Stars shine a light on lucrative sponsorship deals
Back in 2003, Brian O'Driscoll was celebrating a new sponsorship deal with Adidas. Within a year he was lifting the Triple Crown, having led the Irish team to victory against England, Wales, and Scotland during the Six Nations.
It was a deal that was sure to please Adidas executives, who watched on as their boots scooped plenty of media coverage and it was truly a testament to the growing marketability of rugby players.
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The former Ireland captain quickly became part of the three 'O's', alongside Ronan O'Gara, and Paul O'Connell. In marketing circles, the trio are regarded to have been among the best in the game at maximising their personal brands and as such have attracted a raft of corporate sponsors. They are the ones that are able to command "six-figure opportunities".
In addition to professional contracts, sponsorship deals have become an increasingly important part of their annual income. "These deals are a valuable short-term boost to their other income streams during their playing careers and, if carefully managed, can be a stepping stone to post-playing income opportunities," says sponsorship consultancy chief John Trainor.
Trainor's Onside business works with sponsors and rights holders but also performs extensive research into the varying values of sports personalities. "Collectively, rugby stars consistently win the most joined-up public admiration votes of any sport in the Onside Star Tracker across an entire decade of research," he says, "challenged for top spot to varying degrees by Irish soccer players, boxers and golfers."
Onside's 'most marketable rugby stars index' is headed up by O'Driscoll and O'Connell, with Johnny Sexton, Ronan O'Gara, and Joe Schmidt making up the top five.
"However, the shorter-term brand ambassadorships are not really a sustainable model for players longer term and the smarter players will set themselves up for a balanced blend of income opportunity," Trainor says.
Ireland's current line-up of players have some big brands behind them. Sexton is working with Aer Lingus, recruitment firm CPL, insurer Laya, Lexus, and Mace. Elsewhere, Conor Murray has Pinergy, Rory Best has Specsavers and Flogas, while Rob Kearney works with Audi and the National Dairy Council.
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With most players' sporting careers lasting up to 15 years, making it rich in that time can be crucial. While the numbers behind the deals are often kept under wraps, it's understood that gilt-edged rugby stars can earn up to €100,000 a year from tie-ups with big brands.
When brands are on the look out for players to back, they look for charm and likability but a consistent track record at the top level remains crucial. "Not every athlete will have the same ability to commercialise themselves, but the first names on the team sheet tend to be the ones that are more commercially valuable," says David McHugh of athlete management firm Line Up Sports.
McHugh boasts the likes of Rob Kearney, Conor Murray, and Tadhg Furlong among his athletes. He is also looking to the future with the likes of James Ryan and Joey Carbery on his books.
He says that there can be "huge variances" in the value of players, as well as the amount of money different brands are willing to spend. McHugh also suggests that getting a brand that fits the player is less than straightforward.
"Mike Ross used to say 'you'll never see me on the side of a bus with my top off and you'll never see me in a tux wearing a Rolex. I'm not that guy'," McHugh says.
"Fit is the number one part of creating a sponsorship, and at that it's more of a partnership, because it has to work on both sides. There has to be good engagement between both and there must be a good relationship."
The rise of partnerships and ambassador roles has been driven by a need to set rugby players on the right course once they finish their careers; as McHugh points out, most will likely have to work for 30 years after their retirement.
Onside's Trainor says that German retailer Aldi's tie-up with Paul O'Connell has acted as a new "role model" for future agreements between brands and players.
"The principles on which that ambassador programme have built over time have meant that, for all sides, it has been a winner. It points to the appeal of legends of the game as an approach that can work best for brands as the stars transition from players to the next phase of their lives and have the time to work with brands free of their professional playing schedules," he says.
"Donncha O'Callaghan would be another past player who has built a positive post-playing career programme of activity that makes him a popular choice for various business needs, including match-day engagements, where his style of input to such events is a perfect blend of rugby knowledge and X-factor entertainment."
Rugby players can still make great use of an incentive introduced by former finance minister Charlie McCreevy to make the most out of their playing careers.
"The tax break introduced by McCreevy allows athletes to reclaim 40pc of the tax paid over the best 10 years of their earnings. That's very important in professional rugby because it gives you lump sum upon exit," says McHugh.
"You would hope most athletes would have some level of ring-fenced income."
McHugh says that most players look to leave the game with their mortgage paid.
The world of rugby sponsorships has changed dramatically since O'Driscoll was lacing up those boots. Agreements with players can even fall under the category of corporate social responsibility for some companies, with many offering either job opportunities or work experience to the athletes.
Even before Ireland star Jonathan Sexton (34) kicks a ball at the World Cup, rugby has made him a millionaire.
Sexton is among the top 10 highest earning players in the world, with reported annual wages of around €700,000 from Leinster.
Accounts indicate that his company, Jas Management and Promotions Ltd, had €1.3m cash in the bank and accumulated profits of €1.8m last year. He and fellow director, wife Laura, paid themselves a modest €114,587 as he channels his earnings into providing for his future.
"You fear the day that it ends because we have such a privileged life and a career doing what you love to do. I dread the day that it finishes," Sexton himself told the Sunday Independent in March when asked about how he felt about retirement from the game - whenever that might arise.
The question came in the context of a conversation with Sexton about his recent deal to become brand ambassador for recruitment firm CPL, which, he said, was very much about starting to build a professional life for himself beyond the game.
"I'm delighted to get a chance to learn what goes on at a senior level and about their leadership roles and styles," he said.
"It's something I'm looking forward to."
He is, unsurprisingly, very confident about his own abilities and how he can translate his talent on the pitch to something very positive in a boardroom. Neither does he completely rule out staying involved in the game in some capacity post retirement.
"I have a business degree from UCD so that is very much a possible route. I'm very interested in management and leadership.
"Coaching is another possibility. I love the game. I would love to give back to the game rather than retire and give out about all the other rugby players around the country."
The CPL role is giving the famously no-nonsense World Player of the Year a taste as to what a life beyond rugby might look like: "It is great to be in with these guys so that I can learn how to deal with people in that environment. In rugby you can say or do what you want in meetings - it's no holds barred - but in business it is slightly different; you have to watch your P and Qs a little bit. Learning those types of things is valuable for me."
But Sexton doesn't underestimate the challenges ahead if he chooses to build a business career in the years ahead: "As a leader I've flaws of course, as everyone does, and I need to learn to get better. We are always trying to get better no matter what age or where you are in your career."