Saracens Rugby Club was given an enormous 35-point deduction and £5m fine at the beginning of November for violating salary cap rules. These were introduced to create a level playing field, and to stop teams with large funding from encouraging the elite players to join, creating an unbalanced league.
On top of the negative PR that the club has received, it is likely to have further alienated them with the wider rugby community and also affected their relationship with potentially lucrative sponsors. For most clubs, sponsors play a key role in balancing the finances, so it’s vital that a plan is put in place not just to limit the damage, but to rebuild their reputation.
Whilst the fans of Saracens loyally support their team and feel it is being unfairly treated, it’s the impact of a being a less attractive brand within the sponsorship community that will be the issue… Sponsors don’t want to be associated with a brand which has negative connotations. It is vital that Saracens focus not just on their on-field performance to try and stay in the premiership, but also to create a plan to improve their external brand perception, which has already been seen with the addition of a new signing in hiring a PR team.
If the recent experience of the England football team is anything to go by then this is not an impossible task. In the immediate aftermath of England’s very disappointing performance in the European Championship of 2016, the players came in for huge criticism from fans and media alike. Players who were paid more in a week than the majority of fans earned in a year were perceived not to care and many at the time thought it was an impossible situation to fix.
Gareth Southgate took over management of the team and could now arguably be considered a PR genius. He realised that a key part of the solution to improving performance on the pitch was to rebuild the relationship with the fans and the team off the pitch. He invited the media to an open press event prior to flying out to Russia, which was previously unheard of, where the players spent time with the press playing darts and pool. Danny Rose also spoke about his fight against depression, which was relatable to the public, further connecting the players with the fans. As PR week said, “Gareth Southgate and England won the PR world cup”.
It’s not just at international level. When Sean Dyche was interviewed for the Burnley management job, he broke convention by not just presenting to his prospective employers on how he would improve the team’s performance, but he also outlined a plan on how the team would connect with the local community. Sean has been at Burnley since 2012, and not only has it reached the top division of English football again, smashing club records along the way, it has a higher proportion of local fans per head of population attending their games than any football team in the world.
In any organisation whether they be a sports team or a high street bank, it’s vital to appreciate that success is measured not just by your financial results but by the perception of your brand. The good news for Saracens is that the examples from football prove it can be done, but first they need to realise that it’s not just on-field performance that needs attention.