early-morning kick offs. Four years ago, the peak viewership when Ireland beat Italy was almost 57pc lower than this year's high.

Widening Appeal

The Livewire report highlights the widening appeal of rugby in Ireland. The balance between the number of men and women engaged with the Rugby World Cup was considerably closer than sponsors and advertisers may have anticipated.

Research shows how female interest rose from 48pc before the competition to 53pc before the Ireland vs Argentina game. On Twitter, the average gender split was 62pc male vs 38pc female. This peaked during the Ireland vs France match, when almost half of those tweeting rugby-related tweets were female.

The growth in vocal female support to more than a third of all Twitter authors is another sign of the widening appeal of rugby. Irish women are also more positive. For example, during the Ireland v France match, female Twitter authors used the topics "atmosphere in Cardiff", "heroic performance" and "bring on Argentina" prominently.

In contrast, Irish men were more pragmatic (or pessimistic?) about the Argentina game, tweeting prevalently on the topics "injury problems", "Paul O'Connell" and "ruled out of RWC2015".

The widening appeal of the sport was further illustrated by some of the personalities throwing their support behind teams. Ireland was backed by celebrities as diverse as Harry Potter author, JK Rowling (@jk_rowling) and One Direction's Niall Horan (@NiallOfficial). The Mullingar native created a staggering 128 million impressions when tweeting during the Ireland vs Italy match. These engagement results aren't unusual for Niall but his love of rugby (he regularly tweeted during the tournament) is likely to have widened the appeal of the competition to non-traditional fans.

Online Trends

Google search trends paint an interesting picture of fan reactions to key moments. For example, of the three players taken off with injuries against France, Jonny Sexton was by far the most searched on Google - 10 times more than Paul O'Connell and 100 times more than Peter O'Mahony.

This may be due to the nature of his injury, which was ambiguous in its severity at the time. In contrast, O'Connell and O'Mahony's injuries were both visibly serious.

Google search trends also help to illustrate the impact that sponsors had on consumers. The search engine received a 28pc increase in search traffic for 'Land Rover' over the course of the tournament, compared to the same period last year. This statistic alone suggests the €450,000 spent by the motor brand to sponsor TV3's coverage of the RWC had an effect. Of course, that is on top of a reported €27m spent to become a Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2015.

"Craig Joubert" and "Ireland Rugby" were the top two trending topics in the UK on the Sunday that Ireland lost to Argentina, beating even the new Star Wars trailer. Referee Craig Joubert, who controversially penalised Scotland in the final minute at Twickenham, was searched over 200,000 times during the day.

Activity during the RWC shows Facebook now far exceeds YouTube as a platform for video content. The introduction of video auto play on Facebook has played a pivotal role in this shift. In fact, over three-quarters of combined Facebook and YouTube views for sponsor and advertiser content were accessed through Facebook video.

For example, the Aer Lingus Ireland's Call video (featuring Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Conor Murray and Aer Lingus crew) has amassed 1.228 million views on Facebook but 187,000 on YouTube.

Sponsor Impact

Research from the Livewire report found that 40pc of Irish fans believe that corporate sponsorship had a positive effect on the tournament.

The money invested by sponsors for the right to associate with either the Irish team or the Rugby World Cup serves to create an opportunity to engage rugby fans. The trick is maximising this opportunity with an activation strategy that connects. Monitoring sponsors over the course of the tournament highlighted the diverse approaches of different brands.

For example, due to tournament rights restrictions, Irish team sponsors were restricted from associating with the Rugby World Cup. This presented a significant challenge for Three.

The brand pays in the region of €2m per year to be primary sponsor of the Irish team and usually features prominently on the Ireland jersey. Despite not having its usual on-pitch exposure, 31pc of fans stated that its sponsorship activations had added to the tournament.

Three's strategic media presence included solus advertisements directly after the final whistle - a smart move as it ensured the brand stood out. They also ran half page adverts in the Irish Independent and Irish Times to show support immediately after Ireland's defeat to Argentina.

Another team sponsor that managed to benefit from its association, despite tournament rights restrictions, was Aer Lingus. The airline proved a fan favourite, with 54pc of fans feeling more positively towards the brand as a result of its sponsorship of the Irish team. In the six months since it became a sponsor, the brand has painted two short-haul Airbus 320s with IRFU livery and released the highest-viewed video of any IRFU sponsor. The video, which features players and crew singing Ireland's Call, has been viewed over 1.4 million times to date. Some 39pc of people have acknowledged the brand as having a positive impact on the tournament - the most of any IRFU sponsor.

In contrast to the team sponsors, Heineken, as Worldwide Partner of the RWC, was clearly visible at all matches. It is reported to have spent an estimated €27m to become a sponsor. Heineken leveraged its sponsorship to build loyalty and affinity with its target ABC1 audience. To do this, Heineken used a diverse media mix throughout the tournament. This included a year-long rugby activation with Newstalk, including a series of Off the Ball events, an online partnership with Ultimate Rugby, a significant investment with TV3, which included an association with a TV show called the Sin Bin, its own rugby microsite and a series of high-end online videos involving rugby legends such as Jonah Lomu.

Though not a team sponsor, Heineken tapped into national sentiment, including posting a tribute to Paul O'Connell - "Thank5."

With such a diverse and wide-reaching campaign, it is not surprising that 83pc of people associated Heineken as a sponsor of the RWC.


The 2015 Rugby World Cup was a success. It might not have felt like it as Ireland were beaten by Argentina, but the tournament has served to increase the appeal for the sport in Ireland.

With over 60pc of the available TV audience tuning in to watch each of Ireland's matches, not to mention over 900,000 views on 3 Player before this weekend, the growth of rugby beyond its hard-core fanbase is obvious.

In fact, nine of the top 10 shows broadcast on RTE and TV3 this year - for the coveted male 15-34 audience - have been rugby-related. Add to this the growth of female interest and research that illustrates strong consumer affinity towards rugby sponsors and it is clear how powerful a vehicle rugby can be for sponsors and advertisers.

The 2016 Six Nations is likely to continue to deliver average audiences in excess of 700,000 and with a summer tour to South Africa and a bid to host the 2023 RWC on the horizon, the increasing appetite for Irish rugby is likely to show no signs of abating.

This is good news for media owners, good news for sponsors and good news for the sport.

RWC Insider report is with thanks to sponsorship consultants Livewire in collaboration with Ignite Research and Radical, all part of Core Media Group. To receive the report in full, visit www.livewire.ie All data compiled prior to this weekend's matches. Jamie Macken is a partner at Livewire.

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