We look at the value of iconic figures in the fight for international attention

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Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

FOR A moment everything tilted, without ever actually toppling. When it was believed that Lionel Messi would be leaving Barcelona, in what would be the great cleaving of a quintessential football union, panic began to rise.

There were takes – oh were there takes. There was a giddiness too. As with a departure, so would there be a glorious arrival at a new football club. Would he upturn another league? Would he be wearing sky blue? Could we all keep up?

And as soon as the panic rose, it receded. He would stay.

It can feel like that with football. Some storylines seep into the greater consciousness, like bar smoke into your dungarees (the Nineties was a very different time). But it also shows the power not just of the world’s biggest sport but of the biggest names within that sport.

Football isn’t alone here. In basketball, there are figures that the whole world seems to bend around. On a recent trip to the USA to see the LA Sevens, over an encounter with Bryan Curtis, editor-at-large with The Ringer, talk turned to the NBA’s big-ticket star LeBron James and what happened when he switched Cleveland for California.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

All eyes on him: Lionel Messi for Barcelona (Getty Images)

“When LeBron moved to LA he brought journalists with him,” Curtis explains of the icon’s move to the Lakers. “Which is so fascinating, right? It’s like LeBron creates content.

“There’s a story or ten at his locker every night. So when he decided to come here that brought a big centre of gravity here, and then when Kawhi Leonard came here last summer too (to join the LA Clippers), that brought another centre of gravity. So all of a sudden, you know, come here, there’s a story at their lockers every night. Why wouldn’t you be there?”

Those stories do not just stay in the States, either. They reach fans in Shanghai, Santo Domingo or Sheffield.

Yet as everyone in sport tries to plot a route out of this business-devouring pandemic, with so much uncertainty still ahead, you consider how lucky it is that certain leagues – certain games – have stellar, bankable names to sell with. And then you wonder: does rugby do enough to make marketable stars out of their best talents?

There’s a feeling they will need to.

DAZZLING STARS

“THERE IS no doubt that using the players as the sharp end of the spear is the smart move,” says sports marketing consultant Tim Crow of the opportunities facing rugby. “Particularly if you want to recruit the younger generation. They follow celebrities, they follow players.

“I saw it when Beckham moved from (Manchester) United to Real Madrid, when I was working with sponsors of both clubs. And Real Madrid reported a huge influx of fans from around the world. We saw the same with Cristiano Ronaldo moving from Madrid to Juventus. Juventus put on huge numbers of social media followers.

“With all things considered, rugby does not have a global superstar. There’s some very, very big stars in their country and in the game. But does anybody transcend the sport right now? I don’t think so. And by transcend the sport I mean, if they walk down a street in any country in the world, would a decent number of people stop them?

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

In demand: The late Jonah Lomu with fans in Cardiff (Getty Images)

“Back in the day, if Jonah Lomu would walk down the street pretty much anywhere, a lot of people would have recognised him.”

When it comes to big fish in rugby, Jonah is still the whale. His legacy as the very first rugby megastar is secured, but Crow suggests no current player has that same global appeal – the kind that creeps across the boundaries between sports. At least right now.

He considers the Jonah Lomu Rugby video game, released in 1997. An epochal part of rugby culture in the wake of professionalism, the sight of  Lomu tearing past poor pixelated defenders was burnt into the memories of so many – alongside the commentary of Bill McLaren and Bill Beaumont.

Crow recalls a conversation with a game developer, when the title came up. According to the sports marketer, the developer said: “We’d never do anything like that again, with rugby as it is now, because there’s no one big enough to support it.” Before adding himself: “Those games are sold on people. Who’s on the front cover and whose game is it? It definitely holds rugby back, no question.”

When Agustin Pichot was running for chairman of World Rugby, against Beaumont, the Argentine made talk of a game part of his platform. He could see the appeal to a certain generation and the reflexive brand recognition that could be learnt. But the screaming, tie-dye elephant in the room is that a game has to offer a certain return. Electronic Artists know they can rely on their FIFA and Madden NFL titles.

To be clear: there are rock stars in the current game that rugby is lucky to have. But as it stands, there is a feeling that none can convert the global masses or force soccer fans to purchase Rugby 2021.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Leading: Patrick Mahomes against the Texans in the new NFL season (Getty Images)

In American Football, there is no shortage of faces who can sell a game. In the last iteration of Madden, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes graced the cover. He would then lead his team to a Super Bowl win and is the face of advertising campaigns.

In April it was confirmed that Mahomes had overtaken the legendary Tom Brady as the man to sell the most merchandise in 2019. And at the same time, reports in the US claimed that on the day fans could buy the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey, following Brady’s move to the team, sales of merchandise with his name on it increased by more than 3000% compared with the previous day on e-commerce sites run by fanatics (like NFLShop.com or shop.buccaneers.com).

These guys mean big business. But do they come out of their academies, colleges and early days in their sport ready-baked for superstardom? Perhaps some special alchemy is needed.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Beamed round the world: Rugby needs big stars in viral moments (Getty Images)

“There’s got to be that magic,” Crow says. “There’s got to be that Steph Curry or LeBron James or Lionel Messi or Jonah Lomu or Tiger Woods moment. The moment that transcends the sport and everyone goes, ‘Okay, whoa, did you see that?’ And that goes around the world.

“It’s very difficult that, because otherwise you’d have global superstars being produced all the time. because there are magical things happening all the time (on the field of play). But unless someone is a superstar, if they’ve not got that X-Factor it ain’t gonna travel.”

SOCIAL BATTLEGROUNDS

IF YOU want to see a real time example of this, consider the impact Slovenian basketball star Luka Doncic had during the NBA’s time in the bubble. He is a growing force in the league and in one superb showing for the Dallas Mavericks in their series against the Clippers, he sent an army of international fans off to torture their devices.

According to a spokesperson from the NBA: “Doncic’s winning shot in (that) game was talked about across Europe and globally. It trended in 16 countries (trend times were between 6.15pm on 23 August to 10.40am on 25 August, New York time).

“The countries the words ‘Luka Doncic’ trended in were Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, France, Greece, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Spain, Turkey and Venezuela. In the Dominican Republic it was trending in first place for 585 minutes.

“NBA Spain tweeted the moment that night and the video has garnered more than 1.7m video views (now past 1.8m) and is the single highest performing piece of content on the channel since the restart.”

Remember, these are stats based on an individual – that’s the pointy end of the spear, as Crow would say.

In a recent report from The Athletic on Everton’s signing of Colombian soccer star James Rodriguez, the site noted: “Another aspect that appeals to the club is Rodriguez’s formidable social media profile. He has 46 million Instagram followers, more than Manchester United, Liverpool, Lewis Hamilton and Tiger Woods.”

They went on to add: “The club will target more online adverts and content in South America, which was viewed as economically thriving before Covid-19, particularly in Brazil. Rodriguez’s star-studded CV makes him the perfect vehicle for converting some of his followers into potential supporters.”

If we want a shorthand comparison of an individual’s attraction on Instagram, Dan Carter has 1m followers, while Springboks captain Siya Kolisi – who Jay-Z’s Roc Nation group are hoping will cement himself as a global star who transcends his sport – has 534k followers. LeBron James? He has 71.9m followers. Then there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has an astounding audience of 238m on the platform.

Of course it is all relative. Rugby cannot simply choose to explode in popularity overnight, to compete with soccer.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Roc on: Roc Nation will hope Siya Kolisi transcends rugby (Getty Images)

In a recent interview with the BBC, celebrating 25 years since rugby went professional in the Nineties (as we’ve said, a very different time), World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper said: “There is now a lot more coherence and understanding of the sport and its fan base than there was in those days. There is a collective will to do great things for the sport in terms of growing it.

“Coming from where we have come from – seeing the interest it engenders whether in the World Cup arena or the Olympics arena – this sport only has one direction to go, so you can only be optimistic.

“Yes, we would probably like to have moved a bit faster and brought on some new markets faster, which we are working on now.”

You’re nodding. Yep, fair enough.

It’s also worth noting that as the world’s youth have rapidly embraced the TikTok social media platform, World Rugby have jumped in willingly. As it stands they have 462k followers on there, with 9.7m ‘likes’.

In a recent column for SportsPro, World Rugby’s chief commercial officer Tom Hill sounded hugely optimistic about the economic potential of the sport. He said that 70% of the recent Rugby World Cup‘s global broadcast audience came from outside of traditional rugby markets (World Rugby say they had an audience of more than 857m through the tournament – by comparison FIFA claim they had 1.12bn viewers for the Women’s World Cup the same year).

Hill pointed to impressive growth in South-East Asia, where Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam were on the list of top 20 territories for TV figures globally. He added that “the region, along with the US, also broke into the top six across the TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube platforms”.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Gains: Rugby’s finanical success stories deserve credit (Getty Images)

But then he also wrote: “Whilst Rugby World Cup 2019 was a huge success and we are incredibly proud of what was achieved, the world has changed during the Covid-19 pandemic and a new way of doing business has emerged. Major events will inevitably need to evolve, as will the offering for commercial partners. There is, now more than ever, an appetite for impactful, purpose-driven partnerships that reflect the passions and concerns of society.”

Change with one eye on the markets is great. Interestingly, he makes no mention of the words ‘athletes’, ‘individuals’ or ‘stars’, while ‘player’ only features in a line about “digital activation of assets including player of the match and Rugby World Cup Daily generated more than £370 million (US$486 million) in Hookit Earned Media value.” Of course his was a piece about the commercial future of a whole sport, but then again rugby has an interesting relationship with the idea of the individual.

TEAM > INDIVIDUALS

AS CROW sees it, “There’s sort of an ethic in rugby about the team – the team become very, very important over the individual. Arguably the biggest brand in rugby is the All Blacks and that is all about the team rather than the individual, which is an interesting way of marketing the game.”

You will be aware that certain All Blacks are a sponsor’s dream – Beauden Barrett is no stranger to an ad campaign. And it’s the sponsors, not his own team, pushing him. Plus, like some of those stars considered iconic from other sports, things evolved organically for Barrett. Remember he wasn’t a starter during that 2015 World Cup triumph.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Give ’em the look: Beauden Barrett poses (Getty Images)

Yet for some of a certain sensibility, championing any individual rugby player is vulgar. For others, someone who tries to stand out should not be trusted. Those individuals who blow games open are good, sure, but teams survive because of the ‘bin juice’, workaday, solid pros, and the lads will just take it one game at a time and the best players are just one of the team.

It’s clearly different in individual sports, right?

“There’s no question Tiger Woods remains the biggest draw in golf – he moves the needle like no one else and transcends the sport,” says Nick Bonfield of Golf Monthly magazine. “As an example, in 2015 Woods signed up to play the Phoenix Open, despite being a shell of his former self at the time. Regardless, the tournament smashed its previous attendance record and an auxiliary media centre had to be constructed to cope with demand.

“In-person attendance, television viewership and media coverage all increase exponentially when he’s in a field. That said, golf isn’t as reliant on Woods as it was, say, 15 years ago.

“Rory McIlroy – who has won four Major titles since 2011 – looked like becoming golf’s next genuine superstar, but the fact he’s arguably fallen short of that prediction points to an increasing strength in depth at the top of the game, both in terms of on-course prowess and marketability. Four-time Major Champion Brooks Koepka, prolific winner Dustin Johnson, a bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau, the ‘golfing scientist’, fiery Spaniard Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas – a man who has already won 13 PGA Tour events at the age of 27 – are all vying for the World No.1 position, with the likes of USPGA champion Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and impressive Dane Rasmus Hojgaard headlining the next generation.

“Woods is still golf’s biggest star, and by a distance, but he’s not carrying the torch alone. When he calls time on a historic career, the professional game will be well placed to cope. With that being said, though, it’s great that Tiger’s still going!”

Is there anything team sports can compare here? Certainly individual names from team sports can ‘move the needle’.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Golf’s big draw: Tiger Woods (Getty Images)

Sure there’s still that parade of celebrities coming out of soccer, with comfort in the belief that the cast can keep refreshing without the product being damaged. In June, Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, told the Catalan radio station RAC 1 that: “We have television contracts signed with or without Messi.”

However the administrator also conceded that while others had left the league before, “it’s different in Messi’s case.

“Messi is the best player in the history of soccer. We have been lucky to have always had him in our league. I think that Messi’s departure would be noticeable.”

You can sense the nervousness. When you’re relying so much on certain teams and stars, any wobble from them can feel seismic. But you would always prefer to have some megastar names in your league. Which is why you can forgive anyone at Premiership Rugby for getting excited about Semi Radradra‘s arrival in Bristol. If things go well, his brand could be cultivated nicely. But all parties have to show willing for that to succeed.

It’s tough under the spotlight. And when others seek to control their own narrative through their own ventures, like England’s Maro Itoje has set out to do, you can only respect it.

Without doubt Itoje resonates with rugby fans. You know the chant from the Lions tour. You have seen his impact for club and country. You have seen slick shots of him. Which is testament to his prowess as a lock as much as his charisma. Over time he could well become the rugby name known around the globe.

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Charismatic: England lock Maro Itoje (Getty Images)

It’s worth considering the type of players who could stand out for the uninitiated. For example, in the truncated, recent Six Nations, Itoje made the most dominant tackles, with 20. Look down the list of names after him and Bernard le Roux of France made 13, with Sam Underhill making 11. Will those stats blow the minds of the casual or uninitiated?

In the 2019 Six Nations, Alun Wyn Jones had the most effective defensive ruck arrivals, while on the offensive side George Kruis had the most effective attacking ruck arrivals. Which is why their supporters love them. That is hammering yourself for the good of the team.

The sad thing is, the special moments almost have to be more blindingly obvious, often away from the forwards, and loaded with panache.

COMPETING WITH THE WORLD

IN THE hybrid world of ‘sports entertainment’ and wrestling, being vocal, flamboyant or demonstrative is a large part of the product. And outfits like World Wrestling Entertainment are well aware of their place amongst competing interests.

Paul Levesque – better known to some by his ring name, Triple H – looks after global talent strategy and development for WWE. He recently told The Bill Simmons Podcast of the company: “I think it’s the growth potential of what this company can be and become as a media company. When you look at the rest of the world – to expand into those markets. Because of geography in the past, we’ve only been able to go in there for a one-off or something and come back to do television. So localising in those places becomes very big. Sometimes especially in the US, you tend to think about just the US.

“But when you look outside at India, just the potential alone. There are 1.5 billion people there and we’re the second biggest sport in India outside of cricket, and cricket is like a religion. There are opportunities for us there, we’re firmly planted there. We have a long 25-plus year track record in that market, but we can get in there much deeper and create opportunities in ways that we never have before because of technology and everything else.”

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Playing the crowd: Triple H in the ring, 2011 (Getty Images)

And the talent is at the heart of that. For their obvious abilities and also what they project out into the world, away from the ring.

You may think there is a pantomime element to what they do, but Levesque has no problem using the word ‘sport’ and he is well aware of what WWE is competing against. What their product also has, inherently, is tension between the talent.

It’s something others in sport have seen the benefit of. The Netflix docu-series F1: Drive To Survive has been praised by some reviewers. Within the series, the sport’s bosses have allowed the producers to highlight rivalries, dramas and tensions – in fact, they have made a point of it. And neutrals have appreciated it. One Wired review had the a subheading that said “the series manages to capture the true drama of F1”.

This is a vastly different approach to the 24 Sevens mini docs that World Rugby and HSBC have produced on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. It remains to be seen if their ‘everyone loves everyone’ approach will entice outsiders to the abbreviated form of rugby.

“The younger generation are just as interested – and in some cases even more interested – in what happens behind the scenes as they are what happens on the field of play, in the arena,” offers Crow. “That is one of the things that eSports is very good at bringing to life.

“We have eSports’ world’s coming up in a couple of weeks. You can have a lot of gamers online training and they’ll open it up so people can train with them. They will engage with them online while they’re doing it. That kind of thing is anathema to sports. They want things behind closed doors and there’s a lot of sacred cows that will have to be shot in order to truly embrace what the competition is doing.

“You’re competing with Netflix (and gaming as well as other sports). If you look at teens and the early 20s, Netflix and YouTube are dominating their day. If you haven’t got content that is ready-made for those platforms, you’re fighting for a smaller and smaller share of the pie.”

Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Squad calls: The Lions selections in 2017 (Getty Images)

Rugby bodies are not sleepwalking, though. Shane Whelan, director of digital, marketing and communications for the British & Irish Lions, told The Telegraph this week: “In terms of online engagement, the squad announcement is on a par with the first Test – it gets massive numbers on social media. For instance, in the week leading up to the reveal (in 2017) we added 150,000 followers on our social channels.

“Over the years we’ve seen it grow as an event too, but we want to take it to the next level. We believe it can be a standalone, appointment-to-view TV event, similar to the NFL Draft, but obviously not quite on that scale just yet.”

Sustainable growth takes time and it’s worth fighting for. The powers-that-be in the sport know this.

As the fight for eyeballs intensifies in a post-Covid world, though, we will see how much rugby is willing to invest in turning their brightest stars into personalties who appeal across all sports.

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