Leinster rugby and the battle for hearts and minds

Much like the championships and trophies accrued by teams on the field of play, the sustained commercial success of a sporting organisation does not happen by chance.

Leinster rugby and the battle for hearts and minds

Sports industry expert Rob Hartnett believes Leinster Rugby have been particularly good at planning for both and a Champions Cup final victory in Bilbao on Saturday will not only strengthen the province’s brand but its long-term battle for hearts and minds.

Hartnett, founder and chief executive of Sport for Business, a professional network of leaders linking the sports industry and business, has been impressed by Leinster’s development as a sporting brand, a position cemented last week by its agreement of a five-year kit deal with adidas and Lifestyle Sports as their official retail partner.

He believes the ability to build on on-field success with a longer-term commercial strategy bodes well for both sides of the coin.

A glance at Leinster’s commercial partners, from long-term primary shirt sponsor Bank of Ireland through a lengthy list of second-tier sponsors such as CityJet and even Cork-based Laya Healthcare as well as a naming rights deal for Donnybrook Stadium with Energia mean chief executive Mick Dawson and his commercial team led by Kevin Quinn have “been able to put together a really strong line-up of commercial backers who want a part of what Leinster Rugby represents.

“Any sporting organisation bases its appeal on what it has achieved in the past and the potential of what it has to achieve in the future,” Hartnett told the Irish Examiner, “and Leinster are in a very good position in terms of long-term deals which have been signed in the past year as they have shown they have been strong contenders all the way through.

But of course the business of sport is always a little bit longer term than the bounce of a ball or the result of a single game.

“Where the real benefit comes from in the game in Bilbao this weekend is the Leinster brand itself. Success on the field, and we’ve seen it through Ireland and in the past with Munster and in the past and present with Leinster, means more people are interested, means more kids want to play rugby and the audience both playing and spectating is growing at a really strong rate.

“And that’s what makes them even more attractive to commercial backers. We’ve just seen AIG have extended their deal with Dublin GAA for another five years, multi-million backing for sport because sport delivers.

“They judge sponsorships not on how good it makes them feel but on how good it is for business and the emotional connection sport has with its supporters translates very well into a customer connection that the brand has with the same supporters who in their eyes are also customers.”

James Ryan
James Ryan

Hartnett seems similarities between commercial successes of Leinster Rugby and the Dublin GAA despite acting as rivals with one another in the capital.

“It is an interesting dynamic, absolutely. Blue-chip companies and blue jerseys, there is undoubted competition.

“Both are very successful in their own environment and you could argue the success of one actually helps the success of the other. I sit on a board with John Costello from Dublin GAA and Mick Dawson from Leinster Rugby. They get along well, they compete with each other but also they’re learning from each other all the time.

They have to be successful in capturing the imagination and the attention in order to keep the players coming in and the fans rolling through the turnstiles.

“Success breeds success and both Dublin GAA and Leinster Rugby are both fortunate that they’ve got good management on and off the field. So Dublin GAA are looking at their new performance centre out at Parnell Park and Leinster recognised a few years back that Donnybrook wasn’t going to be big enough to cater for their ambitions.

“That led to the deal with the redevelopment of the RDS (due for September 2020), as tenants of the Royal Dublin Society. That’s not strictly in their own hands but they’ve also got access to the Aviva Stadium for their big occasions when they can bring 45-50,000 fans.

Joey Carbery
Joey Carbery

“None of that happens by accident. It’s down to good planning and looking beyond the next result and towards the horizon where success is not only expected but created.”

The impact of success over Racing 92 on Saturday may not deliver a tangible euro figure but something more significant, Hartnett believes.

All sport is based on attracting fans, players and that’s what victory will deliver for them across all streams of revenue.

“They’re working from a smaller pool than soccer or the GAA as a player base but that’s not to say that what is the case today will be the case tomorrow.

“It’s the same in Munster as well, battling with the GAA in Limerick and Clare for hearts and souls. In Leinster it’s in Dublin and Carlow and Wexford and all the other places where rugby is strong, they’re in a real battle.

“What victory will drive is the next generation to thinking ‘I want to wear a Leinster jersey, I want to be a Leinster rugby player’.

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