ANALYSIS: PRESS RELATIONS; Tackling the conflicts of business and sport

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

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

for EPRUC.

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

its sponsors.

‘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.

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