Business Post ; June 25th 2023

La Rochelle lift the Heineken Champions Cup: in France, the Heineken Cup is called the H Cup. Picture: Getty

European rugby bosses will be forced to rethink how it courts sponsors if there is a crackdown on alcohol advertising around sport, according to an expert. European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) is in “advanced discussions” to extend the partnership with Heineken as the sponsors of the Champions Cup, the governing body told last week. However, there are growing efforts from the Irish government to break the link between alcohol and sport, which could affect future deals.

Kelli O’Keefe, managing director of Teneo Ireland, told the Business Post that rugby was already looking to a different pool of commercial partners to strike deals. She pointed to the sponsorship of the Pro14 by BKT, an Indian agricultural tyre manufacturer, as a sign of life for rugby away from alcohol sponsorship.

“If you’re to look at this, on the surface, you kind of think, ‘Jesus, what is a tyre manufacturer doing as a sponsor of the Pro14?’ They’ve been clever in their approach to this. So, they looked at their fans’ interests and passions and they saw quite clearly that a lot of the rugby bases are farming agricultural bases, in Ireland, in the UK, and in South Africa. So, it makes absolute sense to bring in a major farm sponsor, which they have done in BKT. So, I think that’s a good example of how being clever will kind of prevent any major issues.”

With the likes of Wasps, London Irish and Worcester going out of business, the commercial side of rugby has been under scrutiny this year and any limit on alcohol sponsorship could cause further strain. Brands such as Heineken and Guinness have long-standing relationships with the premier events in club and international rugby, and O’Keefe said any moves away from alcohol-related sponsorship will be a “phased approach”. But she said she is interested to see how governments react to use of zero-alcohol brands as sponsors, which have caused controversy.

If Heineken are to renew their deal with the Champions Cup, it’s important that the two organisations are “flexible” in their deal due to the ever-changing laws regarding alcohol advertising, O’Keefe said. As it currently stands, she said, there are ways that allow governing bodies to deal with alcohol sponsorship laws in certain countries. “If you’re to look at France, they call it the H cup. What they do over there is basically a form of what is called alibi marketing. So, they don’t use the name of the alcohol, but they use the look and feel of the brand. It uses everything but the name, so it circumvents the law,” she said.

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