Finally, a shirt sponsor for Les Bleus?

In mid-April, on the same day that the NBA announced it would be the first of the big US sports to adopt jersey sponsorship, across the Atlantic in a Bordeaux suburb French rugby luminary Bernard Laporte launched his bid to become President of the FFR, which if he is elected could see France become the last major rugby nation to sell its national team’s shirt to a sponsor.

After the NZRU sold the previously sponsor-free All Blacks shirt to AIG for five years in 2012, Les Bleus became the only major national rugby team who choose to take the field with unbranded shirts. Laporte proposes to change that.

Laporte’s is a classic sports federation rationale: selling the shirt sponsorship will create a big new revenue stream, which he estimates at €5m-€10m per year, to help fund French grass roots rugby development. But this is much more than a commercial decision for the FFR: it will require a major philosophical pivot.

In March last year FFR head of marketing Bernard Godet told L’Equipe that the FFR had received three unsolicited shirt sponsorship offers for Les Bleus, but that the bids had been “rejected outright without studying them” because the French national team shirt is “a symbol….We remain committed to this principle and we are very proud, even if the All Blacks gave in. We are the last ones.”

When the NZRU sold AIG the All Blacks’ shirt sponsorship in 2012, France became
the last major rugby nation to choose to take the field without a shirt sponsor

And earlier this year Mr Godet told Le Monde that the FFR will not “yield to the sirens’ money” and “sell our soul…The French shirt is ultimately a kind of flag, not to be tainted with a brand of coffee, or car, or olive oil” - although he also revealed that the FFR was considering selling the sevens, women’s and youth teams’ shirts to a sponsor.

A big philosophical gap then. But unbridgeable? Maybe not. In a classic piece of realpolitik, Laporte has also proposed that the shirt sponsorship should be sold only to ‘a beautiful French flagship brand’, building a Touboniste bridge between his and the FFR’s position.

We’ll have to wait until the end of this year to find out if Laporte’s Presidential bid is successful. But if it is, with 44 manifesto measures to push through he will be a very busy man. And the shirt sponsorship idea is not one of the 44 measures in Laporte’s manifesto, so could readily be de-prioritised in the inevitable politicking of the election or its aftermath.

There’s no doubt that were it to become available there would be high demand for the French shirt sponsorship given the popularity of rugby in France, the size of the French economy, the domestic and international media visibility of the shirt, and the cachet of becoming the first shirt sponsor of Les Bleus.

However, restricting the opportunity to French brands will reduce the value of the opportunity to the FFR, by driving down demand and competition from international brands who, as the All Blacks’ deal with AIG demonstrated, would surely be interested.

So for a French-only deal the lower half of Laporte’s estimate of €5m-€10m per year is about right, benchmarked against what other major rugby countries generate for their shirt sponsorships and, as our sponsorship evaluation model Synergy Decisions demonstrates, the fact that a sponsorship has varying values to brands in different categories.

Only time will tell if Les Bleus finally break with tradition. But in the meantime, it’s worth taking a look at the commercial proposals in Laporte’s manifesto – in particular the concept of pooling the commercial rights of the FFR and the clubs. Now that would be radical.