Scotland's latest corporate deal saw a name-change as the stadium became Scottish Gas Murrayfield
Unless you’re a Tory Cabinet minister, a crypto trader, or a porn-bot mastermind on social media, the chances are you’re watching your wallet at the moment – as opposed to buying a new one made from the hind of a Snow Tiger. And as rugby union fans, the dire economic situation is laid bare in the sport we love.
You must have been living in the depths of the ‘Rising Star’ cave system in South Africa not to realise that rugby union’s finances are on their arse. With clubs going bang, quicker than any of Hubble’s discoveries and players struggling to find clubs, rugby needs whatever finance it can attract.
It is within this financial environment that rugby fans’ constant negativity towards sponsorship and television deals jars, now more than ever. Supporters have always complained about the naming of stadiums, too many logos on the shirts and irregular TV kick off times. But when rugby was flashing around its cash like a 90’s rapper from Compton, it didn’t really matter. Now, those negative criticisms towards commercialism seem less relevant with every 80 minutes that passes, or another club closes its doors.
Last month saw a host of new sponsorship deals – Scottish Gas Murrayfield being a great example. But instead of welcoming the income and marvelling that there are still brands willing to take a risk on what is becoming an increasingly volatile commercial rugby environment, it was met with the usual sneers and memes.
It isn’t a situation unique to the northern hemisphere. In South Africa, there are many still refusing to recognise the Sharks as the Cell C Sharks, whilst at the same time basking in their ability to sign glorious new shiny backs and 120kg forwards.
There is of course a line that needs to be drawn in the sand regarding taste and decency. The ‘British National Party Stadium’ is clearly going to create more problems than it’ll solve. But as a rule, rugby currently needs all the cash that it can get. The ‘Only Fans Stadium’ would probably be a coin flip of a decision.
At this time of year we also see new rugby kits unveiled for the upcoming season, often with new sponsors. But instead of being grateful for the money that keeps the doors open for another 12 months, the announcements are usually met with criticisms over the sheer size and number of logos. In a decade’s time we may look back on the ‘size of shirt logos debate’ as a glorious period in rugby sponsorship.
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Ten years from now, the money in the game may become so insignificant that sponsorship deals require all supporters to have the logos tattooed directly onto their foreheads and laser etched onto their retinas. If it gets to that stage, then feel free to complain.
Then there’s the TV money and the associated demands of the TV companies. ‘Demands’ is the wrong word. It’s their right to the goods that they have purchased. TV companies contribute a massive amount of the budget for rugby at both Test and club level, without it there would be no professional rugby.
The days of all rugby matches kicking off at 3pm are over. Back then clubs could run on gate money, pies and pints – because they weren’t paying players (openly). They can’t anymore. The key consideration from rugby union isn’t that rugby fans like you and your mates can hop on a bus and watch a 3pm kick-off – it would be great if it was, but it isn’t.
This isn’t to say that empty stadiums and 7pm kick-offs are ideal, they obviously aren’t. But you either take the money and adapt or refuse the money and fold. It’s also unhelpful to look at football as a benchmark for TV rights and kick-off times. Football is the most popular sport in the world, rugby union is not.
If football is the tall handsome man standing at the bar in a tailor-made suit (with a gaggle of adoring admirers exchanging glances), rugby is the little weird dude standing in the corner of the room, looking at his phone and eating a scotch egg.
Then there’s the Ospreys’ announcement that they will play one home game in London due to fixture clashes with Swansea City – likely it’ll be against the Sharks. To the open-minded, it’s a great idea. A one-off game in London, where there not only lives a thriving Welsh community, but also stacks of Saffas.
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Yet the response on social media was markedly negative. Which was incredible given how affordable the Ospreys’ season tickets are – even with one home game being played away. It makes you wonder whether those who want the Welsh regions to play in the English premiership realise that if they were in that league, they’d have to travel to away games in London, and further afield on a regular basis. If you can’t face going to one game in London, are you really going to travel to Sale, Saints and Falcons on a monthly basis?
None of what has been written above will of course be popular with rugby supporters. Especially those who have been watching it for over 30 years. Those supporters saw the best of the amateur and the professional game, the heyday of both. But those glorious days are gone, for now. We often complain that professional rugby is still run by amateurs and with good reason. But the professional game is also followed largely by ‘amateur’ supporters, those who crave the good old days, but demand new money with few concessions.
The desire to want rugby to largely mimic the blueprint of the 80s/90s is a pipe dream and reminiscent of the Tory party grandees who crave the past and will do whatever they can do to drag us back there. If you’re a rugby supporter who criticises the renaming of stadiums, mocks the naming of sponsors in a team’s name, complains about multiple sponsors names on shirt designs, and wants every game to kick off at 3pm, then that is entirely your prerogative. But if you also complain that your team has no money, can’t compete, has substandard coaching staff and can’t sign any players of note, then you may be part of the problem.
Modern rugby fans need to widen their focus and become more accepting of new commercial opportunities and markets. Otherwise, we’ll end up with some version of ‘Brexit Rugby’ where a load of 50-year-old male rugby fans are chasing a historic rugby ideal that no longer exists.
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