The UK Sport Industry Group speaks to Charlie McEwen, CEO, Rugby and Special Projects, CSM Sport & Entertainment - and former COO, British and Irish Lions - to see how the crisis has impacted the sport and what rugby will look like afterwards.
Q: How will the rugby landscape evolve given the impact of the pandemic?
A: Rugby is at a seminal moment, not as a result of COVID-19, but because the sport has been wrestling with the challenges of scheduling for many years. A consensus was reached at a crucial meeting between the sport’s stakeholders in 2017 which provided certainty for the sport, as well as committing to continue its growth in emerging nations, and to manage player load. What was most notable about this year’s re-election of Bill Beaumont as World Rugby President was that the manifestos published by both he and his challenger Agustin Pichot contained a clear common denominator: the need for change. Beaumont’s re-election may strike some within the game as a “safe” option, but his vow to bring about ‘meaningful change’ would suggest that he understands his responsibility to transform the game for the better in the coming years. So, with or without COVID-19, the sport is on the move and hopefully a coherent global structure will emerge as a result. But, what it has done is bring almost all of the rugby stakeholders together as they co-ordinate a response to this crisis. And while much of the focus has been on the short-term, discussions have naturally evolved into a longer-term view, particularly around how to create a more coherent global structure. What better time than now to revisit and rework those plans? However, there is one voice that is crucial to the success of any future vision for the game and it is that of the players. When discussions around a World Nations League initially took place, the players felt excluded and when they were belatedly consulted as a group, they came together to oppose the initiative. In England, the last few weeks has featured talk of a new Players Union. Evidently, the players want to be heard. How the players are brought into future discussions will be critical and we should expect ‘player power’ to grow ever stronger in the months ahead.
Q: How has rugby responded in the short-term?
A: With most of the global population in some form of lockdown, the world has moved online. Whichever industry you are in, that is where the conversation is taking place and that’s where brands need to be. Fortunately, rugby has an incredibly passionate digital audience to work with, the majority of whom are incredibly receptive to interesting, fun and light-hearted content. Despite the lack of live action, rugby remains a panacea for millions of fans across the world. Sponsors have an opportunity here, to build up a strong online presence, satisfy the demand for engaging content and to continue to meet sponsorship objectives. That might require a pivot in strategy. If so, brands and rights-holders need to maintain an open dialogue, to re-establish the objectives of the partnership, review the asset base to identify any opportunities that may better suit the current environment, and recalibrate their tactics towards creating compelling campaigns in the digital space. Vodafone and Wasps’ #ReconnectingTheNest is one great example, as is Dove Men+Care’s new #DadsCare campaign.
Q: How are sponsors balancing the need to generate value with being supportive of the sport during the lockdown period?
A: Community is such a key aspect of the sport that any sponsor involved in rugby that demonstrates support for local communities during COVID-19 will see long-term benefits. A recent Edelman report found that 83% of people think brands should actively support local communities at this time, while 71% would lose trust in a brand if it put profit over people. Clearly, the public wants to see brands getting involved in community relief efforts. So, for sponsors involved in rugby, continuing to support the community in an authentic way will generate value further down the line. The best example I’ve seen so far is the #PoweringTheNHS campaign launched by London Irish and its principal sponsor, Powerday. Putting their collective expertise together, the initiative has seen them deliver vital meals and equipment to NHS staff across the UK. This felt like a genuine ‘how can we help’ approach to resolving an important community issue; a compassionate, altruistic way of supporting the relief effort which will undoubtedly generate a lot of positive sentiment for the brand when we emerge from this crisis.
Q: What role will rugby play once the current crisis is over?
A: Rugby has long been a community-focused sport, so it has an important role to play here. Where other sports often struggle to unite their followers, rugby’s unique spirit – of fairness, sportsmanship, solidarity and care – makes it incredibly well suited to community-building efforts. We are already seeing it through the #MakeThatCall movement led by Wasps, where Premiership Rugby stars are ringing up fans in isolation for a chat and to offer their support. We’ve got Jamie Roberts volunteering for the NHS and Italian flanker Maxime Mbanda working shifts as an ambulance driver in Italy. As expected, rugby is playing its part. Inevitably, there is a fine line between demonstrating an authentic desire to help and simply exploiting the current situation for some good PR or commercial benefits. So, it needs to be done in a sensitive and genuine way. But given community forms such an important part of rugby’s culture, I can’t see that being a problem.