Sport is no longer merely a game, it’s become big business. Greater
investment has created a greater demand for PR expertise which crosses
the boundaries of both worlds
Rugby Union’s switch from amateur to professional status has been marked
as much by ructions off the pitch as exciting rucks and mauls on it.
Even those with less than a passing interest in sport cannot have failed
to notice the extensive media coverage given to the dispute between the
game’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union and the English
Professional Rugby Union Clubs - the organisation representing England’s
top club sides.
At the heart of the dispute lies the difficulty of balancing the
sometimes conflicting needs and desires of the RFU, the clubs and the
players in the new era of professionalism. The sudden commercialisation
of the sport has forced clubs to become more business-minded and has
attracted a new wave of investors.
In this atmosphere, where sponsorship and revenue are as important as
tries and conversions, the players and EPRUC have found themselves at
loggerheads with the RFU. The clubs and the players have been holding
out for a better deal from the RFU, which recently agreed a five-year TV
rights package with BSkyB worth pounds 87.5 million.
By striking a deal with Sky unilaterally, the RFU has had to face the
threat of England’s expulsion from the Five Nations championship by the
other participating nations, whose governing bodies were aggrieved at
being left out of the negotiations. Compounding the problem, the England
squad has not yet trained together this season in a gesture of support
This is the brave new world of professional Rugby Union where the line
between sport and commerce has become ever more blurred and where as a
result the protagonists are turning increasingly to PR to achieve
It has also created wider opportunities for advisers. Sports marketing
agency Michael Humphreys and Partners has worked with the RFU for almost
a decade advising on matters such as sponsorship. However, over the past
year it has also taken on the role of its media and PR consultant.
It has also emerged that the RFU has retained Lowe Bell Political to
help it lobby MPs on the benefits of the Sky deal and to staunch a
burgeoning sentiment that the Five Nations should become a ‘listed’
event in the same way as Wimbledon or the Grand National - an event
which cannot by law be shown only on pay TV. It is understood that Sir
Tim Bell’s outfit has also been offering advice on PR strategy.
MH&P director Teresa Cash concedes Rugby Union’s switch from amateur to
professional status hasn’t gone as smoothly as she would have liked but
makes a key point to account for this: ‘Sports aren’t on their own
anymore, they have business partners.’
Ken Johnstone, an independent PR consultant and rugby fan, has been
handling Bath rugby club’s PR on a voluntary basis for eight years but
has now followed the players’ example by turning professional. He has
been offered a contract by Bath together with the title of media
manager. ‘There are a lot of new people writing about rugby now, non-
rugby writers who are interested in the lifestyles of the new players,’
says Johnstone. ‘The whole job has broadened.’
Earlier this year Norman Howell, former head of communications at the
McLaren Formula One team and Peter Bills, ex-editor of Rugby World,
formed specialist consultancy Sports Media Communications.
‘We felt there were a number of sports, and a number of businesses that
work with sports that didn’t understand the media,’ says Howell. ‘Sport
has become business. Where people are pouring considerable amounts of
money into it, you have to acknowledge that they want more back than
just a name on a shirt.’
One of Sports Media’s first clients is EPRUC which - perhaps with a view
to levelling the playing field, given that the RFU can call on both Lowe
Bell and MH&P - has also been talking to corporate and City PR Buchanan
Communications with a view to using it alongside Sports Media.
Buchanan has also been advising Chrysalis entrepreneur Chris Wright,
investor in both QPR football club and Wasps rugby club, on his plans to
float them on the Stock Exchange as combined entity Loftus Road. Such
plans are indicative of the way sport is going: top clubs are changing
from being the playthings of the rich to business investments offering
the prospect of healthy returns for capital risked.
You have only to look at the commercial success of football club
Manchester United - now capitalised at over pounds 275 million after
floating at under pounds 50 million just five years ago - to see how
tightly business and sport have become entwined, prompting a greater
need for PR advice.
Westminster Strategy has been running the Premier League’s press office
for two years and all Premier League clubs now have at least a
designated press spokesperson. Other sports too have embraced PR. Rugby
League side London Broncos this summer appointed MacLaurin
Communications to handle a brief that includes maximising coverage for
‘The world has woken up to the fact that if you don’t understand how
money is driving sport you won’t understand where it’s going,’ says
Sunday Times sports editor Jeff Randall. Randall, a former City editor
of the Sunday Times who returned to the paper earlier this year after a
stint at Financial Dynamics, confirms that his business journalism
experience was one of the factors that helped him land his new position.
That, perhaps more than anything, illustrates the significance of
business principles in sport today.