Rugby Sponsorship Raises Sensitive Issues For Kiwi Fans
New Zealand rugby fans are alarmed that the famous jersey of their national team, the All Blacks, may soon feature a prominent sponsor. In a country where rugby union is considered a national religion, similar to the role of soccer in the Brazilian consciousness, the national strip is considered sacrosanct.
Although sponsorship by major marketers is ubiquitous in sports, the negotiations raise questions about whether it's always a good idea.
Following the rugby World Cup triumph on home soil last year, the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) has been exploring avenues to further commercialize the All Blacks brand. The global insurance giant AIG has expressed interest in having its logo featured on the front of the national team's jersey, similar to an earlier sponsorship deal they enjoyed with Manchester United from 2007 to 2008.
The issue has particular sensitivity in New Zealand, where the popular mythology of the All Blacks is built on distinctly non-commercial principles, despite the sport's professional status.
All Black matches with international competitors are still characterized by ritual symbolism, including the performance of a haka - a war dance of the native Maori people. The All Blacks jersey is considered a key contributor to the unique respect given to the New Zealand team by competitors and fans globally.
That's why the famous All Blacks kit has remained largely clean of a major sponsor's brand since the team first played internationally in the late 1880s.
New Zealand media have highlighted the debate by publishing artists' renderings of what a deal with AIG would look like, depicting images of star players with AIG's corporate logo emblazoned across the middle of the All Blacks jersey, as it had appeared on Manchester United's strip previously.
Keen to deflect a public backlash similar to when local beer brand Steinlager attempted to re-brand the All Blacks the "Steinlager All Blacks" in the mid 1990s, the NZRU has downplayed the negotiations for the prime front-of jersey real estate as a natural consequence of the commercialism that already exists in sports.
To support their case, the NZRU has cited Barcelona Football Club's multimillion front-of -shirt deal with the Qatar Foundation as evidence of the opportunity the All Blacks brand is missing out on.
That logic is also supported by the reality that New Zealand's international rugby competitors, including South Africa, England and Australia ,have long had prominent sponsor's logos on their national strip.
But talk of a deal comes at a particularly sensitive time in New Zealand. Prime Minister John Key is aggressively pushing a program to sell off shares in New Zealand's state-owned enterprises, a policy that has heighted public scrutiny of foreign investment and influence in the local economy.
Sensitivity to the idea of an international insurance brand as a sponsor is particularly strong.
Many insurance brands have attracted national scorn due to a long-standing dispute regarding unsettled claims with homeowners in Christchurch, the nation's second largest city ravaged by devastating earthquakes last year.
The New Zealand public may have an ally in Adidas, a principal partner of the All Blacks since 1999 in a deal believed to worth more than $13 million a year. As part of that relationship, a small and subtle Adidas logo appears on the current All Black jersey.
Suggesting the importance of the issue, a senior Adidas executive reportedly flew to New Zealand to discuss the issue with NZRU officials.
The presence of another sponsor on the team's jerseys would concern Adidas, which has a contractual commitment to the All Blacks until 2019.
There's also common sense. A front-of -shirt sponsor would arguably dilute many of the key pillars of the All Blacks heritage of purity and respect, a source of pride in New Zealand.
Meanwhile fans wait nervously for the outcome of negotiations before the All Blacks' next game on Aug. 28.