This year’s rugby union season is well underway, but so far the game itself has not been the centre of attention, even for fans. Instead, rugby coverage is dominated by post-match analysis, players’ activities off the pitch, and the latest big spending sponsorship deals.

But why is this, and does this corporate/media circus take anything away from the joy of the sport?

It’s all about the money

There was a time when stadiums and clubs made the bulk of their money directly from rugby fans buying tickets, but that time is long gone. Yes, ticket sales still account for much of rugby’s revenue, but the majority of it comes from other sources.

Sponsorships, for example, fill a fair few pages of the rugby checkbook. O2 is rumoured to have paid around £30 million to have its logo on the chests of the England team in 2012. BT paid up to £3.6 million to have the same arrangement with Scotland.

Earlier this year, the Telegraph credited these kinds of sponsorships with transforming rugby from the amateur sport it was in 1995, to the multi-million pound one it is today. But shirt-based sponsorships are not the only way the rugby industry makes money from corporations. There is also the world of corporate hospitality.

Many stadiums and companies hold officially-licensed events, like the Twickenham rugby hospitality package from Smart Group, or the matchday hospitality package from Bath Rugby. These arrangements, wherein wealthy company execs are treated to VIP match viewings by clients, are hugely beneficial to the rugby industry.

Twickenham Stadium reported that it made £37.5 million of hospitality and catering revenue in 2013 alone, nearly double the £19.1 million the stadium brought in through sponsorships.

All this money has come in from corporations, and we haven’t even touched on TV advertisements yet. There’s a reason commercial broadcasters give sports games so much coverage on TV, and it has less to do with giving fans expert analysis than we’d like to think. In 2014, ITV upped the cost of a 30-second ad during an England rugby match to £100,000. Figures like this explain why channels broadcast hours-long shows to cover matches that last barely an hour and a half on average.

Rugby off the pitch

Many of these financially-driven decisions take the spotlight off the players and the game, and onto the activity surrounding it. This is a natural side-effect of having to fill huge chunks of a TV schedule with sports news that is more interesting and dynamic than simple scores and statistics in order to attract viewers to the expensive TV advertisements.

But this is not always a bad thing. Some of the highlights of rugby on TV come not from the game, but from witty and insightful comments from players and pundits in extended match coverage or interviews. (Welsh coach Shaun Edwards’ revelation that a priest raised his hands to celebrate Wales’ win during mass on the next day is one example.) If the game is particularly thrill-free, on the other hand, a big budget advert could take the cake.

Off-pitch activity from coaches are also a huge focus of attention for fans of the sport, with the shocking death of Anthony Foley and discussions about who will be the next England manager making headlines.

With the rugby industry working like this, many rugby fans find off-pitch news just as important to follow as the games themselves. But that doesn’t mean that rugby isn’t important. After all, millions of fans still turn up for matches, and without the matches, we couldn’t have any of the rest.


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