THE HAR­LEM GLO­BE­TROT­TERS OF RUGBY

FOR THE LAST DECADE THE ALL BLACKS HAVE LOOKED TO PLAY ONE-OFF TESTS OFF­SHORE TO TRY TO MAKE MONEY AND ALSO TO GROW THE IN­FLU­ENCE OF THEIR BRAND.

NZ Rugby World - - Outside Influences -

In the last decade the All Blacks have be­come a trav­el­ling road­show. They have played tests, for sig­nif­i­cant amounts of cash, in a num­ber of coun­tries where per­haps 10 years ago, no one imag­ined the All Blacks would end up.

The pur­pose of these off­shore ven­tures is es­sen­tially two-fold. The first com­po­nent is the short­term need to make ex­tra cash.

Rugby eco­nomics are still wed­ded to the ama­teur model where the host union meets the ac­com­mo­da­tion costs of their op­po­nent and keeps all the gate in­come.

Tier One na­tions are locked into an agreement with World Rugby where they are obliged to play three tests in June and three in Novem­ber. These tests are sched­uled years in ad­vance and are deemed to be the ‘of­fi­cial win­dow’ where clubs are re­quired to re­lease play­ers.

Be­cause these games are deemed to be in the of­fi­cial win­dow, they fall un­der the tra­di­tional fi­nan­cial ar­range­ments.

The sys­tem, prob­a­bly, just about makes sense but the prob­lem for the New Zealand Rugby Union is that they are pick­ing up gate rev­enue from com­par­a­tively small sta­dia.

The ca­pac­ity of New Zealand sta­dia ranges from 17,000 in Christchurch to 48,000 at Eden Park – num­bers which are dwarfed by the mas­sive venues in Europe where Twick­en­ham has 83,000 seats, Stade de France, 80,000 and Mil­len­nium Sta­dium in Cardiff 74,000.

The re­spec­tive unions in Europe have in­vested in their sta­dia and ac­cu­mu­lated debt to pay for the de­vel­op­ment so they rightly ben­e­fit.

But NZR has looked to work around the ex­ist­ing sys­tem by try­ing to play tests out­side the of­fi­cial win­dow where they can strike bet­ter fi­nan­cial terms.

NZR is able to com­mand a set fee for play­ing out­side the win­dow as there is no obligation to honour the tra­di­tional model. So in­stead of just hav­ing their costs cov­ered, NZR looks to make a sig­nif­i­cant profit.

The lever­age they have to do this is the pro­file and pop­u­lar­ity of the All Blacks. In 2005, for ex­am­ple, NZR ne­go­ti­ated a deal to play Wales out­side the of­fi­cial win­dow.

Terms were only agreed mid-way through the year, but within days of tick­ets go­ing on sale, the game was sold out. The other three tests that Wales hosted that Novem­ber weren’t – that’s the power and in­flu­ence of the All Blacks.

That was seen the fol­low­ing year when an ex­tra test was ne­go­ti­ated against Eng­land at Twick­en­ham, and again, within days, the tick­ets were gone. Back in 2005, NZR was look­ing for about $1 mil­lion per game, a fee which has risen to $4.5mil­lion if it is a test against a tra­di­tional Tier One op­po­nent. That’s the fee they were paid to play Eng­land in 2012 out­side the of­fi­cial win­dow.

The sec­ond part of the off­shore test strat­egy has been driven by a de­sire to take the All Blacks to new and po­ten­tially pros­per­ous mar­kets to grow the pro­file and value of the brand.

That pol­icy be­gan in 2008 when the All Blacks and Wal­la­bies agreed to play a fourth Bledis­loe Cup test in Hong Kong. Both coun­tries felt their ri­valry had a com­pelling his­tory that could po­ten­tially be taken to ‘neu­tral’ venues.

The All Blacks cer­tainly felt that their brand was strong enough to play test matches out­side of their tra­di­tional zones and show­case the val­ues, skills and per­son­al­i­ties of the team.

The game in Hong Kong man­aged to sell out and was deemed a ma­jor

suc­cess com­mer­cially – net­ting both coun­tries about $4 mil­lion each. It was also con­sid­ered a job well done in mar­ket­ing terms as sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of peo­ple who had never seen the All Blacks be­fore were sud­denly gripped by the legacy and qual­i­ties of the team.

As a re­sult NZR looked to ex­plore more op­tions. In 2009 they took the fourth Bledis­loe Cup match to Tokyo, al­though at one stage it was all but locked in to be played in Denver in the USA.

“Tokyo is as far down the track as this [Denver], yes,” NZR chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Tew said. “We have a very firm of­fer to play in Tokyo and that’s en­cour­ag­ing.

“We are tak­ing a two or three-year view of this, we are not just talk­ing about 2009. We may be look­ing at a pro­gramme that goes through 2010, 2011, 2012.

“The chal­lenge for us is to make sure it’s suc­cess­ful as an at­trac­tion. We are mind­ful of the im­por­tance of the All Blacks and their rep­u­ta­tion.

“It’s not a cir­cus and we also wouldn’t be de­lighted if they ended up play­ing in a half-full sta­dium.

“The great thing in Hong Kong was we were al­ways con­fi­dent there were enough ex­pats to fill that sta­dium who could fly in or were still there, plus the closer prox­im­ity to New Zealand.

“You can sit back and lis­ten to the crit­ics, but at some point you have to take the leap of faith and do it. You will never know oth­er­wise.”

Hav­ing taken that leap of faith by play­ing in Hong Kong and Ja­pan, NZR grew in con­fi­dence that they could take the All Blacks to un­usual venues and tar­get growth in de­sired mar­kets.

With New Zealand’s com­par­a­tively tiny econ­omy, NZR feels it has no choice but to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing money in off­shore mar­kets. And the best way to have in­flu­ence in those mar­kets is to sell the All Blacks di­rectly to the peo­ple – let them come and see for them­selves what the fuss is all about.

It was no sur­prise that the last three tests the All Blacks have played out­side the test win­dow have been in Ja­pan and the USA.

Hav­ing dipped their toe in the Ja­panese mar­ket in 2009, NZR was al­ways keen to re­turn as the game is grow­ing in Ja­pan and the World Cup will be there in 2019.

Ide­ally, NZR would like the All Blacks to be an in­flu­en­tial brand in Ja­panese rugby ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which is why they played there in 2013 and will do so again in 2018.

The US has been an­other long-term tar­get for NZR, af­ter they signed a strate­gic part­ner­ship agreement in 2005. That ini­tial deal saw NZR pro­vide ac­cess to coach­ing re­sources and a shar­ing of some in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty to help the Ea­gles fast track their de­vel­op­ment.

Once AIG came on board as a ma­jor spon­sor in 2012, that el­e­vated the re­la­tion­ship and it be­came a goal to have the All Blacks play on US soil. That first hap­pened in 2014 when they played the Ea­gles at Sol­dier Field in Chicago. The game sold out in a flash and was such a suc­cess in rais­ing aware­ness of the All Blacks and rugby in gen­eral, that the All Blacks re­turned there to play Ire­land in 2016.

That sec­ond ven­ture was in some ways more telling as it con­firmed the in­flu­ence of the All Blacks to be able to sell out a huge venue in a for­eign land.

These ‘neu­tral’ venue tests in big mar­kets are likely to be­come more com­mon­place in the next decade. This is the way sport is mov­ing – the NFL now play one reg­u­lar game in Lon­don; Ar­gentina took a Rugby Cham­pi­onship test to Lon­don in 2016 and the All Blacks re­ceive mul­ti­ple of­fers ev­ery year to play tests in neu­tral venues. Of­fers are al­ways on the ta­ble to play in Ger­many, China, the USA and Asia.

That’s the in­flu­ence the All Blacks have – they are in de­mand in places where rugby is barely played or un­der­stood.

THE CHAL­LENGE FOR US IS TO MAKE SURE IT’S SUC­CESS­FUL AS AN AT­TRAC­TION. WE ARE MIND­FUL OF THE IM­POR­TANCE OF THE ALL BLACKS AND THEIR REP­U­TA­TION.’ STEVE TEW

The Bledis­loe Cup twice went to Hong Kong to sell all that was good about the ri­valry. BRAND EX­PO­SURE

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