IRFU seeking new All Ireland League sponsor

Union unlikely to attract title sponsor in time for 2018-19 season

 

The IRFU must search for a new title sponsor of the All Ireland League following Ulster Bank’s decision to step down after nine years. There is unlikely to be a new title sponsor for the 2018-2019 season, the final year of the current league format, split into five divisions, 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2C. The fixtures for the 2018-2019 season are due out on Friday.

Ulster Bank took over sponsorship of the All Ireland League in 2010, succeeding AIB who had acted in that capacity for the previous 13 years. Insurance Corporation of Ireland were the original tournament sponsors. AIB’s deal was reputed to be worth about €330,000 per annum to the IRFU but it is thought that Ulster Bank paid considerably less, albeit a six figure sum, when they took over as Irish domestic rugby’s title sponsors. Ulster Bank also sponsored Ireland’s club international team.

Like the predecessors AIB, Ulster Bank financially underpinned a number of club and community initiatives as part of their agreement with the IRFU. One of those was the ‘Your Club Your Country’ IRFU Grand Draw saw over €3.5m raised for the club game in a six season period. The reason for the Ulster Bank stepping away may have been to do in aligning to the corporate strategy of their parent company.

Ulster Bank is owned by Royal Bank of Scotland and RBS stepped away from their sponsorship of the Six Nations Championship in 2017 following a 15-year run as title sponsors. NatWest, another subsidiary of RBS, signed a one-year agreement to sponsor the 2018 Six Nations.

The final time that RBS renewed their sponsorship of the Six Nations in 2013, the four-year deal was reported to be worth €50 million. David Wheldon, chief marketing officer of RBS, said of their decision: “RBS has sponsored the Six Nations since 2003 and it has been a long and successful partnership which has brought tangible benefits to our business.

“However, as a bank we are now looking at realigning our sponsorship strategy to our customer facing brands, so we feel the time is right to look for alternative sponsorship assets that better fit with our brand strategy.”

Ulster Bank signed a three year extension to the sponsorship of the All Ireland League in January 2016 that culminated at the end of last season.

The IRFU is currently in discussion with the clubs to agree a mutually acceptable format from the 2019-2020 season on but the diverse interests within the club community will render it far from straightforward. The union’s preference is believed to be for a two conference/division league with eight to 10 teams in each and a format that includes clubs from all four provinces.

While the provinces will continue to play ‘A’ fixtures, the British & Irish Cup was scrapped at the end of last season, and so the IRFU are keen that their young academy based players receive regular, high quality game time, something that they believe a revamped club structure could provide.

As the Irish Times reported in May, IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne said in a memo to the clubs: “At this point in time there exists a real opportunity to put our club game on a more sustainable footing into the future and return the (AIL) to being the third tier of Irish rugby, supporting both the provincial and national teams, adding that the union is looking to create a “strong link between the club game and pro game in a complimentary season structure.”

The article also articulated concerns of some of the Leinster clubs. “The clubs have advised us that they have not been given any details of the new proposal and are very surprised and disappointed to learn that a proposal has been made without any consultation with them,” wrote Stuart Bayley the honorary secretary of the Leinster Branch in an April letter to the IRFU seeking more information.

“It is important for the development of the game that the clubs are to the forefront of the game and are not dismissed to some backwater for the benefit of the professional game. There is a balance to be struck in what is best for both sides. After all, the clubs nurture and give the basic skill set to the very children who go on to be professional players. Any diminution of the club game may have a long term effect.”

While there is some leeway time wise to tease out the issues, the ability to attract a title sponsor for the club game would be facilitated by the IRFU and the clubs reaching agreement.

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