After two disrupted years, European rugby’s Six Nations Championship is back playing in front of full crowds, reigniting ancient rivalries in historic capital cities.
It is a competition which captures the imagination of hardcore and casual rugby union fans every year. The spectacle is always evolving. Social media giant TikTok has been engaged for 2022, driving dynamic content on its platform and taking title sponsorship of the women’s tournament, which kicks off in March.
Despite pandemic-era turbulence, confidence in union’s long-term prospects remains high. Investors have circled rugby properties for some time and recent events have accelerated major agreements.
The primary mover has been former Formula One owner CVC. It now has sizeable minority stakes not just in the Six Nations Championship but also in two leading club competitions: England’s Premiership Rugby and the United Rugby Championship (URC), formerly Pro14, which features sides from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and South Africa.
Similar deals have also been mooted for New Zealand’s All Blacks and the Rugby World Cup. Private equity firms see plenty of upside in a sport just over 25 years into its professional era: an improved broadcast product, better fan data and geographical expansion are just a few of the shorter-term goals.
That vision for the future will bring innovation and test conventions. Some in the business of rugby argue that it has yet to tap the potential of star athletes to draw new fans, especially younger fans, in an age where powerful personal brands dominate. In rugby union, teams have historically come first both culturally and commercially, but change could be imminent.
One notable recent entry into rugby union is the talent agency Roc Nation Sports, co-founded by legendary hip-hop artist Jay-Z. It has signed South Africa’s World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolise, his teammates Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi, and England’s Maro Itoje, while it is also helping the URC update its presentation.
Around the time the latter deal was publicised in November 2021, Roc Nation Sports chief executive Michael Yormark told media that it was time to “storytell, to build the stories of these players off the field”, and make them “CEOs of their own brands”.
Other organisations will pursue a different route towards the same goal. This year will bring the launch of World12s, a startup 12-a-side franchise competition that promises star players high appearance fees. That tournament may struggle without the support of World Rugby and CVC but its model could come again, putting a high price on talent to create new spaces in the game.
That might bring its own pressures but there is much to excite the rugby business when it comes to the unexplored commercial potential of its own athletes. If they can make a connection with wider audiences outside traditional environments, that could be a huge accelerant of growth.
The challenge will be to ensure that value for players is still aligned with the most celebrated prizes and experiences in the game. If that can be met, there is a real chance for rugby’s heroes to drive the sport forward.
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