More than a game: the business of Munster Rugby

You do not need to look back at the rugby landscape of a decade ago to realise what a fast-changing environment the sport is in.

Doug Howlett, Munster Rugby's new head of commercial and marketing. Picture: Dan Sheridan

Just 40 days ago, there were 12 teams in Munster’s league competition and yet this evening they face South Africa’s Cheetahs in the second round of the Guinness PRO14.

Back in 2007, though, Munster took a significant step forward with the signing of All Blacks record try scorer Doug Howlett and 10 years on he sits across the boardroom table at the province’s Cork headquarters as its new head of commercial and marketing, although in a nod to some consistency in a world gone mad, his 49 tries for New Zealand remains unsurpassed.

Whatever the uncertainty surrounding the direction Munster Rugby will take in terms of its coaching set-up over the coming months, last week’s changes on the commercial side of the organisation suggest a clear vision for the province’s future.

What happens on the field dictates the levels of success on the accounts, and with money flowing into English and particularly French rugby via private investment and lucrative broadcast rights deals, the union-backed clubs of their Celtic cousins are finding it difficult to keep up.

Munster have felt the effects the same as their domestic rivals in what was the Guinness PRO12, struggling until last season’s remarkable and unique campaign to compete on the field and, consequently, off it as gates dwindled and the absence of knockout rugby, once taken as a given by supporters, denied the province additional revenue streams.

They were trying times for Howlett’s predecessor, Enda Lynch, who over the past five years has been credited by Munster as having “transformed the commercial structures by introducing new partnerships, dynamic ticket pricing and enhanced relationship management”.

Challenges remain for the new man, appointed last week as Munster strode positively into a fast-changing business environment with a senior management reshuffle.

Since September 1, Lynch has taken up the newly created role of Head of Enterprise with the role he vacated filled by Howlett, whose four years since retirement at the age of 34 have been spent completing an MBA, while working in the mining business and serving as the province’s Corporate Ambassador and then Commercial Manager.

“When I signed my first Munster contract I never envisaged 10 years in Ireland, and that’s what it is this year,” Howlett told The Irish Examiner. “However, the environment I came into, the team that I came into, allowed us to settle quickly and not only myself but the family.

"The children have grown up here and this is home to them and that’s allowed me to explore opportunities within Munster and further afield. All players coming out of rugby, there’s a lot of different opportunities that are put before you and I was lucky, I had opportunities that I pursued that helped me make that transition from sport into business.

"I did an MBA at UCC and putting it all into the pot and mixing it up has allowed me to become clearer in where I’d like to go and where my skill set lies. This role ticks a lot of those boxes and besides that, I’m passionate about Munster and see a lot of opportunity for the club.” 

Some of those opportunities are taking the province outside the box, which is where Lynch’s role as Head of Enterprise comes in. The former O2 sponsorship manager will spearhead a new business opportunity, a High Performance Leadership Programme in partnership with the University of Limerick, which he says will provide a “best-in-class development opportunity” for corporate management on site at Munster’s state of the art High Performance Centre on the UL campus, tapping into the cutting edge sports science facilities.

Offering two-and-a-half day courses for up to 16 executives at a time from January, Lynch says the intention is for the programme to be just one strand of his role as Head of Enterprise.

“What does it mean? The ambition is that we will make this programme work first and foremost and in an effort to strengthen Munster’s financial base and ensure that we’re looking at all alternatives to the core product, but which don’t distract us from the core product. We will keep looking at new enterprises and any new business ideas that come up,” Lynch explained.

“For now we have one and it’s one that we piloted in March and the feedback from the pilot was that it was a resounding success. Two of the 10 people that went on it said it changed their life and another said it was the best course they were ever on.

“The strengths of this programme are that it is on site at the university and run alongside a professional sports organisation. If you want to be a high-performing leader then you need to look at sport, which builds people to be high-performing individuals who can make decisions at a second’s notice that have a phenomenal impact on a game and a whole organisation.

"You take an awful lot of learning from that and apply it to senior leaders in the workplace, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” 

As a wing, Howlett, who was on the pilot programme, made a career making those sort of split-second decisions but now faces very different challenges.

“Enda laid some wonderful foundations in terms of bringing Munster into the commercial era, off the pitch. I’ve spent the last two or three years learning about that, the business of Munster with Enda and also alongside our Commerical Board. Garrett Fitzgerald has played a role and I’ve managed to have exposure to different aspects of what makes Munster operate commercially.

“Obviously the rugby landscape is changing, we see that in our (PRO14) competition this year with the two South African teams coming in and it’s forcing us as a league and us as a club to be innovative in our thinking to try and keep pace with some of the leading clubs in Europe. Saracens are front and centre at the moment and you look at the financial firepower of some of the French teams.

"It’s a different business model than we have and the challenge is to compete with that but do it in a Munster way and that is built on homegrown talent and tying in that 16th man and woman, our supporters and fans.” 

With the league spreading its wings to South Africa and the impetus of additional broadcast revenues that brings, the growth to 14 sides has been attractive for all the clubs and Howlett welcomes the fresh impetus the addition of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings has brought in terms of player and supporter engagement.

“This is a new environment and new opposition and that’s only healthy for the team and the competition because it generates interest. The PRO14 and (chief executive) Martin Anayi are progressive in that space and we’ll support as best we can while we have to be mindful of Munster Rugby.

"A lot of my time and Enda’s before me has been managing that. We see the expansion as an opportunity in South Africa but it’s early stages. 

“It’s new and innovative and how we navigate this space will be important for us as a club in maximising all opportunities related to the South African teams being part of this. It opens potential new revenue streams, not just for the league but for all the clubs and we’re exploring links between South Africa and Ireland at the moment for ways which can benefit both countries but primarily Munster.

"Again, it’s early doors but we’ll see how Leinster get on when they travel down there over the next couple of weeks and we’ll follow with interest as others go down there. We’re lucky in that we’re not there until April and that gives us a little bit more time to plan and seek out opportunities.

“Again, I come back to our product and if we’re successful on the field that would certainly help in terms of growing our brand. That’s one of our main focuses, doing everything we can, commercially, to allow our team to be successful.

“It’s exciting to be part of a club who are looking to be progressive in this space. With Garrett Fitzgerald and Niall Fitzgerald, the chair of our Commerical Board, there are some experienced business heads who have a slightly different take on things that are challenging the common thinking at the moment.

"I wouldn’t be in the role here if that wasn’t the case. I’m not coming into to just sit still, there is opportunity out there and with the team that Munster are building off the pitch there are some is real opportunity to change the business model that is Munster Rugby.”


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