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.
First into the hot seat is Marcus Ó Buachalla, Communications Manager at Leinster Rugby.
Sport for Business: What are the main changes that have taken place at Leinster over the course of the summer?
Marcus Ó Buachalla: The main change from a commercial point of view is obviously the departure of our Head of Commercial Paul Dermody who was with us nearly four years. Paul did a huge amount to change not only the commercial model in Leinster but also the structures within Leinster so I’d like to think that we were well set up and I think it’s been a relatively smooth process as we wait for a replacement to be appointed.
As with every season, the quiet time on the field is when most of the planning happens off the field so for the wider commercial, marketing and communications team we’ve been busy planning for the season ahead with our key stakeholders.
From a communications point of view we have hired an in-house videographer for the first time to work with us for the season ahead which I think has already had a huge impact on our visibility in pre-season in comparison to other seasons. So as a result I’m really looking forward to the roll out of that Leinster TV content for the next nine months or so.
An expanded Guinness PRO14 brings with it huge excitement and with the first home game only two or so weeks away I think we’re good to go.
SfB: What are the key partnerships that you will be activating over the coming months?
MÓB: It’s no surprise that our main sponsors and partners will be front and centre in any of our activations. Bank of Ireland, Canterbury, Guinness, Life Style Sports and LAYA in particular will be very visible in the coming weeks and months. We’re also looking forward to the second season of our charity partnership with both AWARE and Debra Ireland and seeing how we can build on the work of our first season.
There has been some movement behind the scenes with our partners too. Both Bank of Ireland with Gemma Bell and Guinness with Jennifer Gleeson have seen new appointments and with new faces comes fresh perspective and ideas so that’s hugely exciting.
LAYA have also been boosted by the appointment of Selda Simsek – formerly of the Leinster Rugby parish – into a lead sponsorship role and this is her first full season ahead with LAYA so I think on match days in particular we will see some really engaging digital activation from them. Our kit supplier Canterbury have been busy launching our new home jersey and the away jersey is being released on 1st September ahead of our trip to Rodney Parade.
Other partners like Optimum Nutrition have been busy over the last few weeks so overall I think it’s going to be an exciting season and we are looking forward to seeing what our partners – and indeed what we – can deliver.
SFB: How do you feel the expansion of the Guinness PRO14 will impact on Leinster and the tournament?
MÓB: There are challenges certainly from a Leinster point of view. For the team, we – and Zebre – are the guinea pigs in many ways. The first two teams over there but with that comes a lot of logistical and operational issues. Everything from the obvious like flights, accommodation and equipment transport for a first time to a new city to other items that might not be as obvious like medical link ups for when and if a player suffers an injury that requires emergency treatment.
Off the field too there are challenges in that we will have one less home game this season so the impact that has on season ticket holders who bought their tickets expecting 11 home games and also the impact on key partners looking to activate across 11 match days, now reduced to 10. That’s been a challenge.
But for any hurdle we have also seen the positives and the excitement. The players can’t wait to get over there and to experience that mini-tour and to have the chance to become the first Irish club team to win on South African soil. We have also seen the impact of the expansion in terms of our season ticket sales and you can see that our supporters are excited by it.
With regard to the tournament, the Celtic League is far better placed than I to talk about the benefits to the Championship itself. But the increased revenue alone from the addition of two South African teams and now with a new TV deal to be negotiated, I think is massive for the competition.
The perception is out there amongst some people that we are behind the English and the French leagues in terms of our product but the ball in play stats and tries scored stats make for very pleasant reading. There is no doubt that there is still a gap financially with those leagues and the money involved.
Every little helps though and the expansion is certainly a help and the gap is closing all the time.
SFB: How have season ticket sales gone and what are your hopes for attendance this season?
MÓB: They have gone really well and I am confident that by the start of the season we will be in and around 8-10% up on last season and that we will go above the 12,000 mark.
On average during the off-season you’d expect, especially in June and July, that season ticket sales on a daily basis would be in single figures, but as soon as talk of South African teams started we saw a spike. Once confirmed we consistently hit double figures on a daily basis and we are now set to hit 12,000 season tickets from a figure of 11,103 last season.
That isn’t all down to the new Guinness PRO14 of course. We were already tracking ahead of last season’s numbers given the performances last year of the team and the young players in particular but the numbers would indicate that the expansion has really grabbed the attention of our supporters and they’re excited by it.
In terms of attendance like always we would be hopeful of a full RDS and Aviva Stadium for all 13 home games in the Guinness PRO14 and the Champions Cup, but given the nature of an autumn to spring sporting calendar the weather plays a huge part in attendances.
But we are very confident that with a new tournament, the addition of new Leinster players like Scott Fardy and James Lowe on top of the existing pool of players, plus the teams now competing in both competitions over the 2017/18 season, that we will have great occasions at home and that the supporters will again come out in huge numbers.
SFB: How are things coming along with the RDS Development?
MÓB: From a Leinster point of view we have a naming rights partner secure which is a huge plus and the RDS has received planning permission from the relevant authorities for the proposed new Anglesea Stand.
The focus at the moment is financing the build and the RDS are speaking with Government about this before proceeding on to the next phase.
SFB: What are the things on your desk at the end of August that you are most excited about for this season?
MÓB: By the end of August it’s really important to have most of your projects confirmed for the season ahead so hopefully there will be very few items on my desk needing attention!
It is very difficult to chop and change mid-season so really I am just excited to get going and to see how that planning takes shape over the coming season with an away trip to Dragons first up and then Cardiff Blues at home a week later.
And then once up and running the Leinster TV content, our CSR work, our new match day programme, our new Leinster Rugby Media Guide and our media training roll-out with the younger players will be my focus.
So plenty to be excited about! Let the games begin!
Leinster’s first game in the Guinness PRO14 will be away to the Dragons at Rodney Parade on Saturday September 2nd with a kick off time of 3.15. TV coverage will be on Sky Sports.
The first home fixture will be on Friday, September 8th at the RDS against Cardiff Blues. TV coverage will be on TG4.
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