Rights Holders Industry Insight – Rugby & Covid


The Covid pandemic has not been easy for rights holders, particularly in the sports industry. The shutdown of sports and fan attendance posed many questions about how sports teams will cope. We undertook some research to delve deeper into the sport specific coping mechanisms. Giving you an inside look into how rugby clubs are reacting to the challenges that are coming about as a result of the Covid pandemic. Adapting and changing to the quickly changing environment to not only survive but redefine the future of the sport altogether.

Showcasing partnerships that were no longer on show

Unsurprisingly, digital assets have been the main form of exposure for partnership deals. A multi-functional channel that has provided sponsors with a platform to engage with fans. Enabling clubs to showcase their partnerships without the need for physical attendance. This typically took the form of placing sponsor logos onto existing digital concepts but in some cases new assets were created to provide the sponsor with a way of engaging with the fanbase, including webinars and exclusive online access to players. The streaming of otherwise untelevised matches has enabled fans to not only view the match but also to have a similar experience with sponsor exposure. Aside from the digital route rugby clubs continued to use the traditional form of advertising boarding’s to showcase their partners on televised and streamed matches, but now with the addition of stadium banners to cover the empty seats and provide a much larger advertising space.

Keeping fan participation and interaction high

Over this pandemic rugby clubs have not only been successful in keeping interactions and engagement high, but some even felt that engagement had increased significantly. Achieving this through exclusive content, digital access and communication with fans. Combining with partners to lead activations, including Q&As, competitions & fan votes. The key to this success comes down to creativity and maintaining authenticity.

A helping hand

Within rugby there seems to be a definite sense of family. The situation has created a common environment for all. Teams are not the only ones to be struggling in these times, but also the partner brands and most importantly the fans. For teams and their sponsors, having common challenges brings a strong sense of understanding and with it support for each other. For fans, incorporating the common narrative into partnership promotion can also bring this understanding and support. Fans will remain fans even without physical attendance, but partners have used this time to strengthen this connection. Rather than the usual stadium engagement, this has come through different digital methods, including products, prizes and experiences.

When it comes to the business that is sport, the main form of support will in most cases be in monetary terms. Through continuing to pay the clubs the partners are helping to keep the clubs running. As expected, some partners will ask for discounts but the majority stay and fight through together. The partners’ businesses have changed just as much as the clubs as a result of the pandemic and therefore having an originally strong partnership helps to weather the storm. Partnership is essential in its truest form with give and take on both sides. Teams that have been working even harder to provide value for their partners reap the rewards of the effort that they put in.

A lot has changed in 10 years

Rugby is still very much in its infancy professionally compared to other sports, but a lot has developed over the last 10 years. There seems to be unanimous agreement that rugby clubs are much better equipped to deal with the Covid challenges now than they would have been 10 years ago. One main attribute that has advanced massively over the last 10 years is technology. The digital assets available to clubs now has very much helped to fill in the gaps left by no fan attendance. Not only the availability but also the way in which society as a whole engages with technology now.

Of course it has been a challenging period for all rugby clubs with big financial losses. However, there is common feeling that these are far smaller than what they would have been 10 years ago, which would have potentially resulted in the loss of teams and leagues. More TV money, more sponsorship money and more fans in larger newly built stadiums have helped clubs to build up a larger reserve pot to help to withstand the challenges that have been currently faced with the pandemic.

Despite the increasing monetary value, over this time, sponsorship deals have also become less about the monetary relationship and more focussed on the partnership. These stronger partnerships have seen both sides help each other out to successfully navigate the challenges.

Looking to the future

How will the sports industry change for the future as a result of the covid pandemic? To sum it up in one word it would be ‘acceleration’. A situation which has forced rights holders to accelerate their thinking around how to engage with and monetise fans, bringing about a new strategy that also takes into account the fanbase that does not actually visit the stadium or visits on the rare occasion. The digital evolution of the sports industry was already in progress. What this pandemic has done is accelerated this process, making digital assets even more valuable, and forcing the industry to look at innovative ways to engage with fans. As a result of this clubs will most likely try to commercialise their digital assets even more.

Acceleration is not only with fan engagement but also in house. The pandemic has brought about a period of time which has allowed, and in some cases forced, clubs to look into their structure and work practices and find more streamlined and cost effective solutions, without compromising on delivering results. Looking at how they can make the sport, and therefore their club, more self-reliant, and where possible, profitable. In the process possibly seeing long term plans being brought forward to ensure that they get done quicker.

Why there is a positive future ahead

This period has forced clubs, and all different types of businesses, to re-set and revaluate. To take a look at their processes, structures and strategies, define what really matters to them, and how to achieve that in the most efficient way possible. Exposing the vulnerability of many business models in the industry and also highlighted many areas which are too reliant on certain income streams.

The pandemic shows just how much of an effect the fans have on rights holders. Now is a fantastic opportunity for the sports industry to become a much more consumer centric market. Removing the more traditional 5-10 year strategy route and bringing about businesses that are more agile, ones that can react and grow according to the people who use them most, the fans.

Despite the challenges presented, as an industry this period has been a significant learning opportunity. Encouraging more innovative thinking, largely helped by technology constantly evolving what we can do and how we can improve. Challenging times can often bring out the best of people, not only strengthening businesses but also seeing relationships with partners become stronger as well. The positives will be seen much clearer in the future as we fully see what comes from these learnings.


Despite the challenges, rugby clubs have shown that they are finding ways to cope. Rugby as a sport has been playing catchup with other major sports for a while now but could come out of this stronger than anyone could have imagined. Yes there are issues that have occurred, but top level rugby clubs are in a much better position than they could have been. Having been forced into reassessing structure and plans they could be building a much stronger future for the sport. Showing that there are positive signs not only for rugby but also the rest of the sports industry.