Analysis: In the shadow of the beautiful game

Rugby's temporary PR flourish in the World Cup has not solved the core problem for all sports other than football - how to compete for attention with the national game. Mark Johnson reports on the 'grassroots and stars' strategy many sports now employ

Be honest. Before England won the rugby World Cup in Sydney, did you know who Jonny Wilkinson was? He has become a household name after England's victory in Australia, but while captain Martin Johnson and coach Clive Woodward are extolled as paragons of leadership and Wilkinson is described as a hero, rugby - like tennis, cricket, golf and a host of lesser sports - has always been played in the shadow of the real national obsession: football.

The question is: will one major success ever be enough to make rugby as popular as football? It is a question PR managers in other sports are increasingly grappling with in the face of football's ubiquity in the news and sports pages alike.

There is no doubt rugby as a whole will benefit from England's success.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is projecting a 20 per cent staggered uplift on turnover, including greater demand for tickets to games at Twickenham and the Zurich Premiership, higher demand for hospitality suites and increased sales of England team merchandise.

But momentum is the key. When England reached the final and lost to Australia in the 1991 World Cup, a huge intake at junior level followed, but this had largely fizzled out by 1999. 'We want to avoid the dissipation that occurred after 1991,' says RFU comms director Richard Prescott. But there is no getting over the fact, he says that 'football is, and always will be, number one'.

The sport has a lot of ground to make up. Research by the RFU has found that rugby is ranked 15th among sports in terms of school participation.

The body is attempting to boost school participation with a grassroots school programme, and this will be backed up with campaigns to make players such as Wilkinson and Johnson more accessible to the media, says Prescott.

Rugby is not alone in using this 'grassroots and stars' strategy. The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) communications director Heidi Cohu says the personalities at the top of any sport are its most important asset when it comes to promoting participation, media coverage and growing the fan base.

'Tennis is the hardest sport to promote because it's not a team sport.

Football and rugby have whole teams from which to pick personalities, but tennis relies on individuals who are constantly on the move (touring the world for competitions),' says Cohu.

But there are PR lessons that the LTA has learned from football; the most important being the class image of the game. Since the anti-hooliganism campaigns of the 1980s, football has managed to soften its image and broaden its appeal to the middle class.

Tennis and cricket, on the other hand, are arguably still seen as the preserve of the middle class, and this is plainly a hindrance to widespread participation.

Cohu admits an elitist image has been the biggest PR battle faced by tennis: 'One of our key strategies over the past few years has been to encourage more juniors into the sport, while also changing the culture of our clubs and the elitist image we've been battling with,' she says.

'We don't grant funding to clubs that can't prove they are promoting themselves to youth.'

Cricket's response to the broadening appeal conundrum has been to speed up the actual game. Drastic changes to the format were introduced with a shorter, fast-paced game called Twenty20 last season, consisting of 20 overs for each side.

The new-style matches attracted 250,000 people to cricket grounds across the country, according to England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) media relations manager Andrew Walpole.'The success of that (format) has attracted a lot more people to the game,' he says.

But he agrees the format is not the only issue faced by cricket. The sport needs to develop its top players into media personalities, he says.

To that end, this year saw the ECB launch a campaign around a glossy lifestyle brochure featuring nine England men's team players and England women's captain Clare Connor in informal photographs.

'The idea was to get cricket off the back pages and into the lifestyle pages. We're trying to position the players as style icons,' says Walpole.

But does such repositioning increase media interest, something all sporting bodies believe is a vital element in building the sport?

There is no doubt in the mind of Observer Sport Monthly editor Jason Cowley that apart from winners, big personalities are of key interest to the public, and therefore the media. 'Cricket, in particular, is in danger of becoming a minority sport because it lacks a famous figure like Ian Botham,' says Cowley.

He points to the case of Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming, who since joining the Houston Rockets in the US has made basketball a serious challenger to football as the favourite team sport in China.

So if rugby and other sports are to emulate the success of football, players like Jonny Wilkinson will have to become a little more accustomed to the prying eyes of the media.

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