21st February 2024

Despite the new Netflix series, professional rugby continues to play catch up in marketing its game to new audiences.

Earlier this month, we saw the launch of the much-hyped Netflix series, Six Nations Full Contact. The eight-part docuseries is believed to be an attempt on the part of Six Nations rugby to replicate the success of Formula One’s Drive to Survive series, with the ultimate goal of growing the sport’s footprint amongst new audiences.  

According to the Six Nations marketing literature, “for those less familiar with the sport, the series will serve as an engaging entry point, demystifying the intricacies of rugby while conveying the passion that fuels this great game.” 

News of the docuseries first came to light on the eve of the 2023 Six Nations. It was soon accompanied by speculation that the teams involved were dragging their heals about giving the camera crews meaningful behind the scenes access. The Welsh players even went as far as to place a temporary ban on the camera crews whilst they resolved a contractual stand-off with their home Union. Fast forward 12 months and this across-the-board reluctance appears to have bled into the final product.  

Speculation that teams were dragging their heals about giving the camera crews meaningful behind the scenes access. [Photo: Getty}

So why did they sign up in the first place? There is a growing recognition that professional rugby is in serious trouble. Nearly three decades on from the sport going professional, the global game is still struggling to identify a sustainable and buoyant business model.  

In the last 18 months, the English Premiership has seen three of its 13 teams go into administration, including six-times Premiership champions and two-time European champions, Wasps. Welsh rugby continues to lurch from one crisis to another, and in Australia, Rugby Union continues to cede ground to Rugby League and Australian Rules. Despite Ireland’s recent World Cup quarter final exit (and some recent financial belt tightening), its sustained on and off the field success marks it as an outlier.  

In addition to the ongoing struggles in the traditional ‘tier one’ nations, it has failed to make meaningful inroads into non-traditional markets such as the US and Japan.   

Neither corporate advertorial or classic of the genre 

On balance, the initial critical response to the Netflix series has been largely muted; it appears to be neither an instant classic nor bland corporate advertorial. Time will tell whether this middling fair proves compelling enough to win over new audiences. 

However, within the sport’s renewed efforts to engage new audiences, it continues to face two key challenges. Firstly, professional rugby is a collision sport that is increasingly cagey about marketing itself as a ‘collision sport’. Yes, the new Netflix series has no shortage of slow-motion big hits, but the respective national and international governing bodies are increasingly aware that they’re walking a tight rope between lionising the sport’s gladiatorial violence and addressing its ongoing concussion issues (and related litigation).  

To futureproof participation in the game, the powers that be know that they need to make the product safer, but they also recognise that the collisions are its biggest selling point, particularly amongst casual sports fans that may struggle to digest the more cerebral elements of its multitude of in-game ‘laws’. 

Secondly, pursuing a more innovative approach to selling the game to new audiences will inevitably raise the ire of the sports’ traditionalists. The rugby community is very wedded to its traditional values. These values are a prominent part of its DNA and for many, are central to the sport’s appeal as ‘a barbarian sport played by gentleman’. However, these same values can become a barrier to engaging new audiences.  

Rugby has always sought to emphasise the team over the individual. [Photo: Netflix]

No ‘I’ in a rugby team  

In recent years, we have seen a new trend emerge across global team sport whereby fans’ loyalties increasing lie with their favourite players, as opposed to their favourite teams. The biggest names in Premiership football frequently boast larger social media followings than the clubs they play for. The Premier League, taking its lead from the NBA and NFL, has embraced this phenomenon and looks to sell its product via their superstar athletes and their larger-than-life personalities.  

Rugby on the other hand, has always sought to emphasise the team over the individual. There is an inbuilt suspicion of players that unapologetically seek the limelight. The sport continues to cast the likes of Chris Ashton as a pantomime villain for the modest crime of celebrating scoring tries. In many cases, we only truly get to know the individual players’ personalities after they retire.   

In the warmup matches for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Ireland and England ‘experimented’ with putting players names on the back of their jerseys to “further engage new audiences”. The soundbites around this largely token and isolated tactic served as a reminder that any radical change will be hard won.  

In recent years, we have seen professional football become a playground for geopolitical manoeuvring and a well-trodden stage for public debate and civil protest. Rugby on the other hand has remained largely untouched. Amongst those with the deepest pockets, rugby remains under the radar.  

The penalty of a risk appetite deficit  

On the eve of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont spoke in grandiose terms of how the tournament “should project our values, make an impactful contribution to society and inspirate new players and fans.” 

Whilst the tournament was rightly heralded as a success, despite the sport’s corporate-friendly image, the commercial challenges facing many clubs and national associations haven’t gone away. The Netflix documentary shows a willingness to take greater risks, however, the copycat marketing playbook is still playing catch up with other global sports.  

At a time when three historic English premiership clubs have now gone to the wall, with speculation that others may follow, professional rugby is at a serious crossroads, however those in the decision-making seats appear reluctant to truly innovate or step out of their comfort zone. 

With his intelligent communications skillset and extensive media connections, Paddy helps clients build stand-out messaging and achieve their business objectives, whether they’re a start-up raising seed capital or an established player pushing for industry reform or telling their employer brand story.  Paddy has been published in a number of national publications, including the Business Post, Irish Independent, Fora.ie, and The42.ie on the theme of strategic communications and reputation management.

Article originally published on Jan 26 in the Business Post: https://www.businesspost.ie/news/media-analysis-six-nations-netflix-efforts-reveal-a-sport-afraid-to-leave-its-comfort-zone/

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