The Irish Rugby Football Union recently launched a new strategy document for the next four years. In it they have set as objectives reaching the semi-final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and a consistent top 4 ranking. Very aggressive for a country that is already more than punching its own weight on the international scene. Adrian O'Farrell looks at how they are positioning themselves to achieve this in a competitive sports recruitment scene in Ireland, and the implications for its sponsors.
When Ireland took on South Africa in a two-test series in June there was a real sense that they could share the series and gain a first ever win in South Africa. Coming off the back of a Triple Crown-winning 6 Nations, including an away win over the world champions, and against a country whose rugby was in turmoil, this seemed quite realistic.
If, however, you looked at the numbers of players playing the game in both countries, you may have thought again. Ireland has 11,500 senior male rugby players; South Africa has 190,781. That's more than 16.5 times as many players as Ireland has. England has almost 18 times Ireland's adult male playing population. Indeed when you look at the numbers across the board in international rugby, Ireland's world ranking of 6 represents a heck of a performance given the relative playing resources available. The country that most closely equates to our playing population is Scotland, languishing in a distant tenth spot. Even allowing for such factors as tradition and economics, it is fair to say that the Irish relative performance is the most impressive in the world, with the possible exception of the remarkable Samoans.
The IRFU vision is of Irish rugby 'excelling in Irish sport and world rugby'. The IRFU strategy document lists as objectives and key performance indicators a World Cup semi-final, Ireland winning at least one 6 Nations title, a Heineken European Cup win, two Celtic League wins, increased participation, a sound and growing financial base, an increased profile, strong leadership at all levels and excellent facilities within the four year timeframe addressed by the document.
This represents a very aggressive display of target setting. For instance, the participation target seeks to increase the total numbers playing from a current total playing population of 85,000 to 100,000 (up 17%), with adult players increasing from 11,500 to 19,000 (up 65%). In a climate where the game has become more physical and the trend is more towards 'couch potato', these are significant increases to be seeking.
Furthermore, the club scene is haemorrhaging junior players as the professional set-up has meant Ireland has necessarily, and successfully, focussed on the provinces as the fulcrum of professional performance. Club players are no longer playing against Internationals from week to week as they did when the All Ireland League was initiated.
Indeed, the cream of the young talent is channelled through elite Academies, further diminishing the reliance on clubs to produce talent. The national academy is now being replaced by provincial setups to cast the net wider, but the inherent risk is that this approach will dilute the return from the very best of the talent.
The stated marketing objectives are to achieve a high recognition of the Irish rugby brand, 2m annual visits to the irishrugby.ie website, acquiring 30,000 members of a new Irish rugby supporter's club and developing an integrated approach to marketing with the provinces.
It is unlikely that there will be any effort to create a catchy brand identity - along the lines of the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks or even Pumas - as is prevalent in many rugby countries. Ireland as the Wolfhounds, anyone? These are organic products of earlier years and the Irish rugby public is resistant to foisted changes. For example, Leinster rebranded themselves as the Leinster Lions, but have just reverted to Leinster as of this season.
Given that the English RFU has launched a supporters' club that has plateaued at approx. 21,000 members in the aftermath of winning a World Cup, attaining the objective of 30,000 members of an Irish supporters' club within four years will represent an outstanding marketing achievement.
Part of the difficulty facing the IRFU is that they are trading at a loss (deficit of 4m last year) and so they are not in a position to launch major above the line campaigns geared specifically towards IRFU objectives. Largely due to the demographic profile of those that play and follow the game, rugby has always been an attractive vehicle for brand association. The IRFU's list of sponsors (brands such as permanent tsb, AIB, Guinness and O2) includes some of the strongest brands in the country and a happy by-product of these sponsors exploiting their sponsorship is that they keep the rugby product in the public eye.
Padraig Power, Marketing Manager of the IRFU insists, however, that this dependence on sponsors for exposing their product doesn't impinge on what the IRFU can charge for rights - 'Sponsors pay the going rate. All our properties are internationally benchmarked'.
The IRFU have shown themselves to be good to deal with from a sponsor's point of view. A recent survey of sponsorship in Ireland by Amarach indicated that they were very professional in their approach. This is something that is borne out by the fact that they have very few remaining sponsorship properties available.
Commercially, the objective is to raise income from its current 37.35m to 46.35m (24% increase). Set against an increase from 8.9m in 1995 to 37.3m in 2003, this appears relatively modest but it should be borne in mind that that period saw the seismic movement from amateur to professional. While allowance has been made in the figures for the re-development of Lansdowne Road, any delay to the project would likely mean foregoing revenues from Ireland hosting its 2007 World Cup matches (unless Croke Park was to be made available). The question is begged as to how a loss-making union can implement sufficient programmes to achieve these objectives without the current or projected funding to afford significant investment?
'When the national team is performing, you get a virtuous circle where there is more coverage, more interest among the public, more sponsors want to get involved and we can charge more for it' says Power. That appears to be the solution - that the national team keeps performing short term, or indeed pushes on from the recent level of performance.
For Power, though, the long-term key is to get the playing numbers up. 'The goal that I'm really focussing on is the participation goal - everything else springs from that'.
He makes the point that, at the younger end of the participation spectrum, the game is growing at a huge rate. 'We're having some great successes in some of the non-traditional areas, which will surprise many people. For instance, we have 3,000 kids playing rugby in Tallaght every week. But it's critical that we retain these young players in the game, especially in the 16-20 age group, which is where the falloff is greatest.'
While the three-tiered structure of Irish rugby - international, provincial, club - has served Irish rugby well at the top two levels, where the game is suffering is undoubtedly at the club level. 'Nobody would deny that the decision to adopt this structure is the right decision; it has definitely been of benefit to Irish rugby. But nor would anybody deny that the clubs are suffering. The strategy for clubs has to be centred on becoming more focused on their community. Clubs need to find ways to make themselves relevant within their community and formulate a plan that centres on making them a focal point within that community. The clubs that are doing well now are the community-based clubs such as Bruff, Barnhall, Carlow, Ballynahinch that are in a sense mimicking the gaelic clubs. Carlow and Buccaneers, for instance, are packing home crowds of 3,000 for an All Ireland League match' says Padraig Power, Marketing Manager of the IRFU. 'It's of vital importance that the club game is maintained. It's where all our players come from. We've been very lucky in this regard to have such stalwart support from AIB in this area over the years. The help that the IRFU is going to give to clubs is to help them to help themselves = to find that local relevance, to market themselves, to find sponsors, how to find and retain volunteers, how to run clubs better'.
An IRFU committee, following consultation with the clubs, proposed a revised structure which reverted to a provincial league set-up as a qualifier for the following year's All Ireland League, but this served only to unite the leading clubs in their opposition to it and they have now proposed an alternative structure.
AIB's sponsorship of the All Ireland League finishes this season. Their strategy, as outlined by Kathy McGarry, AIB Brand Communications 'is a community and grassroots approach, across all of our sponsorships, and the heart of all communities really is the club, or society. Our view is that the AIL sponsorship has been very successful for us over the years, but we're still waiting to confirm what we are going to do with them. We will be involved with them for this year, but really we're waiting to see what the IRFU and the clubs come back to us with'.
Michael Whelan, Guinness, welcomes the strategy as a positive development, pointing out that the Union sought the input of sponsors prior to developing the strategy. 'This enables us to work together and develop the partnership. I think this kind of proactive approach reflects very well on the IRFU and is what more sports organisations should be doing'.
Power makes the point that Irish rugby has a great advantage over soccer in that it has some major stars of the game consistently available to sponsors and public here. The most obvious example here is Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's best known rugby player and acknowledged as one of the world's great players, whose association with O2 emerged as the single most recalled sports sponsorship in the Amarach survey.
A proposed Irish Supporter's Club (similar to the recently launched FAI initiative) is a vehicle for bringing their core consumers closer and generating additional revenue through membership fees and sponsorship. 'We've set a target of 30,000 members where individuals will pay a membership fee for exclusive benefits, so that will be a significant marketing initiative that will be very visible over the next four years', says Power.
This is a good example of how the IRFU, in straitened economic circumstances and with a limited marketing budget (approx. 1 million over the next four years) will attempt through marketing and commercial activities to promote the game and generate revenue simultaneously.
And, who knows? The Irish Under 21 team recently got to the final of the U-21 World Cup in Edinburgh before losing to the might of the All Blacks of New Zealand. This was the first time that a Northern Hemisphere side, much less "li'l ole' Ireland", reached the final of the U-21 tournament. The Irish Schools competed very well in Australia, losing just one match (albeit the test) on a seven-match tour.
So perhaps setting the target of reaching the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup in 2007 isn't so fanciful. It's just a pity that Ireland has been drawn to face the All Blacks in the quarter-final!