As O2 and the RFU extend one of the longest-running shirt partnerships in sport, Sport Industry Group chatted to the brand's Head of Sponsorship Gareth Griffiths to discuss why rugby is its only deal in sport, and why doubling down on its support despite the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s one of the longest-running shirt sponsorships in world sport, and with the announcement that O2 and the RFU have extended their partnership by five more years, it’s about to get even longer.
Taking a partnership between a national team which most-recently reached a World Cup final and one of the country’s best-known brands over the 30-year mark would be worthy of celebration at any time. But, as with most things in 2020, this one’s a little bit different.
Sport as a whole has been hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but with remaining Six Nations matches being played behind closed doors, and Autumn Internationals (now rebranded this year as the Autumn Nations Cup and featuring eight teams competing against each other) the RFU has lost some of its most prestigious set-piece events this year.
On the back of news stories about the union’s potential £100 million loss, and a remodelling of its organisational structures which could cost more than 100 jobs, the news that its major sponsor is so publicly giving its backing will come as a big boost.
Sticking With Sport Through Tough Times
Gareth Griffiths, Head of Sponsorship, O2, says there was no question that the brand would back its long-term partner, sending a message of support to the industry:
“Our strategy is long term partnerships,” he said. “We believe you invest in things for a long time. But when we look at our partnerships, we go through a rigorous process. It’s not just something that we just renew. We take it really seriously and evaluate from top to bottom. We look at what’s out there and what’s available, but once again we came back to rugby - we believe in this partnership.
“Times are really tough in sport at the moment, and you can’t just say ‘actually we’re only here for the good times, we’re off.’ That’s not the sign of a long-term partner who truly believes in what they’ve invested in. For us, the idea is to support the RFU in everything that they’re doing.”
This autumn, international rugby will return, but without fans. The behind-closed-doors events will see the culmination of the Six Nations - where England sit top of the table going into the final round of matches - and then the new international tournament featuring the Six Nations teams plus Japan and Fiji, and broadcast live on Amazon Prime.
“The RFU have got a very challenging situation this year, the fact they can’t get fans into Twickenham and the fact that they run a game where it’s very difficult to socially distance, but they’re doing a great job bringing it back,” said Griffiths.
“We’re really looking forward to the autumn games: they’re going to be played behind closed doors, but we’ll still have millions watching on TV.
“We’re a mass consumer brand and we reach across the whole country, and we can raise awareness with what’s going on with both the men’s and the women’s team, so we have a really critical role to support our partner.”
The new O2 deal, which starts from 2021, will see the brand pledge to commit equal spend towards both the men’s and women’s teams over the course of the five years. Its popular O2 Inside Line content series, which runs as a podcast as well as a video series on social media, has given fans behind the scenes access to the men’s team. This time the women’s team will be featured equally.
As part of the agreement, the pair will also promote grassroots rugby, offering connectivity support to clubs across England - as well as upgrading Twickenham Stadium to 5G.
“There’s lots of things about rugby that we love,” said Griffiths.
“We know our customers love it. Because we’ve invested in rugby for so long, we have a really rich customer base that follows rugby. And then there’s the inclusivity of the sport, the way it’s played and we know there’s something in it for everybody - it’s a very inclusive atmosphere. And also the values of the sport, it’s very respectful.”
The Role of the Sponsor
The role of brand partners in sport is one Griffiths - and many in the industry - believe is more crucial than ever. But the next few months may not see fans return, and what help there may be from the government remains unclear.
What does Griffiths think the role of brands is in such a landscape?
“We’re pretty clear: where our partner - in this case the RFU - needs our support, we’ll be there. It’s not our role to talk about funding, that’s down the RFU and the government, but what we can do is raise awareness of the games and we can show support by announcing our five-year partnership.
“This is an expanded partnership, even bigger than what we’ve done previously, over a longer term and with more rights. For us to come out and show this support at this crucial time, it just shows how highly we value the RFU partnership and our relationship with everybody at England Rugby.
“Sport needs people to step up and get behind it now, and you’ll really see who the long term investors are in sport in these coming months and years, because it’d be very easy to say ‘we’ve had a great one, but we’re going to do something else now’.
“Sport really needs its partners, and that’s a crucial role for O2.”