Five Minutes With… Senior Account Director, Duncan Harris

The sport and entertainment marketing specialist reveals why the Vodafone sponsorship for the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa was successful. Harris says new rugby sponsors have an opportunity to shake up traditions and offers advice on how brands can package deals to increase fan engagement ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

With no crowds filling stadiums for the Lions tour, did sponsors do enough to gain cut through?

It was a challenging summer for the Lions. It should have been clear of the Euros and Olympics, so cut through wasn’t just a challenge for sponsors but the rights holder as well. From a Vodafone perspective, it made our role in connecting people even more crucial. So when we found out it would be behind closed doors, we doubled down on just that and set ourselves the task of making it the most connected tour of all time.

How did Vodafone take rugby sponsorship to the next level as a lead partner?

There was an innovation at the forefront of everything we did. Vodafone network and technology were at the heart of the ‘8,000 Mile Auto5Graph’ campaign, but most importantly, it was created with fans in mind and, around 2021, specific insights that people could relate to.

This initiative and Digital Lions were big innovations in fan engagement while PLAYER.Connect was a tech-first in performance coaching. It was rooted in a genuine challenge that teams face in terms of the usage potential of wearables. The partnership was successfully activated across every corner of the business. The employee engagement and pride it delivered was so crucial in a year in which everyone worked from home. It allowed the business team to deliver compelling virtual experiences to clients thanks to top talent access. It was also used by the D&I team as a springboard to launch new initiatives.

Does the Lions partnership with a consumer brand signal a push to appeal to new audiences?

It’s difficult to say if this marks a new trend in the last 12 months due to the disruption caused by COVID-19. However, we’ve seen major players come into the breadth of sports sponsorship and pick up big deals. They represent entirely new categories or have had a thriving category in a period where traditional names in sponsorship have struggled.

What are the key lessons from the Lions tour for sponsors eyeing the 2023 Rugby World Cup?

I could distil this to one – don’t forget the fans. In a more difficult live events climate than ever, it’s easy to get caught up in clever marketing ideas and activations. But we need to remember why sports sponsorship is so powerful. It’s the raw emotion and passion of fans.

Are there some emerging trends in rugby sponsorship deals?

Rugby is one of the more traditional sports, and we don’t necessarily see the rights holders actively innovating in the same way that others are doing. So there’s an opportunity for sponsors to push the boundaries when creating deals in rugby, come to the table with ideas and opportunities and carve out new spaces. Rugby wants to innovate and attract new and younger audiences, so when routes to do so are identified by sponsors, in my experience, they’re well received and supported.

How can sponsors seek to maximise their exposure?

The media landscape around rugby is splintered. There aren’t the media partners with the all-encompassing reach like in football, so they should be prepared to leverage the rights across multiple partners – broadcast, digital, radio, and not forgetting the significant opportunity in rugby, which is podcasts.

Do brands need to be savvier in the way they execute campaigns to stand out?

Brands need to do what they’ve always needed to do… just really well. Find a genuine role and reason to be there and leave the sport better than when you arrived. And if you can provide support at a community or grassroots level right now, that goes a long way with the core fans.

How might sponsorship deals be packaged in 2022 and the build-up to the 2023 RWC?

Rugby needs to broaden its appeal to keep securing the big global deals. It could learn a lot from other sports when cross-pollinating or building audiences through deals that may be more traditionally suited to the entertainment vertical. There’s a big opportunity for a platform-based sponsor to come into the World Cup, such as Snap or TikTok, with no one owning this space.

The likes of Formula One and UEFA Champions League have done a great job leaning into entertainment, whether through long-form content or music. This not only does a job for the sport and its audience appeal but also opens up entirely new sponsor categories – and to sponsors that may not have previously thought there was space in rugby for them.

What are some intelligent ideas for brands looking to get involved in rugby and maybe the 2023 RWC? 

Think hard about your talent roster in rugby. It’s easy to pick the captain to put in your TV ad, but it’s a sport that has vast characters who come to life on camera and in fan engagement environments. It’s a major win for brands in rugby; it isn’t the case in all sports. Brands should take the time to unpick stories from the game that these guys have to tell, which haven’t been said a million times by the sports pages. Fans and media love it.

Is there space for newcomers to innovate and reap the rewards?

If a brand is new to rugby, don’t be afraid to rip up the rule book. Rugby sponsorship can often look like it has a safe way to approach things – the same talent, telling the same stories in the same environments. Find that unique way in, which is true to you as a brand, and that still allows you to have some fun with the fans. That’s one thing worth playing up because rugby fans love a good time. Don’t take yourself too seriously.


If you’d like to speak to Fuse about how your brand can play a meaningful and authentic role in sports and entertainment – email us at [email protected] or drop us a line in the comments below.


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