The Big Interview: Scottish Rugby's chief operating officer, Dominic McKay

The atmosphere that weekend was the best I've experienced at Murrayfield for a long time,' enthuses Dominic McKay, Scottish Rugby's chief operating officer, of the national team's victory over Wales on 25 February in the RBS Six Nations tournament.

Dominic McKays SRU responsibilities cover most of the groups off-field functions, plus its professional teams Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby. Picture: Greg Macvean

The win lifted Scotland to fifth in the World Rugby Rankings, their highest-ever position, and the cheer from matches extends far off the pitch to broader economic benefits. McKay says he recently gave a speech on its “massive” impact on Edinburgh and Scotland to Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and business leaders. With the forthcoming match against Italy to play to a full Murrayfield crowd, “the fact that we’ve been selling out our games regularly now for the last three or four years, and this’ll be the first ever Six Nations in our history that we’ve sold out all three home games, is great for the city”.

It’s estimated that this year’s tournament will boost Edinburgh and Scotland’s economies by £25 million and £45m respectively via ticket sales, sponsorship and spend in bars and restaurants, although the latter figure is down from the £52m annual benefit cited by RBS in 2014. McKay describes the number of people coming from abroad to watch a game as “significant”, noting that they spend a couple of days here. And when it comes to the role of the Scotland rugby supporter, they appreciate that – just as in the world of investment – the result can go either way. “I guess we respect the fact that once the game’s over it’s nice to go and celebrate with a few beers, but it’s also nice to commiserate with the opposition, and we’ve been there many times before so we know how tough it can be.”

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Such sportsmanship ties in with a drive for rugby to have universal appeal, and he stresses that the SRU has worked hard to “connect with the supporters in a meaningful way”.

He adds: “By going that extra mile… it’s enabled us to transform our relationship with those supporters, which has been fantastic, but also grow our revenues.” In fact, these have increased over the last four years from about £30m to sit within touching distance of £50m this year, while the organisation has paid down its debt to about £7m from about £20m a few years previously.

In 2014 Scottish Rugby struck a multimillion-pound, four-year deal with telecoms giant BT, encompassing naming rights to Murrayfield, the largest stadium in Scotland. SRU chief executive Mark Dodson described the agreement as “unprecedented both for Scottish Rugby and, we believe, Scottish sport”.

The following year it was announced that Scotland’s national rugby team would be wearing BT’s logo on their shirts in a three-year deal.

Also on the list of Scottish Rugby’s official backers is fellow principal partner and sportswear firm Macron, while sitting alongside the likes of RBS on its official partner list are soft drinks group AG Barr, spirits company Eden Mill and car dealer Peter Vardy.

McKay adds that “unlike other organisations, the investment that we generate stays within rugby”, so dividends are ploughed back in to developing the sport, the stadium or the relationship with supporters, leading to “almost unprecedented growth”.

One beneficiary of this investment is women’s rugby, with the Scottish national team recently also defeating Wales. McKay said this follows the decision over the last few years to direct more capital into women’s sport.

He sees that the women’s game is now closing the gap on its male counterpart, and envisages that the former will be competing with the latter for airtime over the next five or so years.

McKay joined Scottish Rugby in 2008 as director of communications and public affairs, and his remit was extended in 2011 to cover all group commercial, media, marketing, events, ticketing and public affairs activity. Such broadened responsibilities came as former FirstGroup boss Sir Moir Lockhead took up the chairman post and Dodson came on board.

McKay joined from a PR role at drinks giant Pernod Ricard, parent company to Scotch whisky business Chivas Brothers. He highlights the Paris-based group’s “French flair”, and says it was “great to be part of a multinational that was going through a lot of growth, and acquiring a lot of brands, particularly in Scotland”.

And when the time came to swap a whisky bottle for a rugby ball, he found some common ground between the two. A large measure of Pernod Ricard’s business “was around communicating with the consumer, and I guess in some respects Scottish Rugby is an entertainment business.

“Ultimately, we’re a sports business funded by entertainment, and that entertainment is around making sure we put on a good event every time a rugby game takes place, but we’re also in the market constantly to try and acquire major events into BT Murrayfield. We’re about trying to get content into our stadium – there are a lot of transferable skills between the marketing of a fast-moving consumer brand in a whisky sense as there is in a sporting sense.”

McKay’s SRU responsibilities cover not just most of the group’s off-field functions, but also its professional teams Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby, which it owns outright and where it has been investing “heavily”.

Looking ahead, he says: “The big challenge for us is making sure we can keep winning, and to keep winning we need to make sure we fund our teams as effectively as we possibly can. Whilst we are growing our revenue, we believe we need to grow it even further to make sure Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby can be funded effectively.”

One way it is examining is external investment, taking the form of selling equity in these teams so they can compete with the best in Europe. “We took that as a proposition to our membership in October and we got their support to enable us to go and have those conversations in the marketplace about bringing in some external investment. That, for us, would be a game-changer.”

McKay is also chairman and trustee of sailing charity Ocean Youth Trust Scotland. The Greenock-based organisation gives young people from a variety of backgrounds a taste of life on the ocean waves, and keen sailor McKay says it proved an excellent grounding for working in business. “I’ve been fortunate enough to race yachts across the Atlantic and back, and sail boats down the Pacific, and whenever you’re having a tough day at the office, there’s nothing quite like having to make difficult decisions under pressured environments in the middle of an ocean.”

Such choices can affect the lives of people around you, and “that’s been, I think, very helpful for me in terms of how I go about leading a team or developing the most out of them, and also making sure you communicate effectively”.

In terms of career highlights, he cites success around the World Cup, and Glasgow Warriors winning the PRO12. “That was a statement that the investment and the hard work they were undertaking behind the scenes was paying off on the field as well.”

The Scottish national team is now preparing to face England on Saturday and McKay insists that there is “more to come over the next few years from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland. What myself and my team are trying to do is make the country proud through everything that we do. Filling up the stadium and making sure we’ve got the investment to funnel back into all elements of our game is something that we’re delighted that we’ve been able to achieve in record levels over the last few years. We’re ambitious and we want that to continue.”

Sport: Calcutta Cup, Pages 12-16