Munster Rugby: Charging hard into esports

The lines between esports and traditional sports continue to blur. Storied clubs such as FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors have dedicated esports divisions, NBA and F1 teams have esports players representing them in official leagues, and the ownership groups behind the likes of the New England Patriots and New York Mets have splashed out tens of millions of dollars on franchise slots in the Overwatch League.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures putting traditional sports leagues on pause for the time being, there’s even more crossover – such as NASCAR drivers competing in iRacing, NBA players facing off in NBA 2K20, and hockey legends Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Ovechkin competing in NHL 20 for coronavirus relief.

Munster Rugby
Photo credit: Munster Rugby

Amidst all this, another legendary traditional sports entity has entered the esports world, albeit on a more regional scale. In mid-April, Irish team Munster Rugby announced that it had partnered with Phelan Gaming, which would be rebranded Munster Rugby Gaming. Phelan has been arguably the only significant esports organisation to date in Ireland, and now will go forward with the backing of The Red Army.

“Our TV audience is gradually getting older, and that’s the same across all audiences. That’s not a negative thing in its own right; our TV numbers are still very strong,” Enda Lynch, Munster Rugby’s Head of Enterprise, explained to Esports Insider shortly following the announcement. “We saw an opportunity to bring our brand to an age profile and an audience that knows… in an Irish context, they’ll know who we are, but they’re not engaging with us day-to-day.”

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Lynch’s role with the team is to look for new business opportunities outside of on-the-pitch competition and everything tied into that. Previously, the team established a High Performance Leadership Programme – an executive training initiative – in collaboration with the University of Limerick, where its rugby team trains. Esports, on the other hand, targets a much different and broader kind of audience.

“This is just another brand extension for us, and a way of creating potential revenue opportunities that are not aligned directly with our core product and on-pitch results,” said Lynch. “More and more sports teams are beginning to look towards that. They have a brand that is loved and admired by their own fan base and maybe people around the country or even around the world in some places, yet they rely entirely on on-pitch performance for those results. You’ve got to wean yourself off of that, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Photo credit: Munster Rugby

Esports has been on Lynch’s radar for some time, and at a Munster Rugby-hosted event in New York City in 2018, he had a chance to speak with other team owners who had invested considerable amounts of money to secure esports franchises. The rugby world’s tighter margins made that sort of approach impossible for Munster.

“I realised that there was a quantum of money required at the top end which we were never going to have,” said Lynch. “What we did have was a great brand that could help a team that was up-and-coming become more attractive to supporters and sponsors alike… a team that didn’t necessarily want to just hand over the lock and keys to somebody, but wanted to grow with the brand.”

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“We started talking to Phelan—they’re the only Irish esports team of note that has competed at any decent level across any of the leagues and any of the formats,” he continued. “They were doing quite well, but they wanted to scale up in terms of their ability to attract sponsors and appeal to more people in Ireland, and bring the gaming message to more people in Ireland. We have the capacity to do that with them.”

Discussions began at the start of the year, and they were about to put pen to paper and finalise the agreement when the COVID-19 pandemic struck Ireland. According to Lynch, having that brief pause and seeing the greater mainstream media focus on esports led them to reassess some aspects of the partnership, ensuring that it was ideal for both parties.

“It gave my legal team and I an opportunity to really think of the structure of the deal we wanted, what was best for Phelan, and what was best for us, rather than rush into something just to get it out before the end of the rugby season. It gave us a couple of extra weeks to really look at what was best for all of us in the new climate,” he said. “The relationship has come to fruition at a really challenging time, but a time that allowed us to just get it right.”

Read the full version of this article in Edition 5 of The Esports Journal.