With the start of the club rugby season upon us Sport for Business has been out and about talking to the provinces of Ireland about what the season ahead holds off the pitch.
First into the hot seat this morning is Doug Howlett of Munster.
How has the summer been in terms of optimism for the year ahead?
All hugely positive. We used the time mainly to put the finishing touches on our Strategic Plan and this is something we will be delivering over the next three years.
As always the primary focus of the club is to win silverware and to do this by developing our young home grown players is a priority, along with recruiting others to further strengthen the squad. One of the top level objectives is also to create a unique stadium experience.
While European match-days in Thomond Park can be very special occasions in terms of atmosphere, we are looking to enhance this experience further. This will be done through improvements to the match-day experience itself by introducing some positive changes but also by focusing on technology and turning Thomond Park into a top class digital stadium.
There are six high level objectives in total with the silverware and stadia experience being two of those.
Another objective is growing the provincial game and our recent development at Irish Independent Park will go a long way towards helping us on that front. The installation of our new modified 3G pitch surface in Cork is a massive boost for the province in driving the growth of the game at grassroots level. We used to host approx. 50 matches each season but we hope to treble this with the additional capacity that an artificial surface gives us. Clubs and schools rugby can only benefit from this as we work to create a high quality hub for provincial rugby.
From a rugby point of view Johann van Graan and JP Ferreira got to experience their first pre-season with Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, while Johann was able to put his stamp on plans for the season ahead.
The squad all enjoyed an intense week of training and meetings in Fota once the internationals returned and the time was well spent in getting the group on the same page. There’s a real buzz around the place with Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery joining off the back of the Australia Tour, and with the introduction of Arno Botha and Mike Haley also. I believe everyone is looking forward to seeing what the new players will bring to the table and all are looking forward to kicking off the new season this Saturday in Thomond Park.
How have advance sales been for season tickets and hospitality?
We are optimistic for the season ahead. Credit to all involved, our hospitality is a product that is well sought after, and our entire Thomond Park stadium hospitality is sold out for the European Champions Cup games while the PRO14 offering continues to be as popular as ever.
In regards to tickets, our Munster Rugby Supporters Club season ticket memberships sold out before the summer and we’ve now moved our focus on to customer-driven packages that will meet the varying needs of other supporter groups. That has been the key focus for us, making sure we listen to our supporters and take their feedback on board in delivering a product that provides value and meets their requirements.
The switch in TV coverage will take time to sink in among fans. Do you anticipate any impact on attendance as a result of all games being covered live on eir Sport?
It is really exciting to see eir Sport on board, and our own Corporate Ambassador Donncha O’Callaghan back in front of the camera. We look forward to seeing the new programming format.
Of course, we always have to be mindful of the number of games that are televised when looking at our attendance figures, but no different to all clubs we recognise this and put a lot of emphasis and work into ensuring we provide a unique stadia experience. There are huge positives for all stakeholders when all games are broadcast live and it provides further opportunity to engage with the Munster diaspora.
You’ve a new kit for Europe. Has that proven popular?
Very much so. We are very fortunate to have such a long-standing successful relationship with adidas, safe in the knowledge that they deliver time and time again and that we end up with the latest innovative jersey designs.
It’s the sign of a great partnership that they know our story so well that they were able to capture and recognise the 10-year anniversary of the redeveloped Thomond Park in the latest design of our European jersey. Working closely with our exclusive retail partner Life Style Sports, the feedback from all of the new range has been great.
Will your Champions Cup fixtures be the biggest days or do you see the PRO14 getting stronger again?
Historically Champions Cup games have been the big days out but the support and regard for the PRO14 has really escalated over the past number of seasons and that’s down to its competitiveness and unique position as a cross-border competition.
The PRO14 expansion now sees us venturing into the southern hemisphere, opening up new markets and opportunities, while the format continues to cater for those big local-derby fixtures that hold the interest and build the excitement for fans everywhere.
How will the focus on retaining the grand slam and heading towards Japan impact on fan engagement with the Province as opposed to the national team this year?
The beauty of Irish Rugby and the provinces is that they go hand in hand. The success of the Irish team and journey the provincial players embark on to get into the green jersey only spikes the interest of the nation.
With the Irish selection policy the game across the provinces is hugely competitive with players all vying for those treasured national places. Moving into a World Cup year brings the game to the front of everyone’s mind and that can only be a good thing in terms of engagement at every level.
What new innovations might we expect in terms of fan engagement from yourselves and sponsors this season?
A primary focus for us is to use our digital channels and available technologies to pull the red thread tighter together. We are fortunate to have the ability to leverage the expertise of our partners to explore new and innovative ways of engaging with our community.
We’ve recently created a new role with a Membership Strategist coming on board to review and improve our engagement strategies further. Aligned with our ticketing strategy we are looking to appeal to the ‘casual’ supporter while continuing to cater for and focus on our most committed supporters.
And finally are there any new or renewing sponsorship agreements or extensions?
We look forward to the season ahead working with Bank of Ireland and all of our partners.
We welcome Medicare/Physiologix as a new partner and it’s always great to work with a local business that we can support in achieving their international growth aspirations.
We welcome the renewal of our Marks and Spencer partnership and look forward to growing our community programme so important to the foundations of Munster Rugby.