It’s just 20 years since Rugby Union permitted professionalism and changed the face of the club game forever. Significant investment in clubs, lucrative TV deals and major sponsorships have become a feature of England’s Aviva Premiership which seen attendances boom and built a global footprint for its internationally recognised club brands and which currently boasts a European champion in Saracens.
Kevin Roberts caught up with Aviva Premiership CEO Mark McCafferty to discuss what is fuelling the growth and his expectations for the future.
“We have to be restless and never say ‘this is good enough’ let’s pause here.”
KR: Club rugby has changed almost beyond recognition in the professional era. What have been the main drivers of that change?
MM: When the game went officially professional and the Premiership was formed there weren’t many people who thought the clubs would be able to put 80,000 people in a stadium regularly at Twickenham or 86,000 at Wembley and to take matches into the United States.
But credit to the people who did invest and engage at the time and laid the platform for making that possible.
On the 20th anniversary of the Premiership we have to remind ourselves that if you can envisage it and believe in it and make it happen people will come. As we glance forward five or 10 years you are only limited by the extent of your ambition n.
We try at club and league level to be consistently ambitious and as soon as we lose that ambition we will be failing our supporters.
KR: Is the Aviva premiership an easier sell today given the traction it has built?
Everybody knows it is a very competitive market which is always challenging because there are a lot of opportunities for partners in sport and Brexit provides uncertainties which is probably slowly dissipating now but was a big factor in the way big corporates thought about the future and their ability to invest.
But you can only control the things you can control and what we can focus on is just making the competition better and better all the time, showcasing it and telling the story better and better and making it attractive for people to invest in. We are building the asset.
It’s not only business which invest in rugby but also players and coaches who invest their time and careers as well, of course, as the supporters and fans who buy TV packages also invest their hard-earned money. The challenge is continuing to ensure it is attractive to them to spend their money on what we do rather than something else.
None of that is rocket science but trying to keep everyone focused on the things that will make a difference and make it a more attractive place to invest in the medium and long terms is the key to building success. We have to be restless and never say ‘this is good enough’ let’s pause here.
KR: What has been the role of TV in the growth of the Aviva Premiership?
It has been the biggest single feature of the 20 years. The investment of television has, ultimately, driven a lot of the revenue coming into sports and this exposure has change the face of the sport. Seven or eight years ago there was one match per weekend live on TV and we had just a few international deals in place. We didn’t even always have a regular highlights show.
Now you can sit anywhere in the world and watch Premiership rugby when there is a live game going on. That kind of exposure has been the single biggest Game Changer.
The change in consumer technology and the way that we consume sport and entertainment will be a big factor in the way we need to develop. A lot of the media platforms we know and use today didn’t even exist five or six years ago, so you have to assume that in the future there will be more new platforms which will play some role in the presentation of sport and entertainment and be part of the way that people engage with sport. We have to live with that and try and anticipate and embrace new opportunities so that we continue to present our sport in the best possible way.
I genuinely think that the communal experience of watching sport on a big screen whether in a home or a social place like a pub or club, will continue to thrive. I think people yearn for the dialogue and shared experience. But alongside that there will be a different type of consumption which is about consuming individually. That could be because people are on the move or because they have a different sort of appetite for the content – perhaps they don’t want to watch an entire game but only highlights. That’s all possible now with smartphone and other devices.
Trying to figure out how we project the league across those different platforms is critical. That’s also to do with how we use the platforms within stadiums for people who are at the game but want other kinds of interaction. This will be a big feature of the next few years. Having the right partners to work with on that is crucial.
KR: Has the rugby demographic changed as the audience has grown?
The dial is moving somewhat in terms of the demographic. The engagement of families, the gender mix and engagement of younger people is happening but there is a lot of work still to do to maximise engagement with those groups. We feel we are still scratching the surface with regards the audience we are tapping into. We have a great sport and like all sports, it faces challenges. But the fundamentals are phenomenal in terms of the upside and its level of attraction to the population.
The barriers are internal and about whether we can be ambitious enough and clear out some of the things which get in the way. I don’t see many fundamental external barriers but we have to continue to bring different things to different groups and we are currently spending a lot of time of getting a better understanding of that and working to find the levers which will make it more attractive to people who don’t currently follow us.
There is an underlying sense of the potential of club rugby. The clubs have a sense there is still a lot to go for and have the ambition to do that. My job is to get them all pointing in the same direction and to mobilise the energy that is there to realise that potential.
Football has been a professional sport in this country for 131 years and it strikes me that sometimes we want to run very fast. 20 years is not a long time in professional sports terms and I think we have come a long way in the past 20 years but there is a long way to go.
We have some great platforms We have a strong mix between league and European competition that football has but not many other sports do.
KR: Earlier this year the first Premiership game was played in New York. Why was that important?
MM: The USA was a first toe in the water and we’d like to build on it. It is the first step on a journey in terms of international exposure. There is a potential for a global following for the clubs driven by overseas broadcast. That will raise the profile of and interest in those club brands and raise their value. The global footprint is very important as part of the mix.
That will also raise and reinforce the interest level domestically and provide a platform for rises in attendance here in England. We see the two as complimentary. The bigger the brands become the more interest there will be in coming to games or engaging through the media.
We have been clear that the USA is our number one target market, it is an area which is prime for development.
We have a good relationship with NBC which carries Premiership games in the States and have had good discussions with them about how we evolve the way we take the game to the US audience in the years head. All of this helps grow the overall profile of the competition.
KR: Rugby has been defined by a set of values of inclusivity, respect, and fair play which some said couldn’t survive professionalism. How are they faring and how important are they in distinguishing the sport from its competitors?
MM: If you lose the values you’ll never get them back. For that reason, and to distinguish the sport, it is crucial to retain as many and much of them as we can. When we engage with partners they tell us it (those values) is a reason they invest in rugby.
I don’t think we can be unrealistic and we understand professionalism puts a lot of pressure onto the players, the coaches and the system. The nature of professionalism is that the consequences of wither winning or losing grow, whether career-wise of monetarily. We can’t have our heads in the sand about trying to maintain a lofty ideal of an amateur sport but that is very different to distinguishing ourselves from other sports by the way we behave on the pitch and interact with match officials, the way we conduct ourselves away from the pitch. Quietly, behind the scenes, we are doing a lot of work on that front with fantastic co-operation from the players, match officials and the clubs themselves. We have had our problems in the past and we will continue to have problems in the future but I think we have an environemtn in which people want to minimise those problems. We have to redouble our efforts and we are making progress. We won’t make a fuss about it because actions speak louder than words.
KR: How do you see the future developing and what factors will influence it?
The way that people engage with sport will continue to develop very quickly and we must find a way of understanding that, skilling up for it and embracing it if we are going to keep our sport front of mind.
Research shows 40 per cent awareness and following of Aviva Premiership Rugby (in England) and we must take those numbers up. That will be about how much noise we can make and how much engagement we can secure across both traditional and emerging media platforms.
We don’t know where the changes will come from but I am certain that the major media companies will continue to play a major role and that is an area that is impartment for us to focus.
Elsewhere the whole area of sports science and, the preparation of the players and how they prepare for matches will continue to delve and there will be an even bigger scientific input.
Then, because we will be successful, there will be a lot of investment in the sport in the next five or 10 years. We shouldn’t underestimate how attractive rugby become as a sport. The last Rugby World Cup was a massive success and the next one in Japan will also be phenomenal. The leagues and cup competitions are getting stronger all the time so I think there will be increasingly investment. That means the way we manage that investment, optimise it and protect the values of the game will be critical.
KR: Finally, how important is it for your clubs to be successful in European competition?
MM: We promote ourselves as the best and most competitive league in world and one of the external measurements of that is success in Europe- so that’s high on our list. Making sure we have the quarter finalists, semi-finalists and our fair share of ultimate victors is important to that.