In July, World Rugby and HSBC revealed a new identity for rugby sevens. The launch of HSBC SVNS, with HSBC returning as title partner on a new four-year deal, will see the sport transform into a new sport + entertainment property that will chase the sun around the world. Creating a new global festival that combines sport, music and culture, all aimed at reaching new younger audiences. With many brands taking a laser focus on reaching that younger audience, it’s a move that warrants close attention for potential sponsors.
This change focused on the future comes as the sport is at a cross-roads. Clubs around the world, but in particular the English Premiership, are struggling to stay afloat financially. Valid concerns around player welfare have fundamentally shifted how the sport is played and officiated, and led many parents to consider if their kids should be playing the sport at all. In a sports and entertainment landscape that is ever more fragmented and competitive, the sport’s importance in culture feels increasingly unclear.
So what does the launch of HSBC SVNS mean for the future of rugby? And for brands, where does the opportunity lie?
As part of the team at Hill + Knowlton Strategies who have been activating the communications campaign for HSBC’s sponsorship since 2015, I’ve experienced first-hand the crazy world of rugby sevens.
The series is the ultimate sporting circus, crossing the globe in six breathless months and stopping in iconic global cities like Hong Kong, LA and Cape Town. The logistical operation to move the series around the world is immense and the challenge put on players to compete at a world-class level while traversing the globe is incredibly underrated. Sevens is often seen as a game for sprinters, with several of the fastest athletes in the world having competed in the series, but victory over the course of the series has always needed marathon-levels of stamina.
Ask most punters about the defining feature of rugby sevens, and the default will likely be to talk about the event experience. Venues like Hong Kong and London are known for their raucous crowds and electric atmosphere. Thousands of young people in particular are drawn in by the promise of a day-out with great sport. This energy is unquestionably at the heart of the future of the sport, with the new HSBC SVNS having a focus on ‘chasing the sun’ and creating combined sport + entertainment events that are all about capturing and amplifying that fan energy.
But almost eight years at the heart of the series have shown to me that the real power of this sport goes beyond just the live experience. It lives in the sports ability to capture remarkable human stories from around the world, that go beyond the pitch and paint a unique picture of our world not captured in other mainstream sports.
Take the story of Fiji. In 2016 we created Sevens From Heaven, a film that brought to life the impossible story of a tiny island nation that overcame huge obstacles to become the best in the world, driven by a passionate love of the sport. Or of Zenay Jordaan, an incredibly talented South African women’s player who had to sneak away from her parents to play rugby with the boys at an early age, but who became a true ground-breaker as one of the first paid women’s rugby players in South Africa. Or of Nolli Waterman, who transitioned from world-class player to elite level commentator despite facing waves of abuse on social media.
The sports ability to reach around the world also remains a key strength for brands looking to have a positive impact on the world around them. I’ve been lucky to be part of grassroots programmes such as The World of Opportunity programme that have supported young people from underrepresented backgrounds in Sydney, Vancouver, Dubai, LA, London and Hong Kong. That ability to have an impact for such diverse communities is something that very few sporting properties can offer.
The new HSBC SVNS has been top-down redesigned to help the sport reach new younger audiences. Everything from new completely re-imagined branding to a new schedule to a ‘festival-style’ event set-up is built to help the sport attract that elusive new audience and bring young people into rugby with a light-hearted, social-driven approach. For a sport searching for new audience and for its place in the world, embracing change and innovation makes all the sense in the world and a new brave approach is to be admired.
But in embracing re-invention, it’s vital the sport doesn’t lose its essential advantages. The sport’s global reach unlocks stories and narratives that are truly unique, offering brands unlimited ability to engage fans and bring their brand to life. Communicating what they stand for, not just badging a new shiny property.
For the new HSBC SVNS to succeed as a property, the key will be finding the balance between revolution and evolution, balancing fun and fresh, with unique and meaningful. Embracing new channels and new formats that fans want to consume, but feeding them with the content that can only come from a sport as unique as rugby sevens, and that has something powerful and purposeful to say, not just social filler.
If World Rugby and its partners can get that balance right, the new HSBC SVNS may just create a new model for re-inventing a global sport series, providing brands with new sources of value for years to come.