'You can't just preach down at fans': Global Rapid Rugby on building a challenger sports brand

Rapid Rugby began life in 2018 after Western Force, a Perth-based professional rugby team lost its place in the Super Rugby.

Global Rapid Rugby, the up-and-coming sports property that aims to bring more excitement into rugby union, does not want to start a fight against the rugby establishment.

Instead, it wants to protect and look after the authenticity of the sport, while taking it to places that the sport has not necessarily gone before and change the mindset that people have towards the sport. That's according to its head of marketing, media and broadcast, Mark Doran.

“People have an opinion of rugby and it is based on something," the Australian explains to The Drum. "They have seen it at some stage, and they can like it, but I want to reach people who have an opinion of rugby that finds themselves not liking the sport.

“Maybe they saw it on the news one night or they watched it somewhere, and they didn't like it. That's fine, but Rapid Rugby is not what they saw, so we had to find a way to just get a chance, have a look at us, just come and have a look, touch and feel.”

Rapid Rugby began life in 2018 after Western Force, a Perth-based professional rugby team, lost its place in the Super Rugby league competition when the number of Australian teams was reduced. Businessman Andrew Forrest then created a new tournament that included the Western Force and five other teams from the Asia Pacific.

The showcase series began in May and saw Western Force play international teams like Fijian Latui, Kagifa Samoa, South China Tigers, Asia Pacific Dragons and Malaysia Valke.

To make the game faster and more entertaining, Rapid Rugby matches only last for 70 minutes, compared with 80 minutes under the standard rugby union laws. Time limits for scrums last a minute and lineouts must take 45 seconds to set.

Teams cannot gain ground when kicking directly to touch, even from within their 22. Kicking to touch from inside the 22 is the same as the World Rugby law outside the 22. A 9-point 'power try' is awarded for attacks launched within 22 meters of the scoring team's own try line.

Rapid Rugby was confident injecting excitement into a traditional sport would work in APAC, as the region leads the rest of the world when it comes to combining sport and entertainment.

That is why the sports property’s brief to its creative agency Iris was to start a fight. According to Luke Nathans, regional chief executive officer for Asia Pacific at Iris, the agency drew inspiration from its work with Johnnie Walker, which is a sponsor of Formula One.

“We have got a history of doing a lot of sports marketing, especially in this part of the world, where we ran from this office the Johnnie Walker sponsorship of the Formula One for six years,” Nathans explains to The Drum.

“One of the areas that we soon realised was fans are following the Formula One in real-time and no one was interested in the content we created from the race and parties after the race had happened.”

Nathans says this was an important lesson for the agency as it realised that the traditional sports marketing model is broken. Iris also learned that it was counter-intuitive to put the Johnnie Walker label on the cars as they were going at speeds too fast to notice.

So, the agency took a step back and started to look at the value within the property as the car and the badge is just an awareness piece. It then came up with Johnnie Walker’s "Don't drink and drive" platform, which still runs today, and created content that dived into the lives of the drivers.

“When we work with sporting organisations, we say, ‘Look, we have got this great property, we know how to do the sport, how do we make people care about it that might not be into the sport itself?’” says Nathans.

“It is about building culture, which is what we did with our work for Adidas and football, and alcohol brands like Johnnie Walker. When they do sponsorship, it's like, ‘How do we bring that relevance in?’”

Doran adds: “The party, along with the street race for the Formula One, sums up Singapore. I think once you have raised the bar to that, which Asia has done for a long time, that's probably the thing we fight against, along with the Hong Kong Sevens and the Singapore Sevens."

So for a challenger brand like Rapid Rugby, on top of starting a fight, Iris knew it needed to accelerate brand growth by winning in the niches, giving fans a voice and being real and human.

It also wanted to attract four types of fans to Rapid Rugby like “tragics” - made up of locals and expats who love rugby - “big eventers” - who love big and experimental events - entertainment junkies and amateur rugby players.

People in the “tragics” bucket are 69% likely to be male aged 34 years old, “big eventers” consists of 50% male who is 31 years old, entertainment junkies are made of 49% male who is 32 years old and amateur players are 71% male and are 33 years old. For those who prefer to only watch, they are 57% male and 32 years old.

“What we are looking at doing is empowering. Looking at real rugby fans and empowering everyone from a grassroots level up to reactively get involved with the game,” says Nathans.

“I think that's the most important thing that we have learned coming out from the showcase series is the rugby fans really love it, and they really want to see rugby. You can't just preach down at them, so we need to involve them by engaging them and making sure they are having the best time that they can for those two hours while they are there."

“Because that will give us a really strong supporter base and then that supporter base will literally be the springboard for the future. It is not enough for us to say, 'We have got this amazing thing," and people come in and they opt-in and they say ‘Oh, I'm not really interested’, and they leave.”

He adds: “It is about providing the fans with the best experience that they can have because that is what brands need to do to survive in this fragmented media world.”

This approach will be important as Rapid Rugby fights the likes of established sports properties like the English Premier League and the NBA for consumers’ attention. However, Nathans says the actual competition comes from entertainment platforms like Netflix.

“If you look at the world today, on how much information that we are digesting at any one time, and the choices that people have, it used to be our competitors were the other big sports, but nowadays your competitor is the likes of Netflix,” he explains.

“Of course we would never get up and say, ‘We are more exciting than the Premier League’ because there are football fans that are always going to think, ‘No they're not, they are rugby’. But we also knew that those people, particularly in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, that were looking for adrenalin based sports, they were going to Monster Trucks events, they were going to UFC fight nights, so this is another thing in their portfolio that they can go for, to go to.”

He continues: “So when we say it's a fight, it's often about calling out the tension that might be out there, not necessarily a direct, ‘We're better than you guys’, but it's a, ‘Well sports is boring, so don't waste your time.’ It is just an interesting way, a marketing device to get people's attention because if your offer does not stand up for it, you can't do it. So we were confident the offer was going to stand so therefore we were going to say, ‘Look we are more exciting than the golfs and the tennis.’

While reactions to Rapid Rugby has been lukewarm at best, Doran says countries that took part in the showcase like Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong are keen to come back, while countries like China, India, the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka and South Korea are being lined up for the 2021 season onwards.

"We don't want to go too fast, I think it's important that you don't just launch in and go, begin where you want to end, that can really only end in failure. We need to do it slowly, so it sort of has been one step at a time, the showcase series into the competition and then maybe that will expand," he explains.

The Drum will look at how clients and agencies can forge a good relationship at the upcoming Agency Acceleration Day APAC.

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