With the second fallow weekend of the Six Nations fast approaching, the common consensus amongst both fans and pundits is that the 2017 incarnation of the tournament has been one of the most competitive and entertaining in years.
Under Guy Novès, the French have begun to show signs of emerging from years of relative torpor; the performances of a resurgent Scottish side have assisted their rise to an all-time high of fifth place in the World Rugby Rankings; England continue their pursuit of the first ever back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era (which was ushered in with introduction of Italy in 2000, when the Five Nations became Six); and a title-chasing Irish side await the current Champions in Dublin on the final weekend for what promises to be a thunderous game, regardless of whether a Grand Slam is still on offer to the visiting side.
The Six Nations has never struggled to sell out its stadiums and generates enviable atmospheres inside them, usually assisted by the travelling hordes of fans cheering on the away side. These sell-out fixtures no doubt also provide a welcome boost to the coffers of the six unions involved, delivering an annual financial shot-in-the-arm that may be looked upon enviously by some of the participants in the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.
It is not only the Six Nations that appears to be going from strength to strength on the financial front. Following the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, tournament organiser World Rugby declared the tournament to be the “biggest and best” to date, with ticket sales of over 2.47 million and the final being watched by an estimated audience of 120 million.
That is of course some way behind the global and commercial exposure of the football’s equivalent showpiece tournament, with the FIFA World Cup final estimated to have been watched by 3.2 billion viewers and FIFA recording a revenue of $2 billion for the same year.
This divergence in the financial performance and global exposure of the respective sports’ Blue Riband events can be attributed to myriad factors, not least given that football is regularly ranked amongst the most popular sports in the world in terms of both estimated fans and participants.
In addition, Rugby Union has only operated as a professional sport for a comparatively short period of time: World Rugby, then the International Rugby Board, first declared it an “open” game in 1995, thereby removing all restrictions on payments or benefits to those connected with the game.
However, it is clear that those in charge of Rugby Union, and a number of the national unions involved, are keen to make up some of that lost ground by expanding the geographical footprint of all forms of the game and simultaneously maximising the commercial opportunities on offer.
This is reflected in the recent announcement that Heineken has signed up to be the official sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup in Ireland and one of the major sponsors of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, the first time the tournament will have taken place in Asia. Moreover, the desire to expand the 15-aside version of the game beyond Rugby Union’s “core” markets has already been shown the way by the global success of the World Rugby Sevens Series, a form of the game that made its Olympic debut during last summer’s Games in Rio and delivered a first Olympic medal (which just happened to be gold) to Fiji, a country with an estimated population of fewer than one million.
And, in a further sign of the increasing commercialisation of the game, media reports have stated that the French men’s rugby union team, the last major rugby-playing nation without a shirt sponsor, are about to obtain their first ever, in the form of construction material firm Altrad.
In this regard, the national sides in Rugby Union have a distinct commercial advantage over their counterparts in football. Whilst kit sponsorship is prohibited during the Rugby World Cup itself (see Regulation 11 of World Rugby’s Handbook), they can display sponsors on their shirts when participating in the likes of the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, tournaments run which are run outside of the auspices of World Rugby.
In contrast, national sides in football are, for the most part, unable to reap the commercial benefits of kit sponsorship, given the strict prohibition in Regulation 54 of FIFA’s Equipment Regulations. This prohibition includes not only matches taking place at the FIFA World Cup itself but also any “football match held in connection with a FIFA Event“, a definition which includes preliminary qualifying games. However, this prohibition does not apply to friendly matches (hence why some national sides, such as Ireland, have at times worn shirts bearing sponsorship) and national sides can still benefit from “general” sponsorship of the team.
The geographical scope of Rugby Union is undoubtedly growing, as is the flow of money into the game. While it may be a while yet before a club or national side emulates Manchester United and signs up its first global noodle partner, the recent waves of global expansion and commercial deals in Rugby Union are likely to be the first of many more to come.