Now before you start to panic and think I’ve gone soft I would like to clarify, I’m not talking about introducing short sharp bursts of overly complicated plays punctuated by extended ad breaks, rather I’m thinking in terms of the draft system and the sports ability to market itself to a mass audience.
The first two points happen to dovetail quite nicely but for now I will focus on the college football system. One of the biggest issues for rugby in the Northern hemisphere particularly but it does seem to be a global problem is the poor set-up of competition below professional standards. I understand that currently there is not the fan base to sustain professional clubs below the top couple of leagues in each country; it is as junior and college levels where I feel there is read headway to be made in the marketing and development of the game.
This is one area in particular I think the American football system is head and shoulders above most big global sports. The American college football system effectively brings through the next crop of professionals, but is also wholly self-sustainable through regularly attracting crowds well in excess of most professional rugby clubs and large tv deals. This goes back even further with top high school teams being trained to professional levels before having their best players scouted to join the top colleges on scholarships.
In contrast the most exposure top young rugby players receive is during the newly branded Natwest (formerly Daily Mail) cup, which still falls well behind the American system. The UK currently boasts one of the top University systems in the world, and yet the sporting side seems to be an afterthought in most cases. One of the few exceptions is Loughborough University whose rugby team are currently competing in English National League 1. Why a more competitive college rugby system has not been put into place with top young players being offered scholarships is unbelievable.
We all know that rugby isn’t a permanent paycheck, players at the top level will always need to find work after their playing days unlike in football. Therefore why not help the top young players acquire a degree whilst preparing themselves for a career in professional rugby, they are therefore set-up for life. Further to this the physical demands of top level rugby these days is a lot for young players, so why not give them the chance to develop competing against players of similar physical abilities in a college league before exposing them to the rigors of top level competition. The universities would also benefit from the distinction of fielding a top level sports team which could be a key attraction for many students. They could also seek financial compensation either through sponsorship of top performers by professional clubs, or through a signing-on fee paid by clubs for any player they wish to sign after they have completed their degree.
A vastly improved universities competition could also be used to feed into an NFL style draft system. The draft not only allows for an even spread of the best young players across clubs, but it also helps even the field and could allow for a loosening of the strict wage cap rules. One of the big issues in professional rugby is the concentration of young talent at top clubs. Often the top clubs attract some of the best talent in the country who are often left warming the bench whilst older more experienced players start.
In a college competition and draft style system top young players would be allowed to develop and gain game-time experience playing in university competitions before players are evenly spread between the top clubs in the country. The worst performing clubs in the league would be allowed first pick to help bring in the best players to even the playing field and we wouldn’t have situations like we have recently had at Leicester where talented young fly-half George Ford has seen his game time limited due to the presence of Toby Flood in the team despite his obvious talents.
This kind of system can only be good for helping to make professional competition more attractive to fans by evening the playing field and ensuring young players are given the opportunity to reach their full potential. It may also see more talented young players choosing rugby over football due to the attraction of having a competitive universities tournament to compete in where they are provided with scholarships to earn a full university degree before embarking on a professional sporting career. The security of having a full-back skills-set earned through gaining a degree must be of great appeal due to the potential for young players to suffer career-ending injuries at a very early age.
On a slightly less important but still relevant note is the ability of the NFL to market itself both at home and abroad. The introduction of league games to the UK is a big step in helping to widen the sports appeal that rugby should look to follow sooner rather than later. Although rugby is still a relatively minor sport in many countries it is starting to grow and find legs in a number of locations, not least of which is Japan who are set to host the 2019 World Cup. I still find it unbelievable that unlike most other major sporting teams, rugby clubs do not look to engage in short pre-season tours of emerging rugby nations.
The lack of touring by Premiership clubs seems a really shortsighted approach to marketing. Although the tours at this stage may not be particularly profitable, the opportunity to establish their club as the top supported club in the country is undeniable. A Sarries tour of Japan this summer seeing them play a couple of local club games finalizing in a match against the Japanese national side could see them become the top supported foreign club in the country in the run up to the World Cup finals in 2019. The tournament will obviously see a surge in support for rugby in the country, which could help develop the club with a worldwide fan base for years to come.
There is obviously the opportunity to sell shirts to newly acquired fans, but the potential to help sell future tv rights is the key element in such tours. This is one area where Premiership football has truly excelled. The ability of teams such as Manchester United to tour emerging nations and sell themselves as a product has seen the game become a multi-billion pound phenomenon. I’m not for a second suggesting rugby should whore themselves out to the highest bidder but it is clear that the game in certain areas is currently in dire financial straights and therefore in need of a much welcomed revenue boost.
There is also no better example of sports marketing than the NFL’s Super Bowl with advertisers scrambling over themselves to find something to sponsor or to purchase advertising space. The unveiling of Super Bowl ads is almost as big as the game itself with companies producing specially commissioned ads for the event that millions are spent on annually. The clubs involved should therefore look to work with key advertisers to make the most of the event and produce truly fantastic marketing material rather than looking to sell every blade of grass and spare minute of airtime as ad space.
The final point goes without explanation really; although cheerleaders aren’t a key component of any game they are a great way of putting bums on seats, creating a great atmosphere and generally appealing to a wider audience. This is one of the components Super XV have adopted and it seems to be going down pretty well. The girls are there for more than just to look good; they put on a great show and do a fantastic job of keeping the crowds spirits up.