As Leeds celebrate their record 50-0 victory against Hull Kingston Rovers in the 2015 Ladbrokes Challenge Cup at Wembley, the RFL (Rugby Football League) announced that the BBC will continue to televise the event ensuring the game’s most historic competition remains free-to-air until 2020. The Challenge Cup, staged since 1897, is the RFL’s premier knockout tournament and forms one of three key strands for the sport’s governing body, alongside the First Utility Super League and England internationals.
Rugby league has its roots in the north of England – the 11 English teams playing in the Super League are all northern-based clubs (the 12th club is French side Catalan Dragons) – but the annual fan pilgrimage to London for the Challenge Cup final has become part of the sport’s fabric.
“We can’t underestimate its importance or value, whether it’s from a history, tradition, equity or character point of view,”says Chris Rawlings, the RFL’s Commercial Director, of the Challenge Cup. This year’s final has an extra hint of heritage about it: Saturday’s game will take place 120 years to the day since the Northern Rugby Football Union, a breakaway from the Rugby Football Union (RFU), was founded in 1895 in the northern UK town of Huddersfield.
Rawlings and his senior RFL colleagues are nonetheless seeking to marry the sport’s heritage – not to mention its appeal as action-packed, family-oriented entertainment – with the modern commercial, analysis-driven approach required by any forward-looking rights-holder or governing body. As part of the RFL’s overall commercial growth strategy, Repucom has spent this season working with the organisation, providing a host of expertise and insight – from realising the potential of the sport’s media footprint to delivering research to better understand the rugby league fan of 2015. That is now translating into greater commercial returns and opportunities for not only the RFL itself, but established Super League giants like the Rhinos and reigning Super League champions St. Helens and clubs throughout the top-tier.
Challenge Cup final between Leeds Rhinos and Hull Kingston Rovers
“We were determined to do a better job of making the clubs our customers,” explains Rawlings. “We’re appointed by them, and in doing that we’ve been creating commercial forums on a regular basis – I think we’ve put 11 deals direct into the clubs this year that we haven’t taken centrally, so we’ve generated revenue for them – and just for them. Secondly, with the help of Repucom, we’ve been able to provide them with a service that up until now they’ve never had; we’ve created a platform where they can see in monthly real-time what they’re doing with their partners.
“The power of the evidence and the robustness by which it’s collected by Repucom, and the quality with which it’s communicated, so that it’s understandable, is really important for us. In the short term it’s already proven itself.”
Formed in 1996, the 12-team Super League, now known officially as the First Utility Super League, is the highest level of professional rugby league in the UK. The launch coincided with a game-changing switch from a winter to summer schedule. The Grand Final, the one-off game which concludes the season and crowns the champions, was introduced two years later and has become established on the calendar each October at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.
In the centre
Centrally, the Super League is in the second year of a title sponsorship agreement with gas and electricity supplier First Utility, a deal described by Rawlings as a “big result for the game”. He adds: “The give and the get is very clear.”
“Over the last 18 months they’ve grown from 250,000 customers to north of a million so we’ve partnered with a growing business that’s price proposition driven. We’ve learnt a lot from them in terms of how you work online and how you speak to customers directly through phones and tablets – that’s been really powerful. We’ve been able to realty support them on brand awareness and all those kind of things. The ability to attract a business like that, a top five in its sector nationally, was a good sign that the game was in a good place even 18 months ago.”
Since then, the RFL has introduced a new play-off structure; the top eight in the Super League are now playing in the inaugural Super 8s, while the teams lying 9th to 12th are playing teams ranked 1st to 4th in the Championship. A dramatic series of play-offs to conclude the season are virtually guaranteed. The changes not only add the peril and drama of relegation and promotion to a league which was previously franchise-based, but ensure that something is riding on almost every minute of action in every game during the regular season, with all the additional commercial opportunity and media attention that brings.
Commercial relationships are flourishing, with the RFL’s Kingstone Press cider partnership providing a textbook growth model – after a toe-in-the-water agreement to sponsor the second-tier Championship, the company has now stepped up to become an official Super League partner and secured deals with 63 clubs in the rugby league pyramid for stadium pouring rights. “The new structure combines the Championship and Super League, and there’s a natural link with League One [the sport’s third tier],” explains Blake Solly, the General Manager of Super League. “Kingstone Press enjoyed their time in the sport as a Championship sponsor, could see the opportunities a new structure presented, where they could have a piece of the sport from grassroots and community, right through to semi-professional and Super League. They’ve probably trebled or quadrupled their investment in the sport over the last three years because of the new structure.”
Securing the future
The RFL’s ability to make these format changes – in another tweak, the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup winners will now qualify for next year’s expanded World Club Challenge, which pits the best English clubs against their counterparts from Australia’s National Rugby League – is in no small part a result of the strength and longevity of its domestic Super League broadcast agreement with Sky Sports. That partnership was most recently extended in early 2014 and will now run until at least 2021. The bulk of the Challenge Cup, meanwhile, sits on the free-to-air BBC, exposing larger audiences to the game. “Sky have done such a great job with us and when you know those contracts are done, you can have a really good go at thinking about what the art of the possible is from a commercial point of view,” Rawlings points out. “We’re definitely, game-wide, looking at everything with a 2021 view and the reason we can afford to do that is because we’ve got such a great relationship with our broadcast partner domestically.”
Solly and Rawlings are keen to demonstrate that the perception of the rugby league fan – a northern man from a working class town – is outdated. “Changing perceptions is a key goal,” Solly confirms. “It’s a hugely important part of what we’re trying to do over the next three years with the Super League strategy. But it’s difficult to do that unless you know who your customers are. People can have that perception, and the only way we can break that down is with facts.” According to Repucom’s research, of the 7.5 million rugby league fans in the UK, some 65 per cent are male and the largest proportion – nearly a fifth – hail from London, following by the North West and South East. Sky Sports’ figures, meanwhile, show that around half its average audience for live Super League games watch from south of Birmingham.
“We are different to what people perceive,” Solly adds. “What we have to do better now and do more of is communicate that in the marketplace. The huge opportunity we’ve got in terms of the perception of our fan base is nobody realises how family-oriented we are and how big a percentage of our audience are women. Consistently, across Sky and BBC platforms we have more women than any other big sport.
“With the research we’ve been able to do, with the insight we’ve got we can now start communicating that better and start making better business decisions ourselves.”