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From 200 diehards to 11,000 season-ticket holders: how Leinster compete in the professional game

Paul Dermody, Head of Commercial and Marketing at Leinster Rugby, speaks to The42 about how the eastern province has developed.

This is part of The42′s Class of 95 series, a week-long examination of professional rugby in Ireland.

Garry Ringrose, Noel Reid and Robbie Henshaw after the game Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

WHEN RUGBY TURNED professional in 1995, it had just as big an impact on how teams operated off the pitch as they did on it.

Correctly managing the business side of the game from brand positioning to increasing revenue streams is one way of helping long-term success on the playing field.

And that is something Paul Dermody, the Head of Commercial and Marketing at Leinster Rugby, knows all about.

Dermody, who swapped the GAA for Leinster Rugby in 2014 after helping the organisation to move to a Champions League-style multi-sponsor programme, believes three major changes implemented helped the province transition into a more professional outfit.

“From a playing perspective, the arrival of Michael Cheika had a massive impact on the club’s growth. He changed the dynamic of the place,” Dermody tells The42.

“He brought a winning mentality – delivering the first Heineken Cup – and he was also the force behind us moving from being spread across a number of different locations across south Dublin to our base in UCD.

Leinster coach Michael Chieka and Leo Cullen Cheika with Leo Cullen celebrating their first European success in 2009. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Cheika wanted us to be in one headquarters where all of us were under one roof with professional facilities. Before that, the players used to train in David Lloyd gym. That was a major part of Leinster’s story.

“The move to the RDS in 2007 was also a significant moment. We had outgrown Donnybrook at that point. The RDS provided us with a brilliant platform to attract a bigger audience with extra benefits.”

Indeed, at the start of the professional era, just a couple of hundred loyal supporters held Leinster season tickets. Today that figure stands at over 11,ooo in the RDS, with plans to increase it again as rugby continues to grow in popularity.

“Our season ticket base is very healthy,” Dermody says. “They are the number one stakeholder we have from a commercial perspective.”

Over the past couple of years, the province has implemented plans to try to shake off the tag of being an elite club for people from south county Dublin.

There is no question that Leinster have had to overcome the issue of identification, with efforts to promote the province as one that is inclusive rather than exclusive.

And Leinster believe they can already see signs of change.

“It is something we have been very, very conscious of in the past.

“I think over the last five to seven years, we have seen quite a strong transformation of where the postal addresses of our season ticket holders are coming from.

“Of course, the majority are from Dublin, as you would expect, because we are based here.

“But if you come here on a matchday, you will see busloads of clubs coming up from Wexford, from Louth, from Carlow – from all across the province – and that has grown exponentially across the years,” Dermody continues.

In the past rugby fans based in Leinster, but outside of Dublin, may have felt more of a connection with Munster’s European adventures of the early 2000s rather than their home province’s exploits.

Success on the pitch over the past decade has obviously helped, but there is much more to it than that, with talent from outside of the capital expanding with the likes of Wexford’s Tadhg Furlong and Carlow’s Sean O’Brien, just two examples of the province broadening their player pool from a geographical perspective.

“One of the major factors in that growth is that we are getting players from those areas. With players, comes the supporters.

Tadhg Furlong scores their fifth try Furlong has been one of Leinster's standout performers this season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We are also constantly trying to engage with our audience outside of Dublin. Look at what we did at the start of the season, we brought our first pre-season game to Navan. It was a huge event with over 4,000 people there.

“We had a game at the Tallaght Stadium and that was an opportunity to engage with Clondalkin Rugby Club and to have a presence in that area too. We will continue to do that.

“The way we look at it from a commercial perspective, like all brands, is to have a pipeline of supporters.

“At the most passive we have those that just watch on television, all the way down to those at the bottom of the funnel who are people who turn up as season-ticket holders.

“You are not suddenly going to go from catching one pre-season game in Navan to coming to every game. But if we can convert you to purchasing a piece of merchandise or coming to one big Aviva game – it starts that funneling process.”

Rory O'Laughlin on the attack Rory O'Loughlin on the attack for Leinster in their pre-season game against Ulster at Navan RFC. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The province has three primary sources of income, two of which come under the commercial department’s remit - gate receipts and commercial income – while IRFU funding is organised at executive level, with the amount fluctuating every year depending on the needs of other provinces and the IRFU as a whole.

The money generated helps to pay for the 56 professional players on the books at Leinster. There are also 110 non-playing full-time staff employed by the province, half of whom are coaches in clubs and schools.

Leinster Rugby Squad Portraits for Season 2013/14 Dermody joined Leinster Rugby from the GAA in 2014. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Trying to retain and increase the number of supporters that come to home matches remains one of Leinster’s main objectives in terms of revenue, with the province offering fans a wide range of additional events to help retain their support.

Everything from a pre-game coding session for teenagers to a briefing from a global wine guru to an exclusive presentation from the management team has been offered to season-ticket holders over the past couple of years.

“We are constantly trying to reinforce the perception of value. They get first crack at everything we offer.

“For example for our home quarter-final, the pricing will be biased to season-ticket holders at a more favourable rate.”

“We also want to give reasons for season-ticket holders to turn up for every home game. Whether that’s the music we play or whether we create the opportunity for players to meet fans.

This year we have introduced autograph valley down by the dressing room doors. For a half an hour pre-game, three non-playing players will make themselves available to meet the fans, and we get huge queues at it.”

Social media has a significant part to play in maintaining and growing the connection between the squad and the fans, with Leinster, at the time of writing, having more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, making the province the fourth-most followed professional rugby club in the world.

Players are also encouraged to use their personal social media accounts to connect with supporters and prompt them to turn up to home matches to spur on the team.

“There’s a renewed appreciation that it is in everybody’s interest to have the most people possible turning up at the ground,” Dermody explains.

“You will see the huddle that the players do after the game and then they will go over to thank the fans. That is a very conscious effort and that extends into social media too.”

Jamie H

The planned redevelopment at the RDS represents the next stage of progress for the province, with capacity for Leinster matches expected to increase from 18,500 to 21,000 on top of additional facilities for other events. More details of the revamp are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

“It is going to be really exciting for us. When we get to the new arena it is going to change everything we do from a commercial and marketing perspective.

“We are going to have corporate hospitality facilities that are top notch. We will have great viewing facilities with a roof at both ends, with enhanced food and beverage offerings and sponsorship activation zones.

In everything we do from a commercial aspect, it will raise our game, especially with capturing more data, which will deliver the most benefit for us in the future.

“We are investing in making sure that if you are a supporter, we want to know as much as we can about you as possible. We want to capture the data, keep it relevant and communicate with you in a relevant way.

A general view of the RDS during the game All areas of the revamped RDS will be covered. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Even though it is not one of those things that’s going to make the headlines, it is one of those things in the background that puts us at a significant advantage to other sports.”

The financial muscle of the English and French sides with their budgets dwarfing that of the Irish provinces remains a concern, however.

Dermody though would rather focus on maximising potential revenue streams to support the growth of the game across the province, while trying to insulate the commercial performance of the club away from what is happening on the field.

“Commercially we compete extremely well with other clubs, as do the other provinces.

“If you look at the attendances we have, the number of season-ticket holders we have, the income from sponsors we have, it would be in the most part, far in excess of our English and French counterparts.

“I remember Castres only started selling tickets for our game two weeks prior to the match. They wouldn’t get anywhere near selling it out. That was amazing to us.

We played an English club in pre-season and we were speaking about jersey sales. We were outstripping this English powerhouse by about 10 to one. Commercially, we compare very well.”

However, there is concern within the province that the sharing of the rights of the European matches between the British broadcasters Sky Sports and BT Sport is having a negative impact on the teams and the tournament.

“We need to be wary of the media rights deals done on our behalf in the competitions. If you look at the Champions Cup, there is no doubt the media rights we have at the moment is not helping the competition.

“As you may know, BT have a highlights programme on a Sunday evening, and they were doing the tries of the weekend. None of the tries they showed were from games Sky covered. It’s like Sky doesn’t exist.

BT Sports pundits Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Jennings Former Leinster pair Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Jennings on punditry duty for BT Sport. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“They were showing the dates and times for the forthcoming fixtures, but only for the games that they were showing. It is the exact same on Sky.

“For the casual rugby fan, it’s not helping. It would probably be best served not splitting the media rights.”

Another problem for the game is the welfare of the players, with the long-term effects of concussion and other injuries a worrying trend for all involved.

“As the game grows, as we try to recruit young kids in the game, it is something we will have to work harder on. But that is something to come from World Rugby and not something necessarily Leinster can do on our own.

“We brought a new sponsor in last year, Laya Healthcare. We partnered with them on a concussion awareness programme.

“We made available our key marquee players and we ran information evenings for clubs across the province who could utilise the offer put forward by Laya to do concussion screening.

“That’s a really strong demonstration from us of getting the message out there.”

In any business environment, even though there are threats to the province’s long-term success, plenty of opportunities remain to grow, with Leinster looking to leverage their brand outside of Ireland.

“I don’t see why not,” Dermody says. “The competitions themselves are on record as saying they are looking at international opportunities.

“Martin Anayi, the chief executive of the Pro12, is saying that he is looking at opportunities beyond Europe for a franchise.

“We would like to think if that ever happened, we would be at the forefront of any move.

“There is certainly an opportunity to have games outside of Ireland from our point of view. There is definitely the appetite for that. It is a very exciting prospect.

“Plus, if you add into the mix that we continue to have one or two big marquee international players. For example, if we had a big international superstar name, why couldn’t that help us get into foreign markets?”

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