Media Forum: Will the rugby be a big hit?

Can the Rugby World Cup still attract advertisers, Alasdair Reid asks.

England's chances of winning the Rugby World Cup have all but been written off. The former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio may disagree - and in fact he did, just about, in a recent TV interview, during the course of which he gave the holders a "credible chance". But even he managed to be supremely equivocal, talking more in sadness than anger of the way the national squad has rested on its laurels since 2003.

England, after all, now lie seventh in the world rankings. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, could turn into a rather long-drawn-out procession. Five weeks is not quite as bad as the mind-numbing seven weeks it took for the Cricket World Cup to fizzle its way to some sort of a conclusion. But still.

Obviously, there's been lots of media interest - notably a whole host of (almost obligatory) special supplements in newspapers - but in the run-up to the tournament, there were indications that the broadcast and event sponsorship opportunities surrounding the event were not as heavily demanded as they might have been.

And research from Sport+Markt shows that interest in the tournament in England has slumped from 51 per cent four years ago, as the team began to mount a credible challenge, to 23 per cent now.

So is the tournament likely to be a commercial hit? Simon Lent, the trading director at ITV Customer Relations, says you can't argue with the numbers: "If you look at the figures, the year is going to be up by more than one percentage point. Total broadcast in September is set to be up six-and-a-half. We've certainly seen a more positive reaction to the Rugby World Cup than we saw with the Football World Cup last year. The time of year helps. In September, there's a higher brand count than during the summer and we were out there selling it earlier."

Lent's upbeat assessment will surprise many. There has been speculation that the ITV hierarchy has been very disappointed about advertiser response. It has been suggested the upswing in activity will fall far short of the £50 million the network paid to secure exclusive coverage. Insiders say senior programming chiefs have been questioning whether it's worth bidding for future Rugby World Cups.

This would be a shame, Nick Theakstone, the chief operating officer of Group M, says. He's a rugby fan, but points out that some major advertisers may have begun suffering from big tournament fatigue.

He explains: "There are just so many tournaments around these days. There's the Cricket World Cup and the Ashes, the World Cup in Athletics, not to mention the Champions League. There used to be one (football) World Cup, now there are more than there ever were, and the Olympics are coming along too. As an advertiser, there are many options you can attach yourself to. But I'm convinced it will be a ratings success, and that in itself will help pull in extra revenue."

The tournament, sponsored by Heineken and Guinness, has invested heavily in guerrilla activity, so it's clearly a place for beer brands to be. But Andrew Constable, the head of media at Coors Brewers, reveals that the company will not be making any special efforts to support the tournament. He comments: "It's a great property for ITV to have and it's always encouraging to see major events like this being carried on commercial television. It will be extra special if we get a good performance from the British teams. Somehow, I can't see that happening, though."

Neil Johnston, the head of TV at OMD UK (an agency with many clients that have invested heavily in the tournament), argues that, whatever the feelings about England's prospects or the event's place in a crowded sporting schedule, it delivers a compelling audience.

He says: "This is a premium event which converts well to premium audiences, priced on a premium basis. If you are an upmarket brand targeting upmarket men - as many of our clients are - then you might agree that it is worth your while paying the extra they are asking."

YES - Simon Lent, trading director, ITV Customer Relations

"Financials, alcohol and telecoms are all supporting the tournament. Its biggest USP is that it delivers ABC1 men, and we've concentrated on putting together the best presenters to please that audience."

NO - Nick Theakstone, chief operating officer, Group M

"I want to be uppish. England are the defending champions and the All Blacks are not a foregone conclusion. But if you're asking me if advertisers are knocking the door down, then the answer has to be no."

MAYBE - Andrew Constable, head of media, Coors Brewers

"The Rugby World Cup will attract an audience you don't always expect on ITV - one more akin to the BBC. That's always of interest to advertisers, but you have to ask if it dovetails with your marketing plans."

MAYBE - Neil Johnston, head of TV, OMD UK

"It might not be the ratings success that the last one was - and it's certainly true that England are not what they were. But the key thing is that the rugby still offers a high conversion to ABC1 men, and many advertisers feel that's something worth paying a premium for."

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