Sponsors and fans flock to club rugby following miracle turnaround
The remarkable story of how two rugby fans bought the media rights to a dying club rugby competition, the Shute Shield, and turned it around against the odds.
After years of neglect, rugby fans Nick Fordham and John Murray couldn’t take it any longer. Sydney’s premier club rugby competition, the Intrust Super Shute Shield, was in the doldrums and about to lose the limited exposure it received on the ABC.
Broadcast on Aunty for more than 50 years, the public broadcaster had lost its appetite for the Shute Shield, beleaguered by budget cuts and a waning interest in live sport.
In truth, the Shute Shield has struggled for attention and commercial backing since the introduction of Super Rugby in the mid-90s, which not only sucked out some of the competition’s leading stars, but also took with it media and commercial interest.
The competition, which first kicked off in 1923, was also being starved of funds by the sport’s administrators, whose primary focus was to invest more into expanding the provincial completion, Super Rugby, than the grassroots – Shute Shield and other tiers of club rugby.
The move away from the ABC at the conclusion of the 2014 season was viewed by some quarters of the rugby fraternity as another nail in club rugby’s coffin, but not by Fordham and Murray.
“When it was coming off the ABC – the ABC was giving up on outdoor sport – we said, ‘Okay, this is a great opportunity to get it off the ABC and get it on commercial television’,” says Murray, a stock broker and president of Easts Rugby Club.
“I think it's fair to say that a lot of the rugby establishment were against that and they were partitioning the prime minister to keep broadcasting the game on the ABC. We kept saying, ‘No, this is a wonderful opportunity to promote and commercialise the sport and to make it a success’.”
Fordham, the CEO of leading sports and entertainment talent management agency The Fordham Company, viewed the ABC’s departure as an opportunity to revive the fortunes of the Shute Shield and club rugby and joined forces with Murray to launch a bid for the media rights to the competition.
“The Shute Shield wasn't in the strongest state at that stage but fundamentally, the core of it was a great thing,” he says.
“We knew that there was a great product there that had just probably been neglected. Considering it was on the ABC and you couldn't have any commercial sponsors or partners or integrations, we just thought if it had that love on a commercial free-to-air network, who knows where it could go.”