The Rugby World Cup final isn’t the only momentous occasion in the sport’s calendar this week. Backed by stalwarts of the world game, earlier this week the O2 Arena opened its doors for the inception of RugbyX. Simpler, faster, stronger; the five-a-side format is designed to attract a broader demographic to a sport that desperately wants to expand interest outside of Surrey and the commonwealth.
Déjà vu? It was less than 12 months ago that World Rugby gave its approval to Global Rapid Rugby, a modification of union that would see teams rewarded with bonus points for tries scored from deep within their own territory and penalised for kicking the ball out of play. The initial showcase left a lot to be desired, but the intention is clear: widen the sport’s appeal through placing emphasis on simplicity and speed as opposed to power and structure.
However, the mission is not Brett Gosper’s (World Rugby CEO) alone. The English Cricket Board’s The Hundred tournament will launch next summer, a shorter format of the game that hopes to bridge the significant gap between the many who like cricket and the few that go to watch it.
Uncharted territory for sport’s governing bodies represents ripe opportunity for brands, particularly those with an interest in associating with a team sport yet cannot reconcile their image with the old boy networks of Twickenham and Lords. The barriers to entry are relatively low, and if the prophecies of governing bodies and marketing agencies are anything to go by, the rewards will be high.
Sponsorship only works when there is shared territory between a rights-holder, its audience and a brand. Normally, this comes in the form of principles or values, and how these are reflected in behaviour. Broadly speaking, these offshoots of traditional games will form their identities through othering and in contrast to their parents; less heritage and tradition, more innovation and vitality.
Brands sitting at the intersection of entertainment and technology as well as challengers in banking and transport feel like the most natural fit here. Their democratisation of industries renowned for complexity echoes perfectly what these new formats are trying to achieve. They also share a common audience; young, progressive cohorts accustomed to brevity and clarity in their brand experiences.
But it’s not as simple as that. If the new players are to engage younger demographics in any meaningful way, the logo-based sponsorship model of yesteryear must be thrown out of the window
Genuine interaction with spectators should be the priority. Sponsors need to consider how they can enrich the sporting experience both at the point of sale and long after the final whistle. For inspiration, look no further than the NBA, NFL and MLB. American sports have always struck a fine balance between spectacle and substance, and the sponsors follow suit.
In recent years technology has been thrust to the forefront of the matchday experience across the US. Last year saw NBA franchise LA Clippers launch CourtVision, a new augmented reality product that allows fans to customise their standard TV feed with new animations, statistics and perspectives. Similarly, Amazon are incorporating the NFL’s Next Gen Stats platform into its Thursday Night Football streams this season, presenting viewers with real-time statistics previously only afforded to coaches and broadcasters.
Sponsors must also secure the longevity of any matchday content created through such tech. The means by which we consume sport are now greater than ever, and soon we will start to see traditional rights-holders package up their digital assets and inventory to create more alluring propositions for brands. This shift has been termed Sports Sponsorship’s Correction by marketing agency Two Circles and is something we can expect the newcomers to offer from the get-go.
As with any new venture, the sense of risk is unavoidable. In RugbyX, Global Rapid Rugby and The Hundred are echoes of Vince McMahon’s failed attempt to fuse American Football and Wrestling in 2001. However, if these new formats are as well received as their governing bodies expect, they will open routes to hugely engaged yet typically elusive audiences.
Expectations are high, so sponsors will need to get their activations right.