Running the right lines: How Scottish Rugby found its way back

In 2011, Scotland’s national rugby union team was reeling after being dumped out of the Rugby World Cup in the pool stages. Now, Scottish Rugby has recorded UK£50 million in turnover for the first time, and the national governing body boasts a young and exciting playing side who are motoring towards this year’s Six Nations Championship and the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Running the right lines: How Scottish Rugby found its way back

For Scottish rugby union fans, this had been a long time coming.

As French referee Pascal Gauzere sounded the final whistle at Edinburgh’s BT Murrayfield Stadium in late November last year, the collective cheer that echoed around the national team’s 67,000-seater home reverberated all the way along the surrounding tram tracks and back towards Princes Street a short ride away.

That win – a 53-24 thrashing of Australia – was Scotland’s first triumph on home soil over the Wallabies since 2009, and perhaps more significantly, went some way towards avenging a controversial 35-34 quarter-final defeat to the same opposition at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.        

But while fans filtered out of the stadium – still raving about the early evening’s entertainment – and back towards the capital city’s centre to toast victory well into the night, the lights at Scottish Rugby were still on, with those inside its headquarters already plotting how to make moments like these the norm.   

After an autumn in which Scotland had beaten Samoa and Australia, while also coming within a converted try of conquering world champions New Zealand in between, the national governing body’s hierarchy would have been forgiven for taking a night off to join in the celebrations. Those at the top, however, are well aware that one swallow does not a summer make.     

“We haven’t won anything yet,” asserts Mark Dodson (right), Scottish Rugby’s chief executive. “We have to beat the top four teams in the world regularly to get the kind of acclaim that other northern hemisphere teams like Ireland and England have done in the past.

“Beating Australia twice in 2017 was huge for us, as was running New Zealand close, but the next test is going to be around our ability to compete in the Six Nations Championship. We want to stay humble and we want to keep improving. This is by no means the end of the journey for us; we want to see a consistent improvement right the way through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.”

If last autumn’s success finally made the rugby world sit up and take notice, those who delved further into the detail might have realised that the Scottish national team have been steadily improving for some time. November’s win against Australia was Scotland’s second of 2017 against their southern hemisphere opponents, and they have since climbed to their equal highest-ever ranking of fifth in the world, dispelling any murmurs that their performance at the aforementioned World Cup might have been a one-off.

Indeed, the perception of Scotland as one of international rugby union’s nearly teams is being shed, and it is an upward trajectory that has contributed to a widespread belief that they could challenge for this year’s edition of the annual Six Nations, when they take on Wales, France, England, Ireland and Italy during a gruelling six-week period across February and March.

Dodson is quick to point out, however, that just getting to this point has not been a cakewalk.

“I joined during the World Cup in 2011 when we got knocked out in the pool stages,” he begins, “and I joined an organisation which had real financial problems throughout the 2000s, and although it had been stabilised, it had no real commercial DNA. We also had a team that was fairly demoralised from being knocked out of the tournament so early and had no success in terms of our professional domestic sides either.

“So we basically decided that we had to start from first principles and build the rugby side from the foundations up by getting the whole structure correct with the right people in the room. Then we had to decide on a commercial strategy that would take us through the next five years to make us a world power in the game again.”

That commercial strategy already appears to be bearing fruit. In August last year, Scottish Rugby announced that it had generated UK£50 million in turnover for the first time, with income from ticketing rising 25 per cent from the 2014/15 season, an additional 22 per cent of revenue being generated from broadcast partnerships and sponsors, and a further seven per cent coming in from advertisers and events.

Scotland's win over Australia in November was their first triumph over the Wallabies on home soil since 2009

“I think when I joined in 2011 the turnover was UK£33 million, and it’s going to be between UK£52 million and UK£53 million this year,” says Dodson. “That has largely been because we’ve reinvented our whole commercial and sponsor family. We’ve got new people into the business to spearhead the commercial drive, and we’ve got a group of blue-chip sponsors who activate with us to promote the Thistle worldwide.”

One of those blue-chip sponsors is communications and broadcast giant BT, which signed a three-year renewal with Scottish Rugby in September last year to retain the naming rights to Murrayfield, and to remain as the front-of-shirt sponsor of Scotland’s men’s and women’s national teams. It’s a partnership that has allowed Scottish Rugby to promote itself beyond the country’s borders, and Dodson certainly doesn’t undersell the value of the company’s sustained backing.   

“It was almost like a transformational sponsorship for the union,” he says. “It gave us that global reach that an international brand really needs, because BT is a truly global business. The partnership has allowed us to tap into BT’s network, but they’ve also been steadfast supporters of what we’re trying to do here. They didn’t just buy into a shirtfront or a stadium naming deal; what they did was allow us to build academies to bring our teams through from age grade level, which we’d never had before.

“We’ve now got four regional academies which are producing high-quality players, and BT has also allowed us to build a sustainability fund for our domestic clubs, which allows our teams across the country to invest in their own properties with match funding. BT has been there to help us with everything that a club needs to revitalise itself, so I can’t speak highly enough of them as a sponsor.” 

We’ve reinvented our whole commercial and sponsor family. We’ve got new people into the business to spearhead the commercial drive, and we’ve got a group of blue-chip sponsors who activate with us to promote the Thistle worldwide.

Healthy partnerships and increased revenues are all well and good, but for an organisation with such lofty ambitions, it’s even more imperative that those profits are being smartly reinvested. There is a belief at Scottish Rugby that success on the international stage is bred in the domestic sphere. Last year the organisation injected a further UK£2.8 million into domestic club support and development, with a major focus on improving its two professional teams, Edinburgh and the Glasgow Warriors.

“We’ve pumped money into our pro teams to recruit high-quality international players, and also to make sure we have the right facilities for those players to work here in terms of strength and conditioning and in terms of medical care,” says Dodson.

“We also took a conscious decision to try and invest in the best coaches we could possibly afford,” he adds. “But underneath those guys we’ve got high-quality coaches in every one of our key positions. So when you look at the coaching groups we’ve got, we’re incredibly strong in Glasgow, Edinburgh and with the national team. So when you ask me where we’ve reinvested, it’s in the backroom as well as in what goes out on the park.”

Both Edinburgh and the Warriors compete in the recently rebranded Guinness Pro14, which added two South African teams in 2017 to its roster of leading Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Italian club sides. But beyond that array of competition is the allure of French and English teams who, historically, have been able to offer players contracts which have blown their counterparts from the Pro14 out of the water.

A sold-out Murrayfield awaits the teams ahead of the autumn international against Australia

Now, though, Edinburgh and Glasgow have been given the tools to hold off a host of affluent suitors from France’s Mediterranean coast, meaning the likes of Stuart Hogg – the national team’s tenacious full-back and poster boy – have no reason to leave Scotland, where the country’s rugby players are building more of a connection with their fans.

“One of our major investments has been in keeping the players who are now household names,” explains Dodson. “So we’re now able to keep all our star players in Scotland despite the massive interest shown in them from English and French clubs, and it just shows that we have the ability to capture virtually all of our senior talent.

“We’ve got two great cities here in Glasgow and Edinburgh which are good in themselves, but where we compensate for a shortfall in salary – and maybe in lifestyle – is that we protect our players better than anywhere else in the world. Players coming here know that they aren’t going to be consistently played until they break down with injuries, so we sell the fact that, pastorally and medically, they’re going to be looked after better than anywhere else they could go.”

Scottish Rugby recently reported that nearly 600,000 fans watched international and professional rugby matches in Scotland last season, showing that its ability to retain those household names and attract international ones has helped drive spectators towards the sport.

When we weren’t so successful on the field we had to make up for that by making attending Murrayfield more of a day out. The audience was predominantly an older and a male demographic, but now it’s much more mixed, and we’ve also made sure that Murrayfield has become an event.

Given that it didn’t turn professional until 1995, rugby union as a whole has spent much of the last 20 years trying to catch up with sports such as soccer, which has long been the heartthrob of Scottish fans. Scotland’s national soccer team, however, have enjoyed limited recent success, meaning that the improvement of the country’s rugby union side has coincided with a dramatic rise in interest among a population that would love nothing more than to boast one of the best national sports teams in the world.     

“When we weren’t so successful on the field we had to make up for that by making attending Murrayfield more of a day out,” Dodson explains. “The audience was predominantly an older and a male demographic, but now it’s much more mixed, and we’ve also made sure that Murrayfield has become an event, whether that’s in the autumn or during the Six Nations.

Scotland have emerged as dark horses for this year's Six Nations Championship, and begin their campaign against Wales on 3rd February

“What’s happened as we’ve been more successful is that people are staying with us and are buying season passes for our games. The Scots are desperate for success, they want to see their national team win, and we’ve been able to show them that it’s possible by competing against the best sides in the world. The atmosphere our fans are creating at BT Murrayfield is one of the best in the world out of any sport, and it really feels like the nation is behind us now.”  

Further afield, Scotland and their growing fanbase are already looking towards Japan, which hosts Asia’s first Rugby World Cup in 2019. Interest in the event will be rife – not least to see how the tournament fares outside one of rugby’s traditional hotbeds – but Scotland won’t be able to rely on the same level of support they were afforded in 2015, when the short trip to England was far more straightforward and affordable than the 14-hour flight from Edinburgh to Tokyo.

With that in mind, Dodson points out that Scottish Rugby wasted no time planting seeds in Japan to ensure that when the team touch down in Yokohama for their first game against Ireland, the local population will be more than familiar with the Thistle.

“We’ve been planning for the 2019 World Cup since 2013,” says Dodson. “We’ve also been working in Japan since 2013, when we signed a cooperation agreement with the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU), and latterly, we signed an agreement with the city of Nagasaki to work with school children and the youth rugby teams there, and we’re going to spend a week of pre-camp in Nagasaki before we go to our camps for the 2019 World Cup.

We’re working very hard to ensure that when we go to Japan, it doesn’t feel like a foreign place, it feels like Scotland will be everybody’s favourite second team.

“Every year we’ve been across to Nagasaki, we’ve had our players visit, and by the time the World Cup finishes we’ll have visited all 110 schools in the Nagasaki region. We’re working with local rugby clubs and the local union to show how close our links are with that particular city and indeed with Japan as a whole. So we’re working very hard to ensure that when we go to Japan, it doesn’t feel like a foreign place, it feels like Scotland will be everybody’s favourite second team.

“One of the things the Scots are especially famous for is travelling and being in all parts of the globe, and everybody knows Scotland for something. Whether it’s rugby, whether it’s golf or whether it’s whisky, Scotland is very relatable, so we’re doing everything we can to promote our brand across the whole of Asia during this period.” 

For their part, Japan’s task is as daunting as it is exciting. Public interest in the sport has grown in the country since they sprung a 34-32 surprise against South Africa at the 2015 World Cup but successfully hosting rugby union’s biggest showcase will add a different pressure completely. The competition is being held across 12 different locations, and there are already fears that it might be a struggle to sell out stadiums with an average capacity of 37,888 in what is still one of the sport’s budding nations.    

Dodson though, is convinced that the appetite is there, and that when the time comes, Japan will deliver.   

“It’s going to open the game to Asia,” he says confidently. “I think there are an awful lot of high-level individuals out there who have an interest in sport generally, but there’s a whole population who will love the physicality and the spectacle they’re going to see.

Alex Dunbar takes a selfie with fans in Singapore after Scotland beat Italy in the first ever Tier One match to be played in the country in June 2017

“The Japanese population is very clearly switched on to the game and have never really let go since that watershed moment in 2015, and what we’re finding is that the Chinese population are tuning into the game as well.

“So with the whole of Asia now looking towards Japan to be this new beacon for the game, I’m convinced that when one of the world’s greatest sports tournaments is on their doorstep, they will welcome it and stay with the game going forward, and that’s a huge opportunity for all the nations at the World Cup.”

And for Scotland, a country with just 15,000 adult players, the opportunities have arguably never been greater. A sound financial footing, coupled with a fully functional commercial model, seems to have laid the foundations for years to come, and with a fearless national team instilling belief in an increasingly fervent fanbase, it’s unsurprising to find that Scottish Rugby is not afraid to set its bar for success exceedingly high.      

“Our vision is to be a power in the world game at club level, at youth level, at women’s level and also through our senior men’s national team,” says Dodson. “We’re very ambitious, but we know it’s going to be a huge task. We’re a very small nation, so we’re going to have to really pedal hard just to make sure that we stay where we are.

“I think we’ve invested in the right places, we’ve shown the world that we’re a country that plays rugby they can enjoy and get behind, and with the support of the whole nation, our main ambition here is to future-proof it through to 2023 and to win some silverware along the way.”

This article originally appeared in issue 98 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.