It is a good time to have a sanity check on rugby union. The Autumn Nations Cup is at the halfway point, the new English Premiership season has just started, and the Six Nations will be back on our screens again in early February.
Non-stop rugby then to watch on TV after an enforced drought in 2020. Who knows when fans will be allowed back into the stadiums to create some atmosphere and much-needed income, but television is filling the void for now.
Ben Kay, who was a crucial part of England’s 2003 World Cup win, now works as a BT Sport pundit, writes for The Times, and is a non-exec director at Leicester Tigers and a director of an advertising company.
“The Rugby World Cup in 2019 was a fantastic show piece for the game,” he told the Sports Gazette.
“We saw 60 million Japanese, or roughly 50% of their domestic population, watch the quarter final defeat against South Africa. This is the largest ever domestic TV audience.”
Japan enthralled world rugby audiences as well as their own nation with an exciting brand of attacking ball-in-hand rugby.
Premiership Rugby in England however has a real challenge to improve TV audience figures and income. Currently, English clubs make a greater percentage of their revenues from match day ticket sales when compared to TV rights.
The existing BT Sport deal is estimated to be worth £40m per annum, and is currently under negotiation for a new contract term.
£40m may sound like a big number, but it’s small fry when compared with the English Premier League which makes approximately £5 billion per annum from TV rights. This says a lot about where rugby sits in the battle for more wallet share and eyeballs over this winter.
Venture capital company CVC Capital Partners, the relatively recent 27% shareholder of Premiership Rugby, will want rugby to improve its product to existing and new audiences. CVC is a major player in the world of private investment and have successfully bought and sold shareholdings in Formula One.
Improvements needed to market the sport
So, what are the challenges, and how can rugby improve its product?
“Rugby needs to understand the importance of selling the sport. Often, the English culture tends to profligate a negative viewpoint, especially on social media.
“For example, Leicester was previously a club that was often seen as secretive, such as not announcing new signings, but they have since realised that if they do not fill the media void then others will.”
Kay also cites Exeter as an example of fact losing the battle to negative PR. Exeter are the current European and English champions, but some people in the media suggest they play a boring brand of rugby. Not so, according to Kay.
“Most people just see the Exeter pick and drive tries. However, what people miss is that they are one of the most entertaining sides outside of five metres from the opposition try line. Other teams just cannot finish off tries like Exeter.”
Too Many Cooks?
Kay questions whether rugby in fact has to many people trying to run the show.
“Rugby has lots of different stakeholders pulling in different directions. This means that what is occupying people’s minds is a fair bit of negative stuff.
“A good example is in 11 of the first 15 rounds in the new English season, the clubs will be missing their international players. Rugby as a product would be much more attractive if the best players were playing more often in the domestic league.”
This is not helped by the slow progress made to attempt to organise a global calendar that works for the northern and southern hemisphere rugby unions.
Plans and negotiations for a global calendar have been going on for quite some time already, but CVC could help solve this challenge.
CVC will likely be looking in the range of a seven or more year outlook on their investment in rugby; much longer than many people expected from a venture capital company, but in part due to the pandemic.
How about rule changes?
Kay is not an advocate of major changes to rugby’s rules.
“The complexity of the law book is sometimes a block for new viewers enjoying the game. However, rugby has already seen examples of where laws have been altered and there is then a knock-on effect elsewhere in the game.
“In short, it creates another problem”.
Kay is adamant that rugby cannot lose its core principles of the game, and should not try to shift to a model where you might see 100 points a game: “There are already sports like basketball in that sphere that are doing it well.”
It is also a no from Kay to reduce the number of players on the field to create more space. Nor is he keen for summer rugby. He cites that rugby was played last summer, and his view is that it was not an improvement.
“Mud and heavy rain killed games years ago, but pitches are so much better now.”
So, is rugby on the right path?
Kay’s view is that rugby is an improving product. It may not be following the classic hockey stick graph, but the trend is upward.
“The lack of crowds at Leicester Tigers has had a huge effect for the club, but the sponsors have been amazing. They come into the new season with the largest ever revenue from sponsorship.
“The pandemic has shown how sport is so important and you often realise things like this in life when it is taken away.
“Sponsors would not throw money away if it were not worth it and I expect sports will get a bounce back and crowds will go through the roof when the pandemic subsides.”
Kay retired from rugby in 2010, but is not one for ‘back in my day’ sentiments: “Even from the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand I can see how much better the game is 15 years on.”
The sport of rugby has only been professional for 25 years, so youthful by comparison to many others, but it is still experiencing growing pains. The world rugby unions do need to unite to solve the complexities amongst the various stakeholders.
With all these moving parts it does look like the only way is up for rugby, but it is a case of slowly, slowly catchy monkey.