Infront is behind World Rugby's controversial £5bn Nations Championship business plan
Rugby union - 14 Mar 2019
By Callum Murray
Infront, the Switzerland-based international sports marketing company owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group, was today revealed as “the preferred commercial partner” behind World Rugby’s highly controversial proposed new Nations Championship.
World Rugby, rugby union’s international governing body, said that the new Nations Championship would be “underpinned by a record commercial partnership” with Infront, “guaranteeing almost £5 billion [$6.6 billion] for investment in the sport over an initial 12-year period (of which more than £1.5 billion is guaranteed incremental revenue for the world game).”
It added: “The proposed business model covers both media and marketing rights but does not include any sale of equity in the competition and therefore full control of the competition and its revenue redistribution model would be retained by the unions, the current major competitions and World Rugby.”
This compares with an alternative plan under consideration by the unions involved in the annual Six Nations Championship – those of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy – in which the unions stand to profit to the tune of more than £100 million each from a bid by CVC, the private equity firm, to take a stake in the championship.
CVC’s offer is understood to be for a stake of about 30 per cent in the championship, meaning that the six unions would have to surrender their existing full control over the competition.
However, World Rugby’s Nations Championship model is based on all of the leading test nations pooling their broadcasting and commercial rights, a proposal that would be negated by a Six Nations deal with CVC.
Infront today claimed that its “comprehensive analysis and business plan will enable World Rugby and its member unions to lift its competitions and events to the next level through the provision of substantial additional funds to invest in the sport globally, from the grassroots up to the professional game.”
The agency further argued that it has “delivered a sustainable and realistic commercial roadmap within the boundaries set by World Rugby, ensuring the widest possible media exposure and fan access to the competition.”
The plan unveiled by World Rugby follows a meeting today involving unions, competition owners and international player representatives, and offers, World Rugby said, “a game-changing competition model that delivers a true pathway for all unions through a three-division format and a system of promotion and relegation.”
Revisions to the concept have been implemented by World Rugby since the original proposal was presented to unions in September 2018, following feedback from key stakeholders, including leading players and club competitions, the governing body said.
The original proposal provoked an outcry from a range of stakeholders including smaller, so-called ‘tier-two’ unions, some of the Six Nations unions and French and English clubs. These revolved around promotion and relegation, player welfare and a perceived threat that smaller unions would be excluded.
World Rugby said that the revisions include:
• “World Rugby reduced the schedule by removing the semi-final stage, with player welfare continuing to be a central consideration
• “Players would play 11 Nations Championship matches (and a maximum of 12 matches if their team reaches the final), compared to an average of between 12 and 14 test matches presently
• “Commitment to work with International Rugby Players and the leading domestic club competitions to optimise the model
• “A commitment to invest in a Women’s Nations Championship to accelerate the global competitiveness of the game.”
The aim is for the new championship to kick off in 2022. World Rugby said: “The current rugby broadcast market is complicated, which impairs the overall ability of the game – including players, fans, unions and clubs – to realise its full potential. World Rugby is undertaking this important work on behalf of our unions to secure the long-term growth and stability of the sport in an ever more competitive sports and entertainment environment.”
Some Six Nations unions have opposed the principle of promotion and relegation, but World Rugby added: “Contrary to reports, our proposed competition provides opportunities for all teams to compete at the top level on merit, with promotion and relegation. Under this model, the Pacific Islands and all teams outside the current 6 Nations and The Rugby Championship would have a potential pathway.
“With the proposed model incorporating competitions that are not owned or run by World Rugby, not all unions are presently in favour of immediate promotion and relegation. We continue to consider the feedback, but remain absolutely committed to an eventual pathway for all.”
Media rights for the quadrennial Rugby World Cup are distributed on World Rugby’s behalf by IMG, the international sports and entertainment company, under a long-standing arrangement. However, IMG and the Infront-owned Host Broadcast Services are working together on host broadcasting this year’s edition of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Infront told Sportcal today that it had been initially approached by World Rugby to evaluate the commercial rights for the new championship and that this had evolved into a broader consultation on the business plan for the competition.
However, Infront said that it played no part in the latest set of amendments to the format, with all sporting elements of the plan being dealt with by the governing body.
Infront claims experience in both club and international rugby. In addition to the IMG-HBS joint venture, signed in 2016, Omnigon, Infront’s USA-based digital consulting subsidiary, worked with World Rugby to develop a dedicated, award-winning app for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Infront also works with Stade Toulousain, the top French club, as its exclusive marketing partner in a partnership that began in May 2017.
Referring to today’s meeting in Dublin, Bill Beaumont, chair of World Rugby, said: “There was strong recognition that World Rugby’s Nations Championship proposal, based on a true pathway for all, has been developed with great care, extensive evaluation and with the global game at the forefront of our thinking.
We are encouraged that the format revisions and robust financial model has been well-received. Everyone, not just the established teams, will benefit, accelerating the development and competitiveness of the global game.
“However, as you would expect in an ambitious, complex and multi-stakeholder project, not everyone is in full agreement on the way forward, including the matter of promotion and relegation, but we will continue to engage and consult.
“This is a pivotal time for the game. Only by keeping the best interests of the global game at heart will we be able to achieve something truly impactful for the future success and sustainability of the game.”