The Press, October 2012

The sacred All Black jersey is going to be adorned with the AIG logo from this weekend onwards. Is it a stroke of commercial genius or a potential marketing disaster?

Last week the New Zealand Rugby Union announced they had inked a deal out to May 2018 with the US insurance giant, giving them the rights to display their logo on the ABs jersey, along with other national representative rugby teams.

The AIG logo on the All Black jersey will be slightly simpler than those on the other jerseys, a small acknowledgement of the power of the test jersey.

According to the press release on the deal it is “. . . a game changer for rugby in New Zealand and will take New Zealand rugby to new heights around the world," said Steve Tew, the NZRU’s Chief Executive. In other words, serious cash, with reports putting the value of the AIG sponsorship close to that of major sponsor Adidas, at around $20 million per annum.

Jersey sponsorship might seem relatively inconsequential, but the experience of professional sport is that it can be a major revenue earner. In 2010, the 20 teams in football’s English Premier League generated $178 million in revenue from shirt sponsorships.

A logo on the likes of an All Blacks’ jersey brings a lot of direct and indirect benefits. The brand is exposed for long periods during games televised to large audiences at prime times, as well as being associated with a highly successful and well respected team.

There are also thousands of people inside stadiums seeing the brand, exposure in other media like newspapers and of course being able to recruit a legion of fans to buy an All Black jersey and advertise your brand.

It follows a long history of such sponsorship deals in professional sport, especially in pursuits like soccer and cycling. In 1973 a German professional football team called Eintracht Braunschweig was the first to accept a jersey sponsorship deal, managing to circumvent rules against such endorsements by changing its club logo to be the same as that of its new sponsor Jagermeister.

The establishment remained sniffy about the approach, many TV networks refusing to allow teams to wear sponsored playing strips in televised games. It wasn’t until 1983 that sponsored strips were allowed.

Reticence to pursue jersey sponsorship has been apparent in the centre of pro sports, the USA. Most of the top sports there do not allow sponsorship on match day uniforms, although the NBA is likely to allow jersey advertisements from next season, attracted by the idea of earning over $100 million per annum.

AIG is seen as necessary evil that will bring considerable financial benefits to the NZRU, and provide good brand exposure to AIG, a US insurance company that has previously sponsored the jerseys of powerful sports brands like Manchester United. AIG needs to rebuild its image, damaged after being bailed by the US government during the 2008 global financial crisis, funds it has consequently repaid.

The question remaining is what this deal does to the All Blacks ‘brand’? Does selling out the famous black jersey threaten to diminish the value of this Kiwi icon?

I doubt this will be the case, as it is not uniforms or logos or stadiums or names that build a brand, as much as the experience delivered to the fans over sustained periods.

When Jade Software announced it would buy the naming rights for Lancaster Park in 2008, much public wailing and gnashing of teeth ensured. Many promises to never set foot there again were made – but largely unfulfilled as attendances at the facility were dictated much more by the success of the Crusaders than any concerns about the stadium’s name.

Having spent the last couple of weeks in the soccer-mad country of Argentina reinforced this point. Everywhere you go in Argentina, no matter how remote or small the location, you can ask the question “Boca or River?” and be meet with a fierce gesture of support for one or the other.

Club soccer teams based in Buenos Aries, the Boca Juniors and River Plate football clubs are followed with an intense passion Kiwi rugby fans can only marvel at. The ‘brands’ of both are extremely strong, but they are built on a hundred years of history and success, and barely influenced by what sponsorships are at play.

Amidst this fierce rivalry, both teams actually have the same jersey sponsor, bank BBVA Francés. Which shows that the logo on the shirt is irrelevant to even the most passionate fans, the brand they love is built by the personalities of the players they adorn and what they achieve on the pitch.

As long as the All Blacks can still produce that, whatever they have on their jerseys will make little difference to the power of one of our country’s most powerful brands.

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