With the addition of the two teams from South Africa the 2017/18 Guinness PRO14 has had a higher profile launch than in previous years.
Sport for Business has been talking to each of the four provinces in Irish Rugby to determine what they have been up to in the run up to this weekend’s big start and how the year ahead looks like it will be.
Yesterday we spoke with Marcus Ó Buachalla, Communications Manager at Leinster Rugby. Today it is the turn of Brian Mahony, Head of Commercial and Marketing at Connacht Rugby
Sport for Business: What are the main changes that have taken place at Connacht over the course of the summer?
Brian Mahony: This was my first summer in Connacht Rugby, but whoever told me summer was a quiet time, I’ll need to have a word with them.
We’ve had an extremely busy summer here with lots of exciting changes within the club.
Obviously the biggest change is probably a whole new coaching ticket. We’ve a new Head Coach, Kieran Keane, who joined us from the Chiefs. We’re really excited about not only the brand of rugby he brings, but also his character.
He’s a natural fit with the club and the people of the province. He’s put together a fantastic coaching staff in Jimmy Duffy as Forwards Coach, and Nigel Carolyn as Backs Coach having served as our Academy manger and Ireland U20 Manager for a number of years. We’ve also added Peter Wilkins as Defence Coach, a new position from last year.
Another really positive change is our new strength and conditioning team. David Howarth has joined us from the NBA side Oklahoma City, as our new Head of Athletic Performance.
David has brought a whole new level of expertise to how we prepare, and is utilising the very latest in sports science and technology to get those crucial marginal gains. We’ve also brought on Jonny O’Connor as Senior S&C Coach. Jonny is a local favourite here and has done a great job in preparing the lads.
Off the pitch, we’ve seen some very important changes also. We’ve introduced a whole new governance structure for the organisation which now sees one board governing the entire game. This is in line with our strategic vision of Grassroots to Green Shirts.
From a commercial perspective we’re really excited to have John Concannon on our board and chair of our Commercial Committee. John brings a wealth of experience building some of the biggest brands and events in Ireland and brings fantastic energy, experience and strategic oversight to our commercial operations.
SfB: What are the key partnerships that you will be activating over the coming months?
BM: We’ve been busy recently launching our new kit for the upcoming season with our Official Kit Partner BLK and our Title Sponsor and Official Retail Partner, Elverys Intersport.
We’ve had a fantastic response to all our home, away and European kits. This year we made a decision to really ‘green up’ the ground and we’ve had a great response.
We’re up significantly on sales from last season already, which considering we came off the back of a PRO12 win the previous year, is a great indication of the sentiment around the province and the product line itself. A number of items have already completely sold out and are being reordered.
We’re working with Heineken on a number of exciting activations which we hope to launch in the coming weeks. We’re really looking at raising the bar in our Heineken Rugby Clubhouse on site and making it the place to be before and after every match.
We’ve a number of new main partners this year with Steeltech Sheds, Portwest, McDonogh Capital Investments and Brooks. We’re really excited to form these strategic partnership with West of Ireland companies, and we’re looking to showcase the best of Connacht on and off the pitch.
Of course we’ll be working with all our partners to make sure they achieve their business goals and we’re really grateful for the superb support they offer. We recently held our partners day and there was a fantastic energy in the room.
SFB: How do you feel the expansion of the Guinness PRO14 will impact on Connacht and the tournament?
BM: We’re all very excited for the season to start and at the prospect of a new Championship. The PRO14 and Celtic Rugby have done an excellent job in pulling the expanded Championship together in such a short space of time.
The opportunity for our fans to witness Southern Hemisphere rugby at the Sportsgrounds has been really well received. We’ve also got Top14 and Premiership opposition coming this year through European competition so it’s building up to be a cracking season ahead.
Obviously there were some challenges with us only having 10 home games this year, but the fans have been very understanding and realise that the quality of the Championship is improving. We were able to offer Season Ticket holders free access to our Munster and Bristol pre-season games to make sure we made up for the loss of that one game this season.
Overall however as I said we’re really exciting about the prospect of an expanded league with extra TV coverage and increased revenues.
SFB: How have season ticket sales gone and what are your hopes for attendance this season?
BM: We’re really pleased with our season ticket sales. We’re tracking right on line with where we were last year.
Last year we received a massive boost with the PRO12 win in 15/16 and our season tickets grew by 45% in a single year.
We’re very satisfied that we’ve managed to retain those fans. We’re working hard to offer fans as much exclusivity as we can with special offers, priority access to extra tickets and special fan nights.
Last year we had a record year for attendances with 10 games fully sold out. For us that was a fantastic achievement as the results on the pitch obviously fell short of where they were the previous year. We’re hoping again for another strong year, but with Galway and Mayo in All-Ireland Finals it’s putting some pressure on the purse-strings around the province for the first couple of games.
Best of luck to them both and we hope that they do the province proud of course.
SFB: How are things coming along with overall development of the game throughout Connacht?
BM: We’re really excited about the overall development of the game throughout Connacht. Taking all factors into account we probably had our most successful year overall last year hitting or exceeding nearly all our all our strategic KPIs across the various departments in the organisation.
With Eric Elwood moving on to take over our Academy program, Joe Gorham comes on board as our new Head of Club & Community Rugby. Joe is working hard on ‘bringing back the clubhouse’ as he calls it.
We’re really focusing on putting the club at the centre of the game and the community. We’ve more staff on the ground in the domestic game helping clubs and schools than ever before, so there’s fantastic energy on the ground.
With the new board and governance structure we feel we’re setting ourselves up for the best possible chance of success.
SFB: What are the things on your desk at the end of August that you are most excited about for this season?
BM: There are a number of really exciting projects on my desk currently. We’ve been working really hard on a new digital and data project here for a number of months. We’re working on building a single customer view and data warehouse and infrastructure that will really allow us to scale as we plan significant growth over the medium term.
We hope that this project will really help improve our communications, media consumption and lifetime value of our fans. Additionally it should really streamline the way we do things which will free up staff to focus on key tasks.
Of course it’s no secret that we’re looking at facilities to match our ambition, namely a stadium that is fit for purpose. I’m on the stadium working group and that is a really important project for us strategically which requires a lot of effort and needless to say the necessary funding to complete it.
We’re also really focusing on our fan experience and customer service and we’re going to be making some significant investments in those areas in the coming months.
Overall it’s going to be a busy but exciting autumn and winter.
Connacht’s first game in the Guinness PRO14 is at home to Glasgow Warriors on Saturday September 2nd with a kick off time of 19.35. TV coverage will be on TG4.
Connacht Rugby and Elverys Intersport are among the more than 220 organisations that play an active part of the Sport for Business community.