BT Murrayfield deal brings grounds for optimism

SRU chief executive Mark Dodson at Murrayfield. Pic: SNS Group/SRU. Below is Iain Milne
SRU chief executive Mark Dodson at Murrayfield. Pic: SNS Group/SRU. Below is Iain Milne
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THE grand unveiling was not as slick as the Scottish Rugby Union would have liked.

After some welcoming remarks from chief executive Mark Dodson, director of communications Dominic McKay and BT commercial manager Peter Oliver, we waited on tenterhooks for ropes to be pulled which would release a series of white canvas covers and reveal a line of giant posters stretching right along the back of the East Stand at Murrayfield.

Unfortunately, the engineering of this grand stunt was not quite up to scratch and there was an awkward wait of several minutes while an increasingly frantic backstage team scrambled to get the job done – before, finally, the message was visible: “Welcome to BT Murrayfield – Supporting Scottish Rugby”.

The subsequent fireworks were lost in the light grey sky over west Edinburgh yesterday lunchtime, but Dodson and McKay were not going to let a few pieces of clumsy stage management break their stride. This was a red letter day for them – a rare occasion when they could be confident that their actions were going to meet with almost universal approval throughout the notoriously hard to please Scottish rugby community.

Selling the naming rights for the national stadium to a global communications and broadcasting giant in a multi-million pound deal, whilst retaining the “Murrayfield” moniker by which the famous old ground has been known since Scottish rugby first moved there back in 1925, is a massive coup.

“We’re delighted to announce a transformational partnership with BT – our new global partner. We are delighted to be partnered with such a prestigious organisation and we believe that this deal future-proofs the game in Scotland for many years to come,” stated an enthusiastic Dodson.

“It’s a wide-ranging deal, and I believe it is probably one of the biggest deals in the recent history of Scottish sport.

“This is one of the highlights of my business career. It is the right deal at the right time with the right partner and that does not always happen,” he added.

While Dodson would not be drawn on the value of the four-year contract, it is understood to be worth £20 million, which would be enough to wipe out the SRU bank debt and leave a sizeable war chest to play with. But the chief executive made it clear that he would rather invest the money directly into the game in the belief that raising standards now is the only way to attract further investment to make the organisation sustainable in the long term.

“The debt is being paid down as we speak at record levels anyway. We’ve managed to drive the business in a way so that we are paying down debt at a speed and consistency which pleases everybody. We’re at about £11 million at the moment,” he said.

“Our view is that we have to have a balanced approach to a deal of this size. What I want to do is make a statement about driving new investment into the game at all levels, and this deal with BT allows us to do that.’

“There is a large debate about where money of this size and nature should go. We’ve published a number of policy initiatives recently which cover academies, coaching pathways, the women’s game, schools and youth rugby, and club rugby itself – and I think you’ll see a large proportion of this cash will be to give a shot in the arm to the game at grassroots and club level.

“It is something I have to talk to our Board about. We have to get that balance right but the debt could be wiped out if we wanted to. The question is do we do that and not put enough into other areas?”

One area of investment that the SRU are not actively thinking about at the moment is the creation of a third professional team.

“I know there has been much debate about this, especially out of Aberdeen, and as we’ve said before we’re always open to investment in a third pro franchise. But I think what we need to do with this money is develop our existing game – our pathways to developing elite players, and address what we are trying to do in school, youth and women’s rugby. I sincerely believe that we have got a huge job to do there and that’s where our strategy lies,” he said.

“If there is ever an opportunity to have a third pro team, with the kind of money it takes, which is around £7 million per annum, then we’ll certainly look at it. But as far as we’re concerned on this particular portion of this agreement, we are going to look to give a shot in the arm to the existing framework.”

The new partnership also involves BT taking over sponsorship of the national Sevens squad from the outset of the 2014-15 HSBC World Series, as well as becoming the principal and exclusive sponsor of Scotland’s domestic league and cup competitions, and having their name attached to the four new academies which the SRU have vowed to roll out during the next year.

The inclusion of the Sevens set-up in this deal is significant because although there is plenty of optimism about the team (which has been bolstered by a raft of international and highly-rated club professionals) doing well in this summer’s Commonwealth Games, they have continually struggled on the World Series circuit, prompting questions to be asked about whether the cost of the programme is justified.

This appears to be an unequivocal statement about the SRU’s on-going commitment to the international Sevens set-up – with Dodson indicating that success rather than development will be the key criteria against which the team’s value will be measured in the future.

“We’re working towards a Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July and after that we then embark on another four-year strategy, and that will see the way we operate Sevens move in a slightly different direction. This support from BT will allow us to reinvigorate the Sevens approach,” he said.

BT Sport are already shirt sponsors of Scotland’s two professional rugby teams until 2017, and the corporation will inevitably take some delight in any consternation this deal will cause arch rivals Sky Sports, who recently bought four years’ worth of rights to show 30 live Celtic League matches per season plus semi-finals and finals.

So long as Edinburgh stay at their current address then any home match that Sky transmit will come from a stadium baring BT’s name. “The key thing we spoke about is the values. The values the SRU are bringing here really echo with the values BT have as a corporate organisation,” said Paul Taylor, director of BT in Scotland.