Commercialisation In Rugby Affects Quality Of The Game

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British and Irish Lions Sam Warburton speaks to the media as he arrives back at Heathrow Airport as the British and Irish Lions return to the UK following their series draw with New Zealand. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)

You could successfully argue, in a lot of aspects at least, that commercialisation in rugby has significantly affected the quality of the game.

In some sports it is easy to pinpoint exact moments when everything changes, like in football, when Trevor Francis became the first £1m player. Over in American Football, the airing of Apple’s “1984” advert during half-time. Or Kerry Packer’s ‘World Series Cricket’ that developed the one-day version of the game.

But it is harder to pick an exact moment to symbolise commercialisation in Rugby.

Of course the professionalisation of the game in 1995 was a vital milestone, but it is still a relatively niche sport in the global context.

International Game Thriving

Commercialisation of the game essentially refers to how it is presented and marketed for monetary gain.

Look to the latest Rugby World Cup; the international game is certainly in good health with an £80m profit generated for World Rugby. The recent British and Irish Lions tour saw huge numbers of home nations supporters travel to New Zealand, with all-inclusive travel tours selling out.

Even as an annual event rather than these special quadrennial competitions, the Six Nations has shown strong financial growth year-on-year.

Troubles At Home

However, looking beyond the international game, it soon becomes clear that rugby is underdeveloped relative to other sports.

Take the Anglo-Welsh Cup, which last season ran without a lead sponsor. Was it really so unattractive no company wanted to be associated with it? Or, how Aviva has now extended its sponsorship of the Premiership despite last season being billed as its last. Did no other company make an offer?

On the other hand, this is how some supporters would prefer it.

Only this week, Gloucester Rugby have announced various naming rights deals for their Kingsholm stadium, including the new ‘Greene King Shed’ for the infamous West Country terrace. This, unsurprisingly, has upset some Gloucester supporters who are fiercely proud of their traditional ground. A subsequent rise in ticket prices has left fans wondering whether the commercial investment is worth it.

It’s not all rosy either in the Southern Hemisphere either.

The expansion of Super Rugby to include Argentinian and Japanese teams has diluted the quality, and therefore, the marketability of the competition. The regional conference system has allowed television companies to promote lots of local derbies but attendances have fallen, particularly in Australia. The sight of an empty stadium quickly becomes a less marketable product.

Instead of further expansion to the Pacific Islands or North America, Super Rugby will shrink next season. The governing bodies will need to think very carefully about their next move.

Radical Moves

All of this has led to the drastic move of two South African franchises joining the Northern Hemisphere Pro12 tournament that starts in just over a month.

As Last Word on Rugby has examined, the logistics of this are far from decided. But this will be sold as a great innovation that will renew and improve the Pro12 product. In reality, it just shifts the problem of diluted, cross-country leagues to the Northern Hemisphere.

All of this is not to say that north-south crossover isn’t exciting.

The success of the international game proves that global competitions bring in the crowds. It will probably achieve its aim of increasing interest in the Pro12 and help Welsh and Scottish regions retain top talent. But if this hurried decision stops further expansion because it proves unattractive for investment, the true motives should be questioned.

Commercialisation In Rugby Affects Quality Of The Game

To conclude, outside commercial investment can be a great catalyst for the promotion of the game. However it appears that the pace of innovation and change is overtaking the focus on the game itself.

Issues like player welfare and the growing transfer market need to be addressed so a commercial innovation is more likely to positively benefit rugby.

“Main photo credit”

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