Murray Barnett is head of broadcast, commercial and marketing for World Rugby based in Ireland. However, he’s heading to Sydney for the upcoming Ministry Of Sports Marketing conference on 19th July. Here he tells B&T about the unique challenges of marketing a game often perceived as complicated and how the shorter, sevens version is changing everything…
You’re coming to Sydney for the Ministry of Sports Marketing Conference… what can delegates expect?
Firstly, I’m delighted to have been invited and look forward to sharing Rugby World Cup experiences. Rugby World Cup 2015 was the most successful Rugby World Cup ever on almost every level. I will be reviewing the ingredients that contributed that success and what learnings we had along the way. This will include some of the challenges we faced and also working with our commercial partners. I also want to touch upon our overall strategy for Rugby Union, our key objectives and the strategy for achieving that. With the Olympics just around the corner 2016 promises to be another big year for Rugby Union so that will be another area for discussion especially after the enormous success of Sydney 7s. I also look forward to having the opportunity to listen and chat to the other delegates and speakers. We are always keen to learn from others.
What, for you, are the big issues/themes in sports marketing in 2016? What do the fans expect?
The environment is getting more complex and competitive so I expect to see a lot of focus around fan engagement and the fan experience. The US leagues are still light years ahead of the rest of the world in embracing and serving fans. By doing this, they are also able to unlock customer data through engagement created by having smart connected stadia. By doing this it opens up new revenue opportunities and higher consumption in existing revenue streams. There will continue to be great media production developments. I believe drones, not VR is going to be the biggest single viewing enhancement. From a league or sport perspective there are two issues which will remain dominant, as will player welfare and integrity (cheating both doping and betting). Finally, anyone who has children under 16 will know that Esports will continue to grow exponentially.
It’s a battle for eyeballs and – you’d have to concede – rugby often isn’t the number one sport in most territories (New Zealand aside). How does that change a marketing strategy? What challenges does that throw-up?
I’m not sure it changes the strategy. Whenever you are promoting anything you have to find its USP. We believe the USP of Rugby Union is that it is the sport of character. Our core values of Integrity, Passion, Solidarity, Discipline and Respect are positive “life” attributes. Our slogan is “Building Character since 1886”. The Rugby World Cup represents the pinnacle of the sport and the biggest shop window. Our job is to maximise the audience which in turn creates value for the sport and our current and future commercial partners.
We’re seeing an explosion in interest in the 7s game. Are they a different sort of fan to the traditional 15-a-side?
We are also big believers that Sevens will be a game changer for the sport. It’s a market entry version of the game in markets were 15 is too technical or not suited to the sports fans. It’s a good example of embracing an adaptation of the game to promote the sport outside of its key markets. We are seeing huge growth in markets where 15’s struggles. In addition to new markets, 7s also attracts a completely different audience. At the Sydney 7s (in February), 70 per cent of hospitality sales were to people who had never bought a ticket to see a Wallabies Test.
What are the unique opportunities rugby offers over other sports?
The core values of the sport are attractive in creating well rounded adults. This in its self attracts audiences who find soccer too tribal and aggressive. I also believe that, at its best, the product on the field is a spectacular and captivating game for fans in stadia and in arm chair. Union players are also charismatic and great role models people can aspire to be like (there are always a few exceptions!). We also don’t believe that we compete against other sports – increasingly all sports are competing against all leisure & entertainment activities. It’s all entertainment whether you hold a bat, ball, joystick, kindle, iPad, etc.
In terms of digital/social/mobile what do fans expect?
Fans need to be connected to the sport they follow at all times and all locations. At ESPN, we used to talk about “serving fans wherever and whenever they are watching or talking about sport”. This is the expectation these days. At World Rugby we have created a suite of products for our competitions that allow fans to watch on the go, get reminders as to when matches are on, socially interact, play games and even edit their own highlights. These are incredibly important in keeping fans engaged.
What are the challenges in trying to convert new fans to the game?
As I’ve mentioned before, the biggest challenge to attracting new fans is the sheer volume of entertainment options available. Rugby union can also seem very complicated from the outside. We need to work hard to make the game easier to understand. There is also a challenge around the flow of the game. Again, we are looking at rules changes and enhancements that will speed up play and make a more compelling product. In order to stay relevant with changing audience habits it’s important to continue to innovate and develop the sport. TV also has an important part to play through graphics, stats and style of coverage.
Rugby is one of those few sports that is a truly global sport – how does that work to your advantage?
Is a great advantage in the sense that we have critical mass however each country has a different idea on how to develop the game and each have different needs. This creates a hugely complex environment. The scale does mean that, when things go well, they go very well, however, when things go bad, they can rapidly snowball! The challenge is managing our messaging and planning in detail with all the stakeholders.
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