PONTYPOOL RFC’S corporate director has weighed in on the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) debate with the regions with a passionate article raising fears for the future of the club game.
Ben Jeffreys believes the club game has essentially been abandoned by those operating the governing body of the Welsh game – an element of an ongoing dispute between the WRU and regional sides which he feels as has been crucially ignored.
He says it is the historic clubs like Pooler, Ebbw Vale, and Newport which have been "dealt the proverbial bad hand" under the current regime.
He wrote: “I hope that the regions and the WRU can repair their differences, but what I most hope will come from yet another debacle involving Welsh rugby is that those running the game will finally identify that you can only alienate your core audience for so long before you are left with an unviable situation.
“Yes, a young audience is emerging who have an affinity to the regional setup, but there also exists a core audience of rugby purists who grew up watching their beloved clubs alongside their families. This group has been completely abandoned and all they really have left is sentiment and memories. That is a crying shame and that has to change.”
He fears the club game - treated largely as a “side-show” to regional rugby in his view - could be killed off if the situation persists, while he also blames a breakdown between supporters and the game on a lack of proper marketing.
Mr Jeffreys, who runs his own marketing company, told the Free Press the response has been “positive” from both Pooler supporters and those from other clubs.
“It’s got people quite fired up,” he added. “Hopefully it can act as a catalyst to make people look at the game on a wider scale.”
Full statement from Pontypool RFC's corporate director Ben Jeffreys:
I have been watching the on-going saga between the WRU and the regions very closely over the past twelve months and I do not particularly wish to make a habit of making personal statements, but I felt that a few points needed to be raised in the context of this debate.
And before going any further, I am not keen to draw any comparisons with the plight of the regions and that of Pontypool RFC. I hold my own views on the decisions made by those operating the club at the time of the court case and it would not be right for me to simply use this as an opportunity to raise further conflict.
Having said that, one would have a very valid argument if one held the view that Pontypool RFC’s ill-fated court case against the WRU was symbolic of how the club game has essentially been abandoned by those operating the Welsh platform. And that is why I argue that the entire debate of the regions versus the WRU, particularly in mainstream media has looked at this situation from entirely the wrong perspective.
I am not nearly qualified enough to discuss the intricacies of the on-going battle between the two parties, however I do feel I have an obligation to defend the best interests of Pontypool RFC and in this case, I wish to present a few views on where I feel club rugby has been dealt the proverbial bad hand.
I can only relate to the Dragons in the context of my argument with any depth, but through first hand experience, I am not at all surprised that there are difficulties in sustaining the regional setup. At this point I must acknowledge that commercially, the Dragons have started the process of working closer with us as a club and a strong relationship exists between Pontypool RFC and the Dragons Academy. This must be praised and we are all grateful for that.
But from a commercial, branding and marketing perspective, I hold the view that the Dragons simply do not know who they are, where they are heading and whom they should be appealing to. And for an entity that deals with millions of pounds and has a European-wide audience that is remarkable. It is public knowledge that there is a difference of opinion both inside and outside the Dragons as to whether the entity should be inclusive to Newport or whether it should be region-inclusive and finally embrace the clubs it made somewhat irrelevant through its formation.
I have no right to offer my view as to what the Dragons should do with its purpose and direction - that is for those running the region, but it would appear that it is currently in a state of flux as to what it should do. For instance, the iconic second Dragons kit this season pays homage to the colours of Gwent and presents no trace of the word Newport on the shirt. It has been the best selling shirt since the formation of the region and the Dragons even went to the trouble of undertaking a full-scale kit launch to further connote community, region-embracing spirit.
That is great, but why would a region decide to go down that road if it so stringently wishes to make Newport the primary benefactor of its development and branding? This is just one example and perhaps to some it is largely immaterial, but for me it is symbolic of the complete lack of consensus as to what the regions should offer to the Welsh game, and more specifically the club game. This is a marketing error so basic, that it should be used as a case study for marketing and business students across the country. Normally brands get it wrong and take a reactive approach to repair the damage where possible in a short space of time. This however is a ten year long debate with an ever deteriorating situation. The situation is at breaking point and I have never seen anything like it before.
What I do think needs to happen across the entire regional setup in connection with the WRU is the performing of some substantial qualitative and quantitative marketing research, split into two components – regional supporters and club supporters. Only through performing such detailed analysis on this scale can you really uncover what people are thinking and where they want to see their game go. From this undertaking you can then start to make rational branding and business decisions based on knowledge. If the prolonged carnage is anything to go by, I cannot imagine that this has been done on any substantial level to this point and it potentially explains the breakdown between supporters and the game.
This somewhat slapdash approach has had a substantial reverberating effect on the club game. The same lack of clarity and depth exists, look at the new-formed league structure that began last season for instance. If such fundamental changes are going to be made, there has to be a level of investment in infrastructure and marketing communications. In this case, you do not have to look very far to see that at Championship level at least, these necessities simply do not exist, or at least on the scale they need to be implemented.
The best example I can offer relates to the series sponsorship of the Welsh club game. SWALEC, who currently serves as the series sponsor of everything from the Championship downwards, is hailed as the ‘National Community Partner’ by the WRU. The WRU remarked that this partnership would see SWALEC “invest significantly to support community rugby in Wales.”
The investment made by SWALEC would have presumably been done so with the view of demonstrating Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is commonly practiced within national and global entities to demonstrate a human element to their brand. Statistics show that companies that utilise CSR can significantly increase customer loyalty if the programme actually offers tangible benefits to the community it serves. Yet if you simply place your branding all over substance-lacking community initiatives, the audience will see through the gimmick quite quickly.
And as the person responsible for overseeing the entire communications strategy for a rugby club operating within the SWALEC leagues, I have never been approached or had any form of dialogue with any representative of SWALEC. I have never seen any form of presence at a Pontypool RFC fixture and even now, I have no comprehension of where their investment has helped support the Championship league.
As someone who runs a marketing business and has a passion for the field, that is inexcusable.
Because in the present era where television coverage for the Championship is obsolete and print coverage is limited to local media, clubs such as Pontypool RFC rely on the resources provided by series sponsorship and the PR they generate if we are ever to reach a wider audience.
In my opinion, this is symptomatic of how the SWALEC leagues exist as a matter of convenience for those operating the Welsh game. My perception of the situation is that they have the income of a large Welsh entity in SWALEC that provides a format for the clubs to operate in a relatively irrelevant league simply to appease rugby purists. I get the sense that if all of the forgotten clubs can remain buried in the Championship, it will enable the Premiership division to develop a talent pool decent enough to aid regional development. Everyone is a winner then? Not from where I am sitting.
And that is not some idea that I conjured up by simply being sceptical. Look at the very hub of information we should all be relying on for Championship coverage – the official WRU website. The league table hasn’t been updated three days following the last match day. It is not good enough.
If the officiating body of our league do not demonstrate willingness to maintain the most important data of our game – what happens on the field, how is it possible for us to try to convince people that our sector of the game matters?
I think those who feel we are now a side-show of the ‘main event’ of regional rugby need reminding that we are not ‘grassroots’, we are not simply ‘community’ entities – we are semi-professional clubs operating fully as a business. Pontypool RFC has marketing and finance arms to the business and we have to employ these tactics as without showing our own initiative and also relying on our fantastic team of volunteers, the club would be gone. And more widely, the club game would be gone because all other clubs are out there, fighting a lonely battle to survive. The situation is that grave.
I hope that the regions and the WRU can repair their differences, but what I most hope will come from yet another debacle involving Welsh rugby is that those running the game will finally identify that you can only alienate your core audience for so long before you are left with an unviable situation. Yes, a young audience is emerging who have an affinity to the regional setup, but there also exists a core audience of rugby purists who grew up watching their beloved clubs alongside their families. This group has been completely abandoned and all they really have left is sentiment and memories. That is a crying shame and that has to change.
In my view, the initial solution would have been to invest in sustaining the club game by offering business infrastructure support and training to clubs struggling to adapt to the professional era. That is where an organisation operating within the business administration sector could have sponsored a series and added a real CSR platform – it would have been tangible. As simplistic as that may sound, that is how quality, mutually beneficial partnerships are formed.
This platform would have not required a complete re-inventing of the wheel and not required the forming of four new regions. In doing so, it would have retained the heritage and history of the Welsh game. The Dragons v Blues derby was enjoyable, but it had nothing on the sense of occasion the Newport v Cardiff of old would have offered.
But now the situation is too far advanced. You lose the regions at this stage, how does the game recover? The Welsh setup has kicked the can down the road for far too long and unfortunately, it now has to face the consequences.
The Pontypool RFC website is www.pontypoolrugby.org.uk