How Saracens is Globalizing Rugby

Finding a “kindred spirit” is no longer just for love and friendship – call it Brand Globalization 2.0. That is how the chairman of a London-based company described the relationship with a Chicago-based corporation when the two recently entered a partnership. It gets even a little more head-scratching when you learn that the U.K. company is a rugby team and the U.S. company is a derivatives marketplace.

Last February, Saracens Rugby Club and CME Group Inc. announced a sponsorship agreement. At first glance, the deal appears to be part of CME’s move to build its brand in Europe, which makes sense, as Saracens is fast becoming one of the premier rugby clubs in the United Kingdom.

But the story has a few more twists than that.

“The club combines a clear culture of declared values with an engaging ambition to become the most recognized club brand in the game,” says William Knottenbelt, CME Group’s Managing Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, while announcing CME’s sponsorship deal with Saracens.

What exactly does that mean?

“There appears to be the same kind of people-orientated focus in CME that sits very well with us,” explains Saracens CEO Edward Griffiths.

 

Saracens players unveil new uniforms in London’s Liverpool Street station

In addition, the partners say they are hardly satisfied with merely jumping a pond. Like firms in the derivatives industry, Saracens has its eyes on Asia.  

Rugby? In Asia?

“Frankly, it’s a sport that’s about to go global,” asserts Griffiths. “We’ve traveled extensively over the past year to China, throughout the United States, and Brazil, and it’s clear that rugby is about to grow very quickly.”

Global sports branding is no longer as simple as having the highest profile and biggest stars. Saracens – based in North London since 1876 and jointly owned by Nigel Wray, a London businessman, and by Remgro, a South African company – are expanding by way of adoption.

“We look for a leading club with ambition in these fast-developing rugby countries, and we say, ‘You share our strip and our name and become part of our family, and we’ll supply you with all of the IP, coaching, strength and conditioning, medical, administration, and marketing IP that Saracens has. We’ll supply you with everything,’” says Griffiths.

Currently the club has teams in Seattle, Brazil, Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Georgia, Romania, Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur, and Tonga. By the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Griffiths anticipates that Saracens will have 45 to 50 of its players representing multiple countries. “By then the Saracens brand will be recognized globally as the strongest brand in world rugby,” he says.

The Saracens Way

CME Group and Saracens say they work well together because while they both think big (Saracens pushed to bring 85,500 fans to a match at Wembley Stadium this year), neither has an interest in taking the old route to global viability.

“We’ve been able to grow our global network by treating people well,”  Griffiths says, “and by offering clubs a fair, equal partnership where we can give more than we take, and our sincerity in how we’ve approached this has provoked a positive response around the world.”

If that sounds a little counterintuitive, get ready. The Saracens Way, as the organization calls it, has a full-on scrum going with the status quo. “The club,” says Griffiths, “is underpinned by a clear culture created around the core idea that (1) you gather talented people together, (2) you treat them unbelievably well and (3) in return, they try unbelievably hard.”

As a BBC reporter put it in May, “It sounds like the philosophy of a smoothie company or perhaps an idealistic Silicon Valley startup, not the hard-nosed, shape-up-or-ship-out approach of most high-level sports.”

 

 

For example, while competitors were practicing to face Saracens, the team has at different times sent its players to Oktoberfest in Germany, the Lollapalooza Festival in Chicago and a hockey game in New York.

And while most sports teams think only about what their players can give them before shuffling them aside, Saracens offers players post-rugby career training. They send the coaching staff around the world to train new clubs and place greater emphasis on family than team success. Winning is not the point or even that important, claims Griffiths. Since that attitude prevailed five years ago, the team has won like never before.

Results On and Off The Pitch

“Until 2009, Saracens had only once finished in the top four of the English league,” Griffiths says, “We have now done so five years in a row, becoming champions in 2011 and finishing first in the league in 2013 and 2014. Until 2009, Saracens had only once reached the last eight of the European Cup – we have now done so three years in a row, narrowly losing the final against Toulon in 2014.”

Whether the iconoclastic vision holds over the long run remains to be seen. Making the investment pay off means moving from obscurity to ubiquity not only for the team, but for the sport it plays. For now, it is at least getting the attention of sponsors that might not have even heard of Saracens five years ago.

In addition to CME Group, the American cable company Comcast recently signed as a sponsor, placing its CNBC television brand on the team’s uniforms. “Like in business or sports, we’re all sort of on our surfboards looking out to sea and trying to spot where the big waves are coming,” says Griffiths, who came to the club via South Africa, home of some of the best surfing spots in the world, “and we need to make sure that our boards are positioned at the crest of the big waves.”

Get that position right and more clubs and companies will be trying to catch the wave of 2.0 globalization – collaboration over conquest, good will over big wins. If that’s the case, expect comments about business that could double as relationship advice.

“As in any association – be it a marriage or a sponsorship agreement – in the best situations, you bring out the best in each other,” Griffiths says.

 

Read More:

Q&A With Edward Griffiths of Saracens

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