As part of my contract with Zeus Events I have been heading the commercial partnerships for the National Rugby Awards, held annually in Twickenham stadium. This activity started in February and you can see my first call for partners in a LinkedIn article written here.

In this article I presented the National Rugby Awards for the first time as a potential opportunity for partners who wish to activate opportunities in the rugby space. At that stage I was in my early days working on the event, but I wasn’t wrong. In terms of reaching grass roots rugby clubs in England, having now been ‘in the game’ for six months, there is no better vehicle. Through strategic partnerships with Pitchero (who host the vast majority of club websites in England), The Daily Telegraph, a big rugby paper with massive reach, and more recently the RFU the “NRA’s” as we call them internally have the capacity to touch every club in the country. What’s more they are an aspirational event in the sport. As part of this project I’ve had the pleasure of calling the people that were successful in getting their nominee into the finalists list and they were bowled over. “We saw it on social media, we couldn’t believe it” and “the club are ecstatic, the Chairman is arranging who’s coming to support” were regular comments. The joy was simply unbridled. In some cases these attendees were coming back to the awards for the third or fourth time. It’s a massive event for many, and for those in grass roots rugby the highest accolade possible. Positioning the right partners, with the right plan, into this event could touch many stakeholders in the sport from all areas such as players, coaching staff, club management and of course the volunteers and fans! On top of this partners of the event are investing back into the grass roots of the sport, which is a wonderful way to support rugby.

But that’s not the whole picture. The event itself is clearly a great thing for rugby period. But that’s not how it seemed at the start. After all it’s one thing knowing the power of an event and another thing altogether putting that in front of the right potential partners. Early on we made a series of decisions to help this process.

  1. Our priority was to focus on filling the title sponsorship, succeeding Crabbies who had held the spot for the past three years.
  2. The event could no longer be a one evening thing. Brands are looking for more than a one night activity, and the NRA’s were naturally evolving into a force within the sport. We had to decide what this continued engagement and legacy would look like.
  3. We weren’t going to work with a sports marketing agency. Many offered their services but there is so much passion in the event team, it was vital that passion came across to potential partners.

So it became a numbers game. Previous contacts, emerging brands within rugby and those more established. All needed to be contacted. They needed to know the opportunity.  The partners benefits and assets were known, and how we had previously worked closely with brands gave us ideas so we got on the phones and email. There weren’t many title sponsors prospects. The cost of the partnership, and maximising the brands benefit was significant. The value proposition was incredible but it was a large investment so the prospects were narrowed down quite considerably. In the very early stages of the process of narrowing the list Guinness was mentioned.

It is hard to picture a national rugby event at the moment without thinking Guinness, as their partnership with the RFU and the Guinness 6 Nations highlights. If you want to understand how closely Guinness are associated with rugby just take a look at their new “Liberty Fields” cinematic spot here. A story about the trials and tribulations of the first Japanese female World Cup rugby team. The sport is at the heart of their brand at the moment, as much as their drink responsibly campaign with their “Guinness Clear” tongue in cheek campaign. See here for that one. However, first contact with a new company isn’t always easy. and this was no exception. Getting the right person, (past gatekeepers), making sure the first approach was just right, getting a conversation, making a proposal, first meeting and then actually proposing the details in a lofty office in the Diageo HQ took time. All the while while keeping other prospects in the pipeline. That was a juggling act and a resource drain, but if we stuck to our values of keeping passion and detail in the proposal a vital part of it!

Through the  process Guinness had a great deal going on. The Guinness 6 Nations were mid flow. This was obviously their first priority. Then the Guinness Pro 14’s. Then the wash up and reviews of both. All the time while it was hard to get time communication was clear. The National Rugby Awards were liked, and the prospect of titling and working with the event and strategic partners was exciting to them. I remember well leaving the Diageo office thinking “this is on” and making the relevant phone calls. The pictures of the Zeus team all sending pics “cheersing” with a pint of the black stuff. The enthusiasm was infectious, the benefits were significant but there was still plenty to do. The assets needed finalising, the financials agreeing and that’s before we discussed announcing, creative work logo design and then the practicals of communication, branding and the format of the vent itself. But if I’m honest it was and remains a buzz!

The event benefited from one of the biggest brands in the sport, Guinness would further expend their reach in rugby, even the eventually winners would benefit from the incredible prizes such as a coin toss experience at the start of a Guinness 6 Nations 2020 match!

In the coming weeks the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, assets and financials agreed we embarked on the process of announcing the relationship which was done using the photographs in this article with Chris Robshaw and Nolli Waterman taking centre stage. This was held at Richmond Rugby Club who kindly offered to host us, and the press we invited. The news was embargoed for a week while we discussed and decided the platforms to announce on. In the background prizes were being decided, the logo had been designed and the format / branding of the night agreed. Content for our event program, adverts for The Daily Telegraph and more all ticking along. It was and remains quite a process to lead.

That leads us to this point, a little over a week to go. with over 400 attending the Guinness National Rugby Awards on the night plus partners and legacy activities such as the National Rugby Camps (see here for info on the camps) in place, and loose planning for 2020 already taking place with partners already expressing an interest.

More to follow post event on August 29th. (You can still buy tickets until August 23rd here).

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