All Blacks' Booming Rugby Brand Means Players Change on Team Bus

The All Blacks

The All Blacks.

Photographer: Phil Walter/Getty Images
  • Sponsors want maximum exposure at 2015 Rugby World Cup in U.K.
  • “Rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in the world”: AIG

The All Blacks will use the team bus to change out of their training gear during the Rugby World Cup, an inconvenience the New Zealand superstars must endure to give sponsors their cut of the sport’s most recognized brand.

Under the rules of the four-yearly tournament, which kicks off Friday in London, the logos of team sponsors can only be seen at training and mustn’t be visible anywhere else associated with the Cup, such as in hotels or at matches. With players filmed arriving at and leaving training venues, changing on the bus will maximize exposure for companies like insurer American International Group Inc., which sponsors the champion All Blacks.

The New Zealand men’s rugby union team, whose uniform is all black, claims to be the most successful national sports side in history. Its brand value has almost doubled to NZ$197 million ($124 million) since winning the last World Cup in 2011, according to London-based consultancy Brand Finance Plc. That growth is set to continue, with rugby union now played in 120 nations globally and a form of the sport to be reinstated at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

‘Strong Heritage’

“The All Blacks brand represents success, pride, determination and strong heritage -- all characteristics a sponsor would like to associate with,” said Bryn Anderson, Brand Finance’s chief operating officer. “Rugby’s growing profile globally will see its commercial value swell and represents a significant growth opportunity.”

The All Blacks have been top of World Rugby’s rankings since November 2009 and have won 76 percent of their Test matches, or games against other national sides, since the first one in 1903. They are bookmakers’ favorite to win this year’s World Cup, even though their previous two titles were achieved on home soil.

The team’s black uniform featuring a silver fern logo dates back to the 1890s, creating a history of unity and success that has attracted international sponsors from Adidas AG to Bulgari SpA.

Eau d’All Black

“We’ve got ambitions to sell more licensed products and be a better-known brand,” Steve Tew, chief executive officer of New Zealand Rugby, said in an interview in Wellington. “It’s only going to work as long as you keep performing.”

Adidas, a major sponsor since 1999, has designed a skin-tight uniform and black boots for the World Cup campaign. Bulgari has begun marketing mens fragrances using All Blacks players in its print advertising, and perfume bottles decorated with Maori-inspired designs. Fonterra Cooperative Group Ltd., the world’s biggest dairy exporter, began offering milk this month in black containers carrying the silver fern as a special World Cup promotion.

“Regaining the title in 2011 consolidated the All Blacks’ status as the greatest team in world rugby, thus spring-boarding the commercial return for its brand and sponsors,” said Brand Finance’s Anderson. “The 2015 Rugby World Cup is predicted to be the biggest and best yet by some margin.”

Record Audience

The 43-day tournament will be the most-watched sports event this year, with 2.3 million tickets available and an estimated television audience of 772 million households, according to World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body.

“Rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in the world,” said Danny Glantz, head of global sponsorship at AIG, in an interview from New York. “It gives you that global scale. The key emerging markets like the U.S. and Japan align very well with the AIG footprint.”

New Zealand Rugby doesn’t provide estimates of its brand value, or earnings from sales of licensed products such as replica jerseys. Commercial income makes up about a third of annual revenue, which was NZ$120.8 million in the year ended Dec. 31.

U.S. Appeal

AIG’s agreement, which includes carrying the insurer’s logo on the front of the playing jersey, is worth NZ$80 million, media reported when the sponsorship was announced. Both Tew and Glantz declined to comment on the value of the partnership.

New Zealand Rugby is selling more jerseys in North America after the tie-up with AIG led the All Blacks to play a Test in the U.S. last year, Tew said. That may increase with the seven-a-side version of the game for both men and women becoming an Olympic sport, and San Francisco hosting the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018.

Rugby with 15 players on each side was played at the Olympics four times, with the U.S. winning gold medals in the final two events in 1920 and 1924.

“There isn’t a sport that goes to the Olympics without getting a boost from being on the world’s greatest sporting stage, and rugby should be the same,” Tew said. “It gives us an opportunity.”

Sponsors’ Demands

Sponsors’ demands have increased as the game goes global and compromises have had to be reached for the World Cup, where the tournament’s backers are given priority.

This year, the All Blacks arrived in London nine days before their first Cup game, allowing players to attend commercial events for AIG and Adidas before their match preparation started. And, for the first time, sponsors’ logos will be seen on training fields.

“The moment we leave our training venue, we go back into the Rugby World Cup bubble,” said Tew. “So the boys will be getting changed on the bus, literally.”

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