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Rugby must address “clear misses” for engaging new fans, says URC CEO

Martin Anayi highlights need for youth-focused offerings and more playing opportunities.

16 May 2023 Ed Dixon

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  • Anayi says rugby has been too concentrated on existing audiences
  • Boston and New York have expressed interest in hosting URC games

Rugby union must rethink how it attracts new audiences if the club game is to become commercially sustainable, according to United Rugby Championship (URC) chief executive Martin Anayi.

Finances at club level have been under the spotlight, particularly in England’s Premiership Rugby which has seen Wasps and Worcester Warriors fall into administration. The former will play in the second-tier Championship next season, while at Sixways a relaunch is being planned after a takeover by the Atlas Group.

Losses for Premiership Rugby also doubled to UK£36 million (US$45.1 million) for the 2021/22 campaign.

The URC, formerly the Pro14 before its rebrand in 2021, features the top 16 professional teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales. The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), which has a stake in the competition, revealed its net debt stood at UK£110.8 million (US$138.7 million) for the year ending June 2022, though it did record a profit of UK£3.2 million (US$4 million).

Anayi remains upbeat about the future of URC clubs, referencing attendances he says now top pre-pandemic levels as well as the added security of having national rugby union governing bodies as financial buffers. However, he believes teams and leagues need to reassess how to reach new supporters.

“The pro level to the community level, there’s a bit of disconnect,” Anayi told SportsPro. “We need to reconnect to the community game more and provide more options for people to play the game.

“You also need to get the game more widely viewed and engaged [by] people that aren’t going to play [rugby].”

Anayi suggested youth-focused content on platforms such as YouTube, creating a licensed video game akin to the Madden NFL franchise, and other offerings such as Panini-style sticker books, which are used by soccer’s top competitions, in order to pull in fans from an early age.

“There are some clear misses,” he continued.

“I think at the moment we’ve been too concentrated on the existing audience. We obviously can’t alienate that audience. But we need a lot of thought about how we bring the new audience in, how we capture them.”

Anayi also discussed working with CVC Capital Partners since the private equity firm took a 28 per cent stake in the URC almost three years ago for a reported UK£120 million (US$150 million). The investment was designed to help grow commercial revenues and Anayi said work was being done to ensure synergies between clubs in order to secure lucrative broadcast and sponsorship deals.

“There’s no point trying to do a TV deal together until the plumbing’s right, until all of our data systems are the same, until we’re creating content in the same way, until we’re managing partners in the same way with the same offering,” he said.

“There’s no point trying to do a comprehensive sponsorship deal across all these properties if you don’t have the same app, website [and be] able to serve those sponsorships in the same or similar way consistently.

“CVC brought it all together and said ‘here’s some investment capital’. That allows us to make better decisions going forward for media rights and approaching the market in a consistent way.”

Anayi added that the URC had invested heavily in its data systems to “create an internal data hub” with greater detail on each consumer and create more value out of that. He noted that the investment in data insights had played a key role in attracting new commercial partners, including BKT Tires, which became the URC’s global title partner in August 2022.

Meanwhile, Anayi had told The Times last September that he did not want to “close anything off” when it came to potentially staging games in Qatar. When asked if there had been any talks about heading to the Middle East, Anayi revealed the priority was to fill venues in the URC’s home markets, but added the league was attracting international interest.

“What we’d like to do is create more big events here first and foremost,” he said. “We’re getting some offers to do some events in the US as well. I don’t want to rule out Doha and Qatar but actually, from a focus point of view, perhaps playing again in London might make a lot of sense for us.

“But then, looking at the US, we’ve had some offers from cities like Boston and New York to take events there. We haven’t quite found the right venue and time to do that. But we think through the FloSports deal, [it] shows that maybe we’ve got resonance in the US that perhaps others don’t.”

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