Will Rugby World Cup 2015 Be Rugby’s Perfect Moment?

With almost one year to go to Rugby World Cup 2015, Synergy assembled an expert panel, in front of an invited audience in stunning surroundings at the top of The Shard, to discuss and debate key issues around rugby’s biggest tournament.

Shard panel

With the iconic Rugby World Cup trophy itself for company, the panel, moderated by BBC rugby commentator Andrew Cotter, featured: Brett Gosper, CEO of the IRB; Stephen Jones, Sunday Times Rugby Correspondent; Damian Hopley, CEO of the Rugby Players’ Association; Rose Beaumont, Senior Vice President and Group Head of Communications of RWC Worldwide Partner MasterCard; and Tim Crow, CEO of Synergy.

Shard 6

The panel and the stunning setting created an occasion to remember, as the debate ranged across an array of fascinating themes, including...

- The panellists' predictions for how RWC 2015 will play out on and off the field

- The IRB’s strategy for growing rugby globally

- The complementary roles of Rugby Sevens and of the 15-a-side game

- The relationship between today's professional rugby players and the media

- The need to re-structure the global rugby calendar

- The appeal of rugby for MasterCard

- Sponsorship at the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, when the sponsors were announced the day before the tournament and the media gift was a paper zip-up jacket!

For all this and more, check out our highlights film of the event below:

Red Bullies? Why Red Bull’s Ownership Model has Caused a Stir in German Football

RasenBallsport Leipzig may translate to ‘lawn ball sport’, but once you factor in their club crest (shown below), stadium (Red Bull Arena), and owners (Red Bull GmbH), it is quickly apparent that they are not your average lower league football team.

RB L

The club, owned and run by the Austrian-based energy drink company, is the fifth club to join the Red Bull stable of professional football clubs, and has caused a stir within German football since transforming the fifth division team SSV Markranstadt in 2009. After purchasing the licence and re-naming the club (which is abbreviated to RB Leipzig), the club colours were changed and the team moved to a new purpose-built stadium, with the goal of reaching the Bundesliga by 2016.

Opposition fans and teams have been quick to voice their displeasure, with 15 minutes of silence from 20,000 Union Berlin fans the most recent example. The reason for this is the apparent threat to the current, strict 50+1 structure of club ownership in Germany, whereby clubs are owned by members. At Bayern Munich, for example, adidas (€75m), Allianz (€110m) and Audi (€90m) all have 8.33% stakes, but the 75% majority is controlled by the members. Having progressed through the divisions so quickly, RB Leipzig have been criticised for making club membership expensive and hard to obtain. This is supported by the fact that the club currently only has 300 members, compared to approximately 250,000 members at Bayern Munich.

Nein zu RB

Multinational franchises aren't the exclusive domain of Red Bull though, with City Football Group taking controlling ownership of New York City FC and Melbourne City – formerly New York Metrostars and Melbourne Heart respectively - and a minority stake in Yokohama F Marinos. Many feel that being able to own more than one club is anti-competitive to other teams with fewer resources, and that it also restricts the opportunities for home-grown players. UEFA legislation stipulates that clubs with the same owner cannot participate in the same competition, a distinct possibility in the near future, were RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg to both qualify for the Europa or Champions League.

Of course, Red Bull is now a familiar name within the world of sport, owning two F1 teams, ice hockey teams, and a wide portfolio of both extreme sports and more mainstream athlete ambassadors. Within the space of 10 years, Red Bull F1 has won the Constructors’ Championship four times, yet there has been comparatively little backlash against the company. Red Bull's creation of extreme events such as the Air Race, Cliff Diving and Flugtag series has also captured the imagination of many, and has widely been praised, so why the backlash in German football?

Historically, club ownership has been tied to the local area, and it is this nuance that allows a couple of Bundesliga teams to be owned by multinational corporations. VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen are owned by Volkswagen & Bayer AG respectively, but this is permitted by the Bundesliga, as the clubs were formed from company factory staff. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are the other club that RB Leipzig highlight in defence of their model, pointing out the role that major investment has played, and a growing acceptance of the club in recent years.

VFLWolfs

Certainly, Red Bull have a way go to quell the backlash from the majority of the football-supporting German public, but advocates would argue that the success of the model makes the league more competitive. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have won 16 of the previous 20 Bundesliga titles, and a new ‘challenger’ within the Bundesliga may actually be a benefit to German football, in the same way many feel - with justification - that Red Bull has enhanced Formula One.

It would be interesting to see how the English public would react should Red Bull turn their attentions to these shores, as rumoured in 2013. A Red Bull-owned Premier League team would undoubtedly bring worldwide recognition, prestige and controversy; something that Red Bull do not tend to shy away from, but I suspect that prohibitive costs and regulation may prevent investment. Given the UEFA legislation and relative cost for English football teams, I would imagine growth markets of Latin America or Australia are more likely sites for a sixth member of the Red Bull football family.

Badge of Honour

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog on the latent potential for sponsors of Major League Soccer, citing climbing attendances, announcements of new teams with celebrity backers, a new major broadcast deal and a raft of high profile players from Europe.

On the face of it, the latest step in this development may not seem to be the most significant, but it’s perhaps more innovative than it first seems, and is yet another indication of the League’s progressive thinking that is helping to raise its profile with fans and sponsors alike.

With the current logo having been in use since the League played its first game in 1996, it was perhaps time for a refresh. The new effort is much more than a simple change of font, however. There are the usual ‘design inspirations’ that always surround a launch of any new logo whether that be in sport, art or fashion. In this case, the primary colours represent the United States and Canada, home to all MLS Franchises, whilst the prominent 3 stars represent the brand’s core values of ‘Club, Country and Community’. Nothing too groundbreaking here.

What sets this new design apart is the fact that the colours are fully interchangeable, making it easier for teams and sponsors to incorporate into their own content, whilst helping to drive the overall profile of the League itself. Any rightsholder’s goal should be to drive scale and commercial saleability for their property, and in something as simple as allowing interchangeable colours in their logo, the MLS is making it easier for both sponsors and teams to promote the League on their behalf around the globe.

Here it is amended for all teams within the League and how it will look on the LA Galaxy kit as of next season:

A criticism often leveled at rightsholders is that they are prohibitively inflexible, often fearing that the equity that they have invested over time in their own intellectual property will be compromised as sponsors make their presence felt. It is easy to see why this can be the case – sponsors after all, will come and go, so effort must be made in order to protect the enduring asset. What the MLS have done - and what I hope they continue to do in other areas – is to keep the bigger picture in mind of the promotion and growth of their sport, whilst appreciating the sponsors’ role within this.

LOCOG dipped their toe in this water for London 2012, developing a suite of colours for the Official Logo, allowing partners some freedom in its use in various contexts. It is also reminiscent of the Coca-Cola ‘Club Colours’ campaign – in which Synergy was instrumental – which saw Coke, as sponsors of the Football League, change the colours of its iconic logo for the first time in its history to match the colours of all 72 Football League clubs.

The MLS example however, represents a significant next step and a template for the future, that I would expect to see replicated elsewhere in the world – particularly in the developing leagues of Australia, Asia and the Middle East.

A perpetual issue within the launch of new partnerships can be the design of composite logos, which try, often in vain, to shoe-horn sponsor marks in with the existing logos of the rightsholder. If, as expected, the MLS open up their logo template to sponsors, it will be interesting to see whether more conservative football bodies such as the Premier League and the Football League take some inspiration from the other side of the pond – particularly with major title sponsorships on the market in the near future.

NFL Fantasy Football – A Missed Opportunity?

The beginning of September is like Christmas for many American Football fans, as the time for talking ends and the road to the Super Bowl begins. However, while teams were frantically finalising their 53-man rosters and practice squads in preparation, fans were busy too as they looked to create a team that would beat their colleagues and friends in NFL Fantasy Football.

nfl-fantasy-440

For the uninitiated, the American Football version of Fantasy Football differs greatly to the round ball equivalent most play over here. Instead of a free-for-all with managers picking the same players for their teams, the American Football version mirrors real life with a NFL Draft ensuring each manager has to adopt a strategy in order to gain a competitive advantage against his league rivals.

With every single player available for selection (including those that are no longer active such as controversial Quarter Back Tim Tebow), the draft forces team allegiances to be put to one side as fantasy managers look to develop a team and strategy to emerge victorious.

As a fairly recent convert to the Gridiron, I was invited to take part in my first NFL Fantasy Football Draft and while my knowledge is limited, it represented a great chance to learn more about the league and players outside of my team, the San Francisco 49ers.

While football fantasy managers have until the first game of the Premier League over here (although nothing stops you entering later) to select a team on their own, the American Football version requires all participants to join a league – you can’t actually play individually – to take part in a draft together.

League commissioners (think League Chairman over here) organise a draft time and managers can either choose to take part themselves or simply use auto pick which takes the highest rank player available each round.

However, the biggest surprise I found wasn’t that someone took the Houston Texans defence in the sixth round, but that the entire process seemed completely devoid of any brands outside the NFL. In a sport and country that is highly commercialised, brands are missing out on a great opportunity to connect with American Football fans.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), approximately 33 million people play Fantasy Football in the US each year, with 49% paying to play through league fees, subscription advice sites and analytics apps, spending on average $468 a year - a truly staggering figure.

Although brands such as Volkswagen, who commit $3 million in fantasy football sponsorships with CBS, and Lenovo, who produce content around Fantasy Football as part of their official computer partnership with the NFL, activate around fantasy football, no brand really owns this space.

Given that Fantasy Football managers are keen to access the latest information and are willing to pay for it, it's strange that there hasn’t been a similar sort of platform to IBM’s Try Tracker, which is used during the RBS 6 Nations (in conjunction with the Daily Telegraph), that’s free and accessible to fans.

The NFL’s Fantasy Football offering is partnered by Lenovo, who do provide the ‘Fantasy Coaches Corner’, but while this does provide some tips and highlights successful managers, it doesn’t feel like an immersive platform that offers something for both the hard-core and casual fan. Similarly, the partnership between Volkswagen and CBS Sports offers more of the same, and while the content is perfectly fine, it doesn’t offer enough variety to ensure participants use their website rather than a competitor's.

Much like any sporting organisation, the NFL has a long list of sponsors covering all areas from cereal to data storage. With Fantasy Football such a huge part of the NFL, surely a natural extension would be for one brand to become the official NFL stats provider and then link them to Fantasy Football. This would ensure they create further brand awareness – especially when you consider the rise of TV consumption on two screens i.e. fans watch while playing on a phone or tablet.

The Fantasy Football market will only continue to grow, especially as fans in new markets such as the UK embrace the idea. Currently UK fans can play either the original, American versions which contain the draft system or the NFL UK version which is presented by Sky Sports - mainly due to their ownership of the broadcasting rights for the majority of games.

However, the UK version loses some of the appeal generated by its across-the-pond rivals as it tries too hard to simplify the process and mimic the soccer version here with a salary cap. While it's admirable they are trying to cater to the UK market, the majority of fans who play Fantasy Football associate the process with the American versions, and as a result take part in US based offerings.

But what US brands have seemingly neglected is that with more fans, both domestically and internationally, comes greater opportunities for brands to reach new consumers. It’s certainly an area worth exploring, as the US advertising revenues on Fantasy Football sites are estimated to bring in $2 – $5 billion annually and with every player having to participate in the draft, taking ownership could prove lucrative for any brand bold enough.