Op ed: Leading the charge

28 Mar 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

In this exclusive feature for Sport Industry Group, Alastair Lyon, Senior Account Executive in the Brand Marketing Practice Sports & Entertainment team at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, looks at the professionalisation of England Women’s Rugby and what it means for brands.

Global consultancy FHF formally launched a sports and entertainment division within its brand team last year, under the leadership of Chris Gratton (formerly of Octagon). 

What a difference eighteen months makes. Just two summers ago, the England women’s rugby team stepped off the turf of Ulster’s Kingspan Stadium, without a World Cup winners’ medal, and without a job.

Unlike their male counterparts, the emotional heartache of a World Cup exit was compounded by the realisation that, not only did the sound of final whistle bring an end to their dreams, but it also acted as the curtain call to the contracts on which they were playing for their country. 

The public and mainstream media’s reaction to this cold-hearted culmination resulted in a PR hit for the RFU that was hard to ignore. England Rugby’s national governing body came across, perhaps justifiably, as a callous, dispassionate and faceless organisation, and the players looked like – and indeed were – hard-done-by heroes.

Fast forward to the present day however, and England’s women have emphatically won the Six Nations tournament as the first ever side made up of full-time professionals. And with a form record that reads ‘WWWWW’ and a points difference of 233, (a staggering seventy of which came from the games against Italy and France – who finished second and third respectively. As well as an 80-0 defeat of Scotland to secure the Grand Slam), on the pitch at least, the RFU’s decision seems to have been a resounding success.

The pursuit of emphatic wins aside however, how did this bold decision from the RFU come about exactly? And what does mean for the future of women’s rugby?

Rather conversely (but ultimately unsurprisingly), this seemingly progressive move was in part a reaction to external pressure. On top of the post-world cup ‘PR storm’, in recent years England’s XV side had been leaking talent, to the smaller-sided and – crucially – professional Sevens side. The funding of Sevens rugby is a less substantial commitment. Not only are the squads smaller, but unlike XVs, funding isn’t beholden to having a wealthy and generous national union. This is down in part to the fact that Sevens is an Olympic and Commonwealth sport, which means cash injections appear from a range of sources, like the Lottery Fund in the UK, or Own the Podium, in Canada. 

Since the RFU elected to give 28 female players full-time contracts to play XVs rugby however, three of England’s most famous players (Emily Scarratt, Natasha Hunt and Jess Breach) have returned to the Red Roses’ full sided set-up. Not only have these three players bolstered the levels of talent among in the England team, but – for sides on the hunt for lucrative sponsorship deals –aided its profile, too. After all, attracting a hatful of sponsors is a lot harder when three of your best players have elected not to play for you. 

To give the RFU credit, one could also argue that the move was more borne out of progression rather than necessity, that they spotted the opportunity that lies in the women’s game, and made a bold move to exploit it. To give them more credit still, they could even have wanted to do this for years, but it had been economically unfeasible until now. Whichever way one looks at it, a single fact is made abundantly clear: the appetite for the women’s game is at an all-time high. 

This is proven most emphatically by the astronomic rise in column inches that we’ve seen devoted to the sport over the past couple of years – not just on the matches themselves, but with profile pieces too. Crowd numbers are also reaching all-time highs. Both of England’s last two home games have broken attendance records. Against Italy at Sandy Park the side pulled in a record 10,545 spectators (which is more than most Exeter Chiefs matches), and for the side’s 80-0 vanquishing of Scotland at Twickenham this weekend, an even larger 13,278. 

Ordinarily, the combination of a rise in attention, popularity and – in England’s case at least – seriousness, would pique the interest of loitering sponsors, whom one could rightfully assume were viewing women’s rugby as an attractive prospect. There are however, a few aspects of the current landscape of the women’s game, which complicate this often regulation formula. 

Elite women’s rugby is – by all accounts – an abnormally uneven sport. It is dominated by three to four nations: England, France, New Zealand and – to a lesser extent – the US. These countries’ dominance has meant 50 point-victory victories have come to be viewed as regulation rather than shocking margins. And if a rise in attention and popularity are lights to which sponsors flock, a lack of decent competition has potential to be a potent repellent. England’s embrace of professional rugby is sure to tip the balance of power toward the elite further still and endanger the sport’s global sustainability. 

There is, therefore, a catch 22 in play both for potential sponsors and for nations. National bodies are biding their time to see whether England’s gamble will attract enough brand attention to warrant any matching move of theirs financially viable. Similarly, onlooking brands are waiting to see whether other nations will join England, to ensure sufficient competition in the division to justify their investment. 

Herein lies the crux of the issue. Should a sponsor choose to support the ascent of women’s rugby would they be rewarded? In a word, yes. Sponsorship at its best and most effective, doesn’t merely take from a sport, but gives back to it through a combination of genuine commitment, impassioned support, and experience provision. And as the dust settles on what was undoubtedly the most successful Six Nations tournament ever, and with the next Word Cup beginning to loom in the horizon, the time to make such a commitment is now. The sport’s rise, gives brands what is a rare chance to grow with it. 

As part of what’s been a terrific title sponsorship debut, Guinness supported the women’s tournament, as well as the men’s and produced a lovely, but short advert starring the Millar-Mills sisters (one of whom plays for Scotland, and the other, England). This is a good start, yet they still shied away from becoming title sponsors of both the concurrent tournaments, meaning the opportunity for another brand to stake a major territorial claim in the women’s game is still gaping.  

In stark contrast to England’s on-field dominance of northern hemisphere rugby, the state of the women’s game is in flux: A diamond in the rough which, if the right moves are made by respective stakeholders, presents an incredible opportunity. Just how and whether this opportunity is grasped is down, in part, to the sport’s top nations willingness to embrace professionalism. But the more important role will be played by those of brands. If the sport’s potential is to be met, brave sponsors, looking to create a long-term relationship with a game which has the wind in its sails can and should act. And assuming they earn the right to support the game, and don’t exploit its rise, they will be rewarded.