Given that the majority of fans would prefer they weren’t even there in the first place, it’s quite easy to tune out those adverts on the front of rugby jerseys, but what if they’re not just taking up valuable shirt real estate – what if they told a story?
What if the types of companies and brands that sponsored rugby shirts in some way reflected the perception of rugby at different levels, and its wider place in society? It could be total nonsense, but there’s only one way to find out – by investigating it ourselves!
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to look at jerseys for all the tier one test nations, plus each individual top flight league – Premiership, Pro 14, Top 14 and Super Rugby – and attempt to draw some probably baseless conclusions as to what the different sectors these sponsors occupy says about that league, that nation, and indeed the sport of rugby itself.
(NB For the purposes of this article we’re only going to look at main shirt sponsors – particularly at club level the number of sponsors is so massive we’d be here all week just adding them up)
It should come as as no surprise that the top level of rugby is where you find the highest profile sponsors, but it’s interesting how prevalent telecoms companies are at the highest level, with a full 40% of the tier one nations.
The presence of the likes of Vodafone, MTN, BT and O2 demonstrate that test rugby is seen to have truly mass-market appeal, as companies from such large and competitive sectors clearly value the international game’s reach.
The presence of blue-chip financial and insurance companies reflects the fact that rugby at the top level is still seen as a something of an upper class game in many rugby markets, while the presence of a major car maker and airline further reflects the global impact test rugby is viewed to have.
A French construction firm, in the shape of Altrad, might seem a little out of place with these global companies – but that is a facet that’s clearly influenced by how deeply involved Mohed Altrad is with the game in France.
Instantly it becomes clear that domestic rugby, even a competition as high-profile and successful as the English Premiership, lacks the ability to pull in the same level of blue-chip sponsor as the test game.
It’s notable that the two clubs that do have those global sponsors have strong links to the huge London market (Saracens and Harlequins), but there’s a definite local bias. Even clubs that have major brands usually do so because of a local association – Dyson’s HQ is just outside of Bath, Land Rover makes its cars in Solihull, not far from Wasps’ Coventry home.
What is interesting is that rugby is still attractive to large companies that, realistically, don’t need the visibility – the likes of DHL, Allianz, Dyson and Mitsubishi are instantly recognisable companies, but it’s interesting that they feel aligning themselves with rugby is good for their brand, and that rugby fans make discerning customers of high-end goods and services.
What’s also interesting is the lack of something you see so much of in England’s most popular sport – football. We’re talking about betting companies, online casinos and the like. The sight of betting companies and casinos are almost unavoidable in football at the top level. Even though sports betting is very popular in a lot of sports fields (so much so that there even sites like bettingtop10 that are dedicated to review those big operators), it’s still interesting that they haven’t made a push into rugby as yet.
Top 14 Orange
The Top 14 is one of Europe’s best leagues, and one that regularly pulls in huge crowds and viewing figures, so it’s interesting to note that we don’t see many of the instantly recognisable global brands, instead we have exclusively French companies whose focus is understandably on France.
That said, there’s a definite sense of the haves and the have-nots – the one globally recognisable brand is Peugeot on the jerseys of six-time European Cup winners Toulouse, while newly promoted Perpignan have to make do with a regional car leasing company.
Given the language barrier separates France from the rest of the rugby world, and given the size of the country, it’s logical that French rugby should attract more focussed sponsors, and clearly the abundance of insurance and financial companies gives an indication of the station of the game in the country.
Super Rugby might not be as big as it was before the recent reduction of teams, and more soon to follow, but its status as a cross-border competition means that the shirt sponsors involved are an interesting mix of the global and local.
It’s still evident that the international nature of the competition pulls in some true blue-chip firms – Visa, Emirates, DHL – and a lot of companies that have presence across New Zealand and Australia.
Guinness Pro 14
What’s interesting about the Pro 14 is that compared to the other domestic tournaments we’ve examined here, the sponsors come from a relatively narrow pool of sectors, primarily focussed on three key areas – financial, retail and automotive.
There are some interesting trends at play here, too – both South African teams have auto sponsors, while the Pro 14 is the only league to have main sponsors that are rugby-specific retailers, perhaps reflecting the relatively small but focussed markets that the Ospreys and Connacht work in.
Another interesting wrinkle is the presence of our only non-sponsored shirt so far – with Italian team Zebre lacking a main sponsor, and instead giving the space to UNESCO. While it’s obviously a good thing to promote a charity, we wonder if this has more to do with perennial bottom-feeders Zebre struggling to attract a sponsor…
So what conclusions can we draw about rugby union from looking at the various shirt sponsors in the rugby world? Well, some of it might not exactly be revelatory – test rugby’s huge audience pulls in global sponsors from companies that would probably describe themselves as ‘innovative’ or ‘different’ (as most companies do).
It says a lot about rugby’s image in the world that these brands wish to be associated with the sport, but it’s interesting that this trickles down to some of the more prestigious teams at a club level, despite the lower profile. It’s also interesting that cross-border competitions such as the Pro14 and Super Rugby might often be criticised for their structure, but it’s one that pulls in more international sponsorship opportunities.
There’s also a definite ‘class’ element to all this. Rugby is only really what you’d call a traditionally ‘working class’ game in Wales, France and New Zealand, with it broadly (though not exclusively of course) being a game associated with public schools and the middle classes elsewhere.
It’s interesting then, to see what a consistent presence financial services and insurance companies are as sponsors across the rugby world. The game may be evolving and old stereotypes changing, but the long standing associations between rugby and certain sectors don’t seem to be going anywhere.