Back to the future as Heineken named Champions Cup title sponsor
By Simon Ward
Heineken, the Dutch beer brewer that is a major backer of international sport, is returning as the title sponsor of European rugby union's top clubs competition after the organisers chose to abandon a reformed structure based on that of soccer’s Uefa Champions League, which does not have a main partner.
It was announced today that, under a new four-year deal, Heineken will give its name to the European Rugby Champions Cup, which is being rebranded as the Heineken Champions Cup, starting with the 2018-19 season.
Heineken was the sole title sponsor of the competition’s predecessor, known simply as the Heineken Cup, but was reduced to the status of an official partner when the European club competitions were revamped, under the auspices of European Professional Club Rugby, ahead of the 2014-15 campaign.
The organisers initially hoped to recruit up to six sponsors at that level, but, in what has been a challenging economic environment for rugby, only Turkish Airlines has come on board (with Tissot at a lower level), prompting a change of tack.
Heineken is set to increase its financial commitment, while, with a greater emphasis on free-to-air coverage in Europe and more exposure overseas, there are high hopes that additional sponsors will come on board in the second tier.
Vincent Gaillard, the chief executive of EPCR, is eager to present the change as an “evolution” of the model it has had in the first four years of the Champions Cup.
He told Sportcal: “It’s good for two reasons. First, it’s happening with Heineken, a long-term friend and partner, and secondly, it is with one of the biggest brands in the world.”
Gaillard claimed that Heineken had expressed an interest in returning as the title sponsor for the duration of its last contract, and that, given the brand's strong association with European club rugby, it would not have done such a deal "with any other company."
He added: “What is really important is to avoid the binary view of title sponsor versus multiple partners. It will be a multi-partner model with a major brand sitting on top.”
Gaillard admitted that the market had been “tricky” for rugby sponsorship, an analysis borne out by the difficulties the organisers of the Six Nations and England’s Premiership have had in securing new title partners (albeit the latter has a new deal with Gallagher, the USA-based insurance company).
However, the EPCR chief believes the simplification of the broadcasting situation in the UK, where BT Sport henceforth has exclusive pay-television rights to the Champions Cup and second-tier Challenge Cup (these were previously shared with Sky), free-to-air deals such as those with Channel 4 in the UK and TV3 in Ireland, and international coverage via the likes of US national network NBC will prompt a sea change.
He said: “We are really optimistic that we’re going to be in a very different place next season because of our TV platforms. That is absolutely the hope and the logic.
"The platforms we had in the last four years - with the UK [rights] being split between two broadcasters - was not ideal, but that has changed, and we have the free-to-air, and international markets, which on top of the other things we are doing in digital and expansion, with taking our finals to new places [Bilbao in Spain was the host this year], will help attract new partners."
Rights will continue to be marketed on a category-by-category basis, with banking, cars and telecoms, popular sectors in rugby, among the main targets.
In France, where the ‘Loi Evin’ legislates against the advertising and promotion of alcohol, the top European clubs competition is set to be known as the H Champions Cup, and Heineken will have limited activation rights.
However, Gaillard can see this as a potential opening for local sponsors, saying: “There are opportunities for French brands to come in, especially if and when we are able to confirm the second free-to-air match [per round on public-service broadcaster France Télévisions].”
He also said that EPCR would not be deterred from taking its finals back to France, with the country having a bidder in 2021.
Gaillard is hopeful that Turkish Airlines, whose deal expired after the 2017-18 season, will remain involved, while admitting that their interest may cool now they will no longer be a co-lead sponsor, while official supplier Tissot is committed until the end of the 2019-20 campaign.
Meanwhile, the organisation is also in the market for a title sponsor for the Challenge Cup, the predecessor of which was known as the Amlin Challenge Cup, after the UK-based insurance company.
In addition to the European club rugby competitions, Heineken is a long-time sponsor of the Rugby World Cup, as a worldwide partner through to the 2019 tournament in Japan, a major partner of the Uefa Champions League, in a deal that has been extended to the end of the 2020-21 season, and a global partner of Formula 1, until at least 2020.
In a statement, Hans-Erik Tuijt, global sponsorship director of the company, said: “It is an exciting time for Heineken to return as the main partner of the European Rugby Champions Cup. The expansion of the tournament to emerging rugby territories (Bilbao 2018) and new cities in traditional strongholds of European rugby (Lyon 2016, Newcastle 2019) provides Heineken with the opportunity to create engaging fan experiences and brings our association with rugby to new audiences throughout Europe.
“Heineken is proud to have had a close association with rugby for over 20 years and we look forward to working alongside EPCR to provide a platform to continue to develop the competition across Europe and beyond."