Rugby Union: How Bristol are raising the stakes

Andrew Baker visits a club striving to embrace the new age
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The Independent Online
A FADED, blotchy, black and white photograph hangs in the corridor under the old grandstand at the Memorial Ground, home of Bristol rugby club. It was taken on 24 September 1921, the day the ground opened, and it is a group portrait of the club's committee, led by the chairman, E S Bostock-Smith. A handsome, dapper, grey-haired man, he stares confidently out of the frame into the future.

Things have changed at Bristol since Mr Bostock-Smith's day. The grandstand in front of which he and his colleagues posed so proudly has been condemned, and will shortly be demolished. A soft drinks machine stands in front of the committee's photograph, almost obscuring it. And last week Bristol announced that it would be the first rugby club in Britain to pay its players. The move would have been as alien to Mr Bostock-Smith as sinking a Diet Sunkist at afternoon tea.

Now Bristol must raise the money to pay their players and build a new grandstand. They need a new office building, too, to replace the Portakabins which the club's administrators currently inhabit. In other words, they need money, and that means sponsorship.

David Tyler has been with Bristol for 30 years. Once he was a fleet-footed centre and winger, but having filled out a little over the years, he now puts his weight behind the club's fund-raising efforts as commercial manager.

His problem is that before now, club sponsorship deals have generally been for around pounds 40,000 a year, a sum which will barely cover the salary of one player next year. "I think the first generation of sponsors got a pretty good deal," Tyler said. "But those deals are running out now. And the current round of negotiations has coincided with the advent of professionalism."

Bristol's current sponsor, the building firm Higgs & Hill, has supported the club's construction programme in return for having its name on the shirts, and the chance to build houses on land adjacent to the club. "There's nothing secret about it," the firm's spokesman David Helsen explained. "It's simple commercial reasoning."

It is also simple commercial reasoning that the sort of sum that Higgs & Hill have been contributing to Bristol's coffers will not be enough to cope with the new wage bills. Would it object if its name was replaced on the club's shirts by that of a company with deeper pockets? "We wouldn't have a problem with that at all," David Helsen said.

Perhaps Higgs & Hill will become a subsidiary sponsor, a phenomenon that will become common in rugby as clubs seek income from many different sources. David Tyler listed the possibilities. "Club sponsor, team sponsors for all the teams down to junior level, a club-house sponsor, a ground sponsor ..." Not to mention money from licensing deals and from television rights.

Nigel Geech, a sports sponsorship expert, reckons that rugby has a lot going for it. "It's a good product," he said. "The sport is clean and there's a strong international element." That is the hook that may draw in multinationals. Regular fixtures between Bristol and, for instance, Toulouse could more relevantly - and lucratively - be supported by a company such as Peugeot than Higgs & Hill.

Other clubs will be chasing the same targets. Players' representatives at Bath are said to be looking for pounds 750,000. Wasps will announce a ground development scheme later this month. And all over the country coaches and committee men live in fear of Newcastle's Rob Andrew and his wondrous wad.

But David Tyler is optimistic that the game as a whole, and his club in particular, can attract the sponsors they need. "As a sport rugby attracts ABC1s," he said, dropping into marketing argot. "They are a difficult audience for commercial organisations to get at, but you can get at them through their sport."

ABC1s? Commercial organisations? Listen carefully at the Memorial Ground, and you can hear the rustle of Edwardian gentlemen stirring in their resting-places.