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RaboDirect are on the way out -- so what's next for Pro12 rugby?

Celtic League faces another revamp following RaboDirect’s decision to end their title sponsorship a year early.

RaboDirect: the 2013/2014 season will be their last as title sponsors of the Pro12.
RaboDirect: the 2013/2014 season will be their last as title sponsors of the Pro12.
Image: ©INPHO/Colm O'Neill

JUST WHEN RUGBY fans were starting to forget about the Magners League and get used to life watching the RaboDirect Pro12, it’s all about to change again.

The 2013/2014 season, which starts in a fortnight, will be the final one under the current title sponsors. After two successful years together in which attendances have grown and broken the one million mark, the bank are pulling the plug on the deal a year early.

“Our decision to end sponsorship of the PRO12 is based on our business strategy for the coming years,” RaboDirect general manager Tim Bicknell said yesterday.

“Like any business, RaboDirect continues to evolve and change and it is important that this is reflected in our marketing & sponsorship activity.”

So what now for the pan-European league which faces a third face-lift in the eight years since drinks giant Magners came on board and re-branded the Celtic League?

Chief executive John Feehan was clear that there are no concerns for the future. ”From our perspective it is an exciting time,” he said as yesterday’s news emerged.

The league will have one major bargaining chip when its money men sit down to talk to potential partners in the coming weeks and months. A new four-year broadcast deal with Sky Sports, which will see 33 games screened live, kicks off at the start of next season and will add even more valuable exposure to the existing TV deals in place.

But as it looks to continue the growth and expansion of recent years, where can the league turn for its next big payday?

“It’s a fantastic sponsorship opportunity for the right brand but you would want to be a brand with a big foothold in the countries where it is played,” sports sponsorship consultant and managing director of Pembroke Communications Mick O’Keeffe told TheScore.ie.

“It gets a huge amount of publicity, it gets a name-checked, there’s a huge amount of TV involved, and they’ve got a big final at the end of the year so sponsors get a big marquee day out as well.

“You’d be looking for a pan-European brand — a big car brand, a financial brand or an insurance brand, somebody with a foothold in all those countries. It’s hard to see an alcohol partner going back in there with all the talk about banning alcohol sponsorship at the moment.”

The short-term nature of Rabo’s association might be a frustrating to fans who now face the prospect of another tongue-twisting revamp but, O’Keeffe continues, that’s indicative of current market trends.

“Ideally you would like to get someone like Heineken who have been there from the start and their name is now synonymous with the competition. That’s the ideal scenario.

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“But the way sponsorship is going at the moment, most people look at sponsorship in three or four-year chunks to meet short-term business objectives. It’s getting more and more difficult to have somebody there for 10 or 15 years.

“Things change in companies, someone comes in and decides that they want to go down a different route, and certain industries go through peaks and troughs in terms of business performance.

“The Celtic League authorities will be confident enough that the competition is big enough that they’re going to get somebody in. From their perspective, I’d say they will be looking for a five-year deal now.”

In a competitive market place with lots of sporting opportunities fighting for their share of the budget, O’Keeffe says that the competition has plenty to offer.

“It has its pros and cons like everything. It’s very much the secondary competition in Europe, behind the Heineken Cup which is very much the main competition and one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world.

“But they have something which a lot of people don’t have, which is a competition which runs from September up until the final in May.

“There’s very little risk involved. When you sponsor a team there’s always a performance element linked into that whereas when you sponsor a competition, generally speaking your risk is spread.

“There are times of the year when it goes in peaks and troughs. During the Six Nations you’ve got mostly second-string teams playing but as a rule there are good crowds and the Irish provinces in particular take it very seriously.

“It’s still a very attractive competition and sponsorship property.”

RaboDirect to pull sponsorship of Pro12

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Niall Kelly

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