England Rugby Need a ‘Bazball’ Style Lesson in Brand Engagement

By Jamie Williams, Managing Partner of London independent creative agency isobel

‘Borthball’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘Bazball’.  But when it comes to building a fan base, creating entertainment, and brand engagement, Steve Borthwick and Owen Farrell could do with taking a serious look at the new brand of English cricket that Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have created.

We’re on the eve of the Men’s Rugby World Cup.  Taking place once every four years, it’s the pinnacle of the Men’s rugby calendar, and a unique chance to grow the rugby brand and audience.  But, unfortunately, unlike England Football and particularly England Cricket, England Rugby’s brand is in massive trouble.

As a team, the England Men’s Rugby team have underperformed for years.  Under Australian Eddie Jones, they got to the final of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but since that point, have only taken backward steps.

And under new coach Steve Borthwick, things have gone from bad to worse, losing 5 of their last 6 games, playing an increasingly dull, slow, defensive, and many would say, turgid brand of rugby.  Last Saturday England lost to Fiji in their final World Cup warm up game, at a half full, subdued, and underwhelmed Twickenham. Ironically, the day before, ‘England’s HQ’ hosted a raucous sell out between South Africa and New Zealand, which drew crowds and excitement that currently, England just can’t match.

After a particularly dismal display in Dublin the weekend before, Ex-England playmaker and misfit, Danny Cipriani, tweeted that “English rugby is digging its own grave, led by people that do not understand the art of the game…It’s steeped in tradition and heritage, which is outdated and the very thing shackling the game.”

It’s a view shared by many rugby pundits and fans.  England are playing an outdated brand of rugby, whilst the rest of the world has moved on.

So what to do?

Sport is a competitive business in this country.  Every sport competes against each other for eyeballs, for interest, for corporate sponsors, column inches, TV rights, engagement and ultimately, brand love.  The rapid and brilliant explosion of Women’s Football has made this landscape as competitive as ever in this country.  If the product isn’t entertaining, people won’t tune in.

And with these metrics in mind, the people in charge at Twickenham need to take a look at the success story over at Lords.

After a disappointing Ashes tour in 2021/22, the England cricket brand needed a re-boot and a new direction, and that came with the leadership of New Zealand coach Brendan McCullum and swashbuckling captain Ben Stokes.

McCullum and Stokes wanted to do things differently, for the good of the game.  They brought a huge injection of optimism, energy, vibrancy and out of the box thinking.  Bold exciting selections were made.  Traditional test match conventions were abandoned.  And a new ultra-attacking and aggressive style of play was found, that often risked defeat in pursuit of victory. Winning matters for the England Cricket team, but not as much as winning in style.  For the England cricket team, it’s now all about entertainment.

And crucially, for the game of cricket, fans were captivated.

This new brand of cricket, known affectionally as “bazball”, has transformed Test Match cricket in the country overnight (which many thought was a doomed format), gained a whole new following for the sport, sold out stadiums, and engaged cricket fans in a way many thought not possible.

So, back to the rugby.

This World Cup may already be gone for England.  They are so far behind the highly tuned juggernauts of Ireland and South Africa, and their style of play feels so utterly bland and boring when compared to the fast paced, attacking and entertaining teams like France, New Zealand, and (as English fans have to admit), Scotland.

But short-term results aside, Borthwick, Farrell, and those in charge of England Rugby should genuinely be worried.  With so many sports competing for attention in this country, a boring and bland England Men’s rugby team that fans can’t engage with won’t be good business for the RFU.  They need to see the sport as a brand, that needs a vision, a mission, an attitude, and a personality, with all those responsible for the brand working in harmony.  And importantly, entertainment and genuine fan-engagement must be central to this.  (Can you imagine McCullum and Stokes devising a game plan which essentially equals keeping it tight and kicking the ball at almost every opportunity?).

I’m an England fan, and I genuinely wish England all the best in the World Cup.  Who knows, form might go out the window, and the bookies might be wrong.  Plus, they have been blessed by a freakishly fortunate draw, that might see them through to the semi-finals without having to face one of the big guns.  But, if they come back from France after a tournament full of uninspiring dull rugby, and a fan base that’s tuned out, they should sit down with McCullum and Stokes pronto, absorb everything they have to offer, and start plotting a new era and a brand of exciting entertaining English Rugby.

 

 

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