Jay Z's Roc Nation and URC see NBA model as blueprint for rugby revolution

‘I know it’s going to be a big change and I know that some clubs may be a little bit hesitant’, says Roc Nation Sports president Michael Yormark, ‘but at the end of the day, it’s about growing the sport.’

Siya Kolisi and NBA superstar Kevin Durant (L); a view of the URC logo at Thomond Park (R).
Siya Kolisi and NBA superstar Kevin Durant (L); a view of the URC logo at Thomond Park (R).

WHEN MICHAEL YORMARK tells you, “Thank God it’s Friday”, you’re inclined to believe he really means it.

Even pinning him down to a one-on-one interview has taken the guts of three weeks and a 40-something-email thread with his team, one of whom schedules Yormark’s rare media gigs and introduces him on Zoom on a Friday, a week out from kick-off in the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC).

It’s 6:30am on his media assistant’s watch but Yormark, who heads the global sports arm of Jay Z’s entertainment and management firm Roc Nation, made the switch across the Atlantic from New York two years ago. These days, he primarily operates from the company’s London offices which he opened in the autumn of 2019 — a plunge partly inspired by Romelu Lukaku, conversations with whom convinced Yormark to expand Roc Nation’s interests into European football.

Yormark was on hand to watch Chelsea’s Roc Nation client score the winning goal in their Champions League clash with Zenit at nearby Stamford Bridge last Tuesday but his prior weeks were split mostly between England, Italy and South Africa.

It is the latter nation which, over the last two years, has become the springboard from which Roc Nation have made significant strides into rugby union, culminating in a left-field strategic partnership with the new-look URC.

Yormark was part of an American consortium which, in January of this year, bought a controlling share in the Sharks. The Durban-based former Super Rugby franchise, by then already mooted for inclusion in a new-look iteration of the Pro14, consequently announced that it had partnered with Roc Nation with the intention of taking its brand worldwide.

A subsequent chat between Yormark and Pro14 boss Martin Anayi — introduced to each other by CVC Capital Partners’ Nick Clarry — led to a broader, competition-wide alliance. Behind the scenes, a collaborative plan to rise the tide beneath all boats was hatched.

On 14 June, the new-look United Rugby Championship (feat. Roc Nation) was unveiled to the world.

“I was super, super-impressed by Martin”, Yormark tells The42, “as a visionary, and somebody who really wants to lead the charge toward change.

“Most importantly for us — for Roc Nation — there is a desire to really modernise the sport. I think you would probably agree it needs to be promoted differently, it needs to reach a different demographic, the entertainment value of the sport needs to be enhanced.

“These are all things that Roc Nation has done and continues to do with other properties around the world. And, especially because of my own personal background in American sports, having worked in professional sports franchises for 25 years, I think I have a pretty good understanding of where rugby needs to go and, ultimately, how it can get there.

“But let me take you back if I may”, adds the former Florida Panthers (NHL) president, “because when I opened up our international office in September 2019, rugby really wasn’t on my radar. And to be totally transparent, as an American coming across the pond, I had not been exposed to rugby at a high level.

“But I had the opportunity to watch the [2019] World Cup final from here in the UK with one of my owners from Roc Nation, and at the conclusion of the match between the Springboks and England, I saw Siya Kolisi lift the trophy in Japan. I heard his very powerful and eloquent speech about what it meant to South Africa. And he talked about his journey and what he had gone through, the challenges he overcame.

I realised that he was the first black captain in 127 years. I knew a little bit about Nelson Mandela and his history, and as I was putting all of this together, I said to my owner, ‘You know what? He’s a guy who belongs at Roc Nation… Imagine how we could inspire young children, men and women around the world with Siya Kolisi.’ Within two weeks, I was in Cape Town with Siya and Rachel (Kolisi’s wife) and he was joining our family.

“And we had some incredible conversations along the way,” Yormark continues. “But that opened the door for me: it opened my eyes to the sport of rugby.”

image2 (1) Michael Yormark (L) and Springboks captain Siya Kolisi. Source: Roc Nation

There are parallels between Kolisi and Lukaku’s impact on Roc Nation Sport’s international expansion. For starters, Yormark acknowledges that he “wouldn’t be here today — in terms of the depth Roc Nation have started to build in rugby — if it wasn’t for Siya.” Secondly, where his Belgian international team-mates Kevin de Bruyne and Axel Witsel would later join the Chelsea striker on Roc Nation’s books, Kolisi’s signature was eventually followed by those of fellow South African stars Cheslin Kolbe, Sbu Nkosi and, most recently, Aphelele Fassi.

England star Maro Itoje, who had already been recommended to Yormark by Anayi, also became the agency’s first European rugby client last November after a chance encounter in Saracens’ boardroom.

“In a very short period of time, we’ve developed some very interesting relationships within the sport,” Yormark says. “While rugby, initially, was opportunistic for us, it’s now turned into a growth opportunity for us as well.”

Yormark also reveals that Roc Nation is “in conversation with quite a few” more players about joining their growing list of rugby clientele. Ultimately, though, the shoe’s gotta fit.

“Not every player is the right player for Roc Nation and vice versa,” he says. “What I think makes us unique as a company is our 360-degree approach: we handle all the contracts on the field but equally as importantly, we want to build the profile of the players — we want to help them to build their brands; and we want to help them to plan for their futures outside of rugby which is critically important. Athletes have to leverage their success of the moment to build for the future. So, that’s something that we’re doing: we’re counselling and mentoring our players to think a little bit differently. Our focus isn’t just, ‘Hey, let’s go out and get the best contract’, but ‘How do we create these other opportunities that will complement that?’

“The players: that’s at the core of the change that needs to take place in rugby,” Yormark stresses.

And this is where Roc Nation believe the URC as a competition can shed the identity crises of its past iterations and carve a unique space in the sport’s global landscape: by partly emulating an already extremely successful model from across the Atlantic.

“When you think about rugby traditionally, you think about the iconic franchises, you think about a demographic that has supported this sport for quite some time — but you know that the demographic is somewhat limited,” Yormark says.

“I think part of the future growth of this sport has to revolve around the players. Let me tell you something that Martin Anayi said to me during our original conversation which really impressed me. I asked him — I said: ‘Martin, if there was a league around the world that you wanted to best emulate moving forward, what would it be?’ He said: ‘Michael… The NBA’ — the National Basketball Association. And I was glad he said that because I’m a big fan of the NBA and its leadership: Adam Silver is, I think, arguably the best commissioner in all of sport.

“Part of the reason Martin identified the NBA was because of the players.

Now, when you think about the success of the NBA, you realise that there’s a real partnership between the players, the league and the owners. Everyone has a seat at the table. Everyone collaborates on what’s best for the sport. And because of that collaboration the players, the leaders, the owners — they’re willing to do whatever it takes to grow the sport. That approach has to be duplicated in the URC. The clubs need to understand that the higher the profile of their players, the better it is not only for those players but for their club and for the league. Giving the players a voice, giving them a seat at the table is going to be key to the success of this league moving forward.

“The players have to be the stars,” Yormark continues. “Players have to be a big part of how the clubs and the URC build their brand moving forward — and how they create a differentiation between themselves and other leagues. I think that’s something that the URC, slowly but surely, is going to be rolling out. People are going to be able to see that some of the best players in the world are playing in this league and those great players are going to be promoted accordingly; they’re going to become the face of this league. And that’s one very big way to attract a more diverse audience. The players will become more popular and, most importantly, grow the game. Grow the game,” Yormark reiterates.

“You can’t have a league that’s successful if the number-one product — the players — are not your partner.

“So, as everybody knows, a Players Council is being created.”

jonathan-sexton-iain-henderson-and-rory-scannell Players from URC clubs in every constituent country will make up the competition's first Players Council. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The Players Council, Yormark explains, will see equal player representation from each constituent country in the URC. It will initially consist of a “relatively small” number of players before, as he sees it, inevitably expanding.

“Those players are being identified right now,” he says.

And once those players come together, that council will be working with the URC and sitting in on a wide variety of decisions — and also providing very valuable feedback. Because the players also know what’s best for the league, right? So, you want players to say, ‘Hey, here’s what you could do differently, here’s how you could enhance the game experience; here’s how we can grow the sport together.’ A lot of these players have great ideas but they just want a seat at the table to be able to express them.

“We’ve already seen how that can work in the NBA,” Yormark continues. “No decision in the NBA is made without the consent of the Players Association. The players are involved in everything. And because that partnership is so strong, ultimately, the decisions that come out of that collaboration are in the best interests of the sport. All the egos, all the ulterior motives are left outside. And once this Players Council in the URC is finalised — and it’s very close — they too will be involved in key decisions.

“They have to feel comfortable and confident in providing the input but what’s also important is that they know when they provide that input, it’s going to be listened to.

This can’t just be a PR stunt: ‘Hey, we’re a player-focused league, we’re giving the players a say’ — and then the players don’t make any meaningful contributions. In order for this to work, the players have to firstly feel that their contributions are meaningful and then they have to see those contributions come to life.

“Now, I also know it’s going to be a big change and I know that some of the clubs may be a little bit hesitant, but at the end of the day, it’s about growing the sport: it’s about growing these clubs, it’s about reaching a more diverse demographic; it’s about making the sport more commercially viable and bringing more money into the sport because with more resources, you’ll be able to grow even faster. That has to be a primary goal: ‘How can we attract more sponsors?’ And we know about the new TV deals — but it’s about growing the pot and investing that money back into the sport.”

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Yormark, Roc Nation and URC officials see “access” as key to the future magnification of the league, especially as it pertains to latent rugby fans who may not previously have cared enough to fork out for — or even seek out to begin with — matches that lay beyond terrestrial television.

With RTÉ onboard in partnership with TG4 from kick-off this Friday onwards, channel-flickers, casual sports observers and rugby diehards in Ireland will find 52 of 60 matches involving the provinces this season on terrestrial TV. Yormark anticipates a “trickle-down effect” from increased free-to-air TV exposure to match attendance. (Fans of all URC clubs abroad can also, from this season, avail of the URC’s new paid subscription streaming service, URC TV, which was set up in conjunction with RTÉ and will show all 151 games this season in high definition).

Roc Nation will help the URC to distribute content on social media, the benefits of which the NBA cracked long before its competing American sports leagues: where the likes of the NFL were once prohibitively precious about copyrighted match footage, the NBA, its commissioner Silver and the league’s TV partners came to recognise that people ‘sharing’ viral-worthy in-game moments moonlit as free advertising for their overall product. It became a key part of their own marketing strategy (and, much later, part of the NFL’s as well as the Premier League’s).

“We have to make sure the URC is visible on every platform”, says Yormark, “especially if you’re going after the new generation of younger fans, which is critically important.”

Yormark, though, who was previously Roc Nation’s chief of branding and strategy, is well aware that it will take far more than tweets and Tik Toks to acquaint a new demographic with even a fittingly fresh-looking rugby competition.

The United Rugby Championship can’t just exist on TV and online: match attendance has to become a credible suggestion in the group chats of people in their late teens and 20s; a Sunday at Rodney Parade or Stadio Comunale di Monigo has to appeal as an outing for local parents with younger children.

The requisite innovation on the match-experience front is Roc Nation’s bread and butter. Yormark is conspicuously excited by that challenge — and even more so after a recent mini-tour of European football.

“I want to give you a quick observation: in the last week, I went to three football matches. I was in Italy on Sunday for AC Milan v Lazio, I was at Chelsea on Tuesday for their Champions League match, and on Wednesday I had the opportunity to go to Liverpool to see their match with AC Milan — which was an extraordinary experience.

But what I found — what I observed at all three matches, more so with Chelsea and Liverpool — is a very traditional setting. And by the way, they were magnificent! But a little bit more traditional… You know, I looked out into the full stadiums and observed the demographic that was sitting there. I listened to the music that was being played… And as I sat there, I said, ‘You know what? The URC has a great opportunity, rugby has a great opportunity, to be a little bit different; to go after the younger fan, the family; to be cool, to be hip; just to do things that people have never seen done before.’

“It’s a blank canvas,” he adds. “I’m personally more passionate about where rugby can go today than I was even on Sunday before I went to the AC Milan-Lazio match because I saw there first-hand, clearly, what the opportunity is.”

hamish-watson-and-fraser-brown Edinburgh's Hamish Watson and Glasgow's Fraser Brown launching the URC at The Kelpies, Scotland. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“You know, last week, I read a great story,” Yormark adds before he has to take another meeting. “Adam Silver was talking about potentially doing outdoor NBA games and bringing basketball back to the legendary black-top courts — Rucker Park (New York), et cetera. And I’m like, ‘Wow, you know what, why didn’t I think of that?’

“That’s the type of thinking that needs to go into this next chapter of rugby.

“To modernise anything, you have to have a desire to do it. And Martin [Anayi] and the URC have the desire to do it.

“Bringing Roc Nation on board was a bold move. It opened a lot of eyes because for rugby, we would be considered a ‘non-traditional’ agency. And we’re going to help the URC to change the game. We’re going to help them to change the game from the player-council perspective, from a game-presentation and fan-engagement perspective, from a social and digital perspective, from a ‘content’ perspective.

“All of these things combined will make the game bigger, attract new fans and, ultimately, make it more commercially viable.

And by the way, every decision that the URC makes moving forward may not prove to be the right decision — but you’ve gotta take a chance, right? You’ve got to be committed to doing things differently to grow the sport, and to grow participation in the sport — which is where it all starts.

“I bought into the URC’s vision from day one and we’re really proud to have the opportunity to work with them and to help them to accomplish all their goals moving forward.”

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss Ireland’s World Cup qualification campaign, the dressing-room debacle which overshadowed the interpros, and where Irish women’s rugby goes from here.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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