Monday 19 February 2018

Healthy interest means Six Nations can bank on finding sponsor

Six Nations chief executive John Feehan. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Six Nations chief executive John Feehan. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Kevin Moore

Not only did yesterday see the curtain draw on this season's Six Nations, it proved to be the final act for one of the largest sports sponsorships in recent times: Royal Bank of Scotland's 15-year title sponsorship of the tournament.

Only eight years after the dawn of professional rugby in 1995, RBS took on the role of title sponsor of one of the world's leading rugby properties. The Northern Hemisphere's flagship competition has enjoyed continued success off the pitch throughout this period. Expanding their European footprint with Italy joining in 2000, combined with consistent growth in television and digital audiences and record-breaking attendances, has seen the Six Nations blossom into the commercial giant it is today.

The bank's turbulent performance during the same period, however, did not mirror that of the Six Nations. Having kicked things off in 2003 in good times, the sponsorship proved to be a great marketing platform for RBS in Britain and Ulster Bank in Ireland, owned by the RBS Group.

Such is the lure of the Six Nations that a seismic downturn in the economy in 2008 coupled with a catastrophic computer systems failure across the RBS network in 2012, costing hundreds of millions, did not deter the bank from renewing its sponsorship.

Having signed a four-year extension in 2009, the bank began to withdraw from other global sponsorships across both motorsport and golf. Despite the technical crisis, 2013 saw RBS further cement their rugby strategy when they re-signed for a further four years, although this time they had to fork out £11m per year, a 70 per cent increase on their previous deal.

While this may seem ludicrous to some, it reinstates the belief that sponsorship is a crucial form of marketing, particularly in challenging times. For example, immediately after the technical glitch, Ulster Bank pulled a significant number of traditional adverts and the coming months led to an increased focus on their sports sponsorships to win people over in a difficult time.

If you need further verification of this, ask AIB, who have steadily increased their investment in Gaelic games since the crash. Their innovative 'The Toughest' marketing campaign has been used to help shift the reputational issues they suffered as part of their bailout.

So what next for the Six Nations? Well, chief executive John Feehan has been on the hunt for a replacement and it is believed any new deal will be closer to £15m per annum.

The consistent rise in sponsorship fees is in line with its continued rise in scale. A recent study by UEFA saw the RBS Six Nations top the list of most-attended global sports events, reaching over one million across the 15 games in 2015.

While other sports battle with decreasing television viewing figures in the changing world of how we consume live sport, rugby is one of the few that can boast an increase. The combined television and digital audience for the entire Six Nations championship topped 140 million in 2015, a staggering 12 per cent increase on the previous year. Compare this with a drop of eight per cent in American football and a downward trend in the Premier League, something TV3 have clearly recognised as they prepare to take over as broadcast partner next season, having successfully outbid RTE.

Despite the progressive commercial trends, the Six Nations continues to resist the temptation to expand to seven or eight teams. Last week, Rugby Europe stepped up its efforts to achieve this by submitting a formal request to open the tournament to other countries. Italy having slipped behind Georgia in the world rankings appears, on paper at least, to provide a case for this argument.

While Georgia and Romania will have to sit tight for the time being, expansion at some point is inevitable and any increase in the scale of the tournament would see greater sponsorship opportunities and fees.

Despite rugby's challenges around the physicality of the game and participation numbers, there is no doubt about the growth of the sport and its commercial value as a whole - and brands are queueing up.

A trend in current marketing campaigns around Irish rugby has seen a more authentic relationship develop between the sponsor and the team. A close tie has always existed between the rugby player and the fan, but brands have often struggled to capitalise on it. While the typical Premier League player gets further removed from the fans, brands in rugby sponsorship have really started to utilise their close ties to make better and more engaging campaigns.

The current Vodafone #TeamOfUs television ads are a prime example. They make us feel like we have accidentally stumbled on a private, behind the scenes moment with the Irish team.

Aer Lingus has also provided the fan with exclusive content since launching their #HomeAdvantage campaign in Chicago last November during Ireland's historic defeat of the All Blacks. They have turned their transport of the squad into a brilliant opportunity to engage with the team and fans alike. Clever social media-led activities tailored to each away game have included putting a player on the front cover of their Cara magazine along with Conor Murray giving us a bird's eye view of his trip to Cardiff through Snapchat Spectacles.

With this growing level of interest from brands in rugby combined with more engaging campaigns landing more with their target audience, John Feehan can rest easy that he will find his new Six Nations sponsor . . . if he hasn't done so already.

Kevin Moore is deputy managing director at sponsorship and communications agency, Legacy Consultants

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