Our beloved game was certainly a late developer in terms of moving out of the amateur era but that was a fundamental part of rugby’s charm; there was no real money in the sport and people played due to a genuine passion and love for the game.
As soon as we hit the naughties, the amount of money injected into the likes of football and tennis rocketed, meaning their top competitors were no longer simply sportstars but global icons and marketing machines.
Yet rugby stood its ground – players remained true to the game and saw success within the sport as the pinnacle of their careers. However, fast-forward to the present day; this current Lions tour, and the increased exposure and commercial aspect that it has adopted, means rugby is fast-becoming a marketers dream, due to the huge profiles of some of its stars and the game’s key values, which they adhere to.
This is of course no bad thing for the sport, we just need to make sure these stars don’t lose their head and threaten to tarnish rugby’s wonderful reputation. he beauty of our sport is the close bond between the games grassroots and the professionals; this gap cannot afford to widen.
Flash-Back to the Glory Days
You know, the period where everyone wore baggy shirts, players were ridiculed for owning anything other than a pair of robust, black boots and the sport was fuelled entirely by passion.
Every sport has experienced this stage at some point – 1966 England football World Cup Winner, Martin Peters, reportedly mowed his lawn the day after their victory – There’s a real element of endearment to this story.
Obviously, we all know what direction football has gone, with multi-million pound contracts viewed as the norm, whether they’re offered by clubs or sponsors. Thankfully rugby hasn’t reached those financial heights as of yet but the threat is there, and I shall tell you why.
It all began with the emergence of rugby superstars – global, rugby icons such as Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, and to some extent Gavin Henson. Little changes, such as questionable haircuts, flashy boots and skin-tight tops, introduced a sense of vanity to the game; and often where there’s vanity, brands aren't far away, ready to swoop in with an endorsement deal.
You’ve only got to look at the current Lions tour, and all the media coverage that has come with it, to see how far the game has come. Equipped with a mountain of stash that includes a £595 Thomas Pink blazer, this year's Lions is the most commercially active rugby campaign that has ever existed. I mean, how do we know the tailoring was all done by Thomas Pink? Because there were photo shoots, red carpets and dinners; all of which were plastered over the media, in order to get the best results for the brands.
In many ways rugby offers the perfect advocates.
The sport’s key values and role model tendencies give them a sense of trust and faith. I have no doubt this Lions squad will be 100% focused on the task at hand, yet due to the nature of commercial sponsorship, they’ll be in the sporting limelight whether they like it or not and will be judged on how they deal with it!
It’s brilliant to see rugby getting global coverage through endorsements as well as the biggest tournaments, however players must maintain their professionalism.
We’ve seen many cases within other sports where players have tainted the reputation of both themselves and their sport; rugby as a whole is exemplary at giving a good account of itself, however there have been incidents creeping in. These must be eradicated if players are going to enjoy even more of the limelight – the grassroots game relies on special role models and nothing should change that.