It’s a sunny Sunday morning, Cardiff Blues have just secured a bonus point victory to make it two wins from two in the Guinness Pro14, and after a Q&A with members of the board during the week it seems we’re making significant strides off the field. At what point does this go wrong?
After 17 years there is finally some clarity on a number of matters regarding the branding of the club and what ‘regionalism’ actually is, as Alun Jones, Richard Holland and the board appear to be finally taking the common sense route to commercial success at the Arms Park.
Firstly, the history once again. Cardiff Rugby Club was created in 1876. For 120 years we operated as an amateur club, a section of Cardiff Athletic Club, becoming the greatest club in the world. The Blue and Blacks created the seven back formation, beat South Africa, Australia and New Zealan, won 13 merit tables and six Welsh Cups.
In 1995/96 when rugby turned professional, Cardiff RFC Limited was incorporated with the Athletic Club maintaining a number of regular shares alongside heritage shares that entitled them to three spots on the board, while Peter Thomas became chairman with a large financial investment and supporters became involved through a share sale.
Over the next eight years we won a Welsh League, a Welsh/Scottish League and a further Welsh Cup, as well as finishing runner-up in the first ever Heineken Cup, before in 2003 regional rugby was introduced.
Cardiff RFC paid to standalone, with the Cardiff Blues brand introduced. The Blue and Blacks squad in 2002/03 played for Cardiff Blues in 2003/04. Their contract terms didn’t change, they were still paid by Cardiff RFC Limited, their jerseys were Cardiff RFC jerseys with Cardiff Blues badges stitched over the top. Essentially Cardiff RFC rebranded as Cardiff Blues, with a new semi-professional team set up for the Welsh Premiership.
What has followed has been 17 years of confusion. Confused branding as the meaningless and bland ‘Blues’ was pushed, confused development as the Academy and Premiership sides were subject to different approaches every few years depending on who was in charge, and a confused approach to ‘regionalism’ as Cardiff supporters were pushed away while those who felt disenfranchised were not enticed to the Arms Park.
The simple truth of the matter is that after the Celtic Warriors went bust in 2004 and Cardiff Blues paid to include Rhondda Cynon Taf and parts of South Powys in the regional development pathway, there was never going to be a set up that pleased everyone.
We don’t have a natural geographic system to follow for four professional sports teams that Ireland do with their provinces, while New Zealand’s attempts to create generic franchises is now starting to fall apart as New Zealand Rugby makes notable steps towards referring to the sides as ‘clubs’ at the request of private equity firms looking to invest in the game. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see City names included again over the next few years, those private equity firms know what sells.
In our case, particularly those of the pre-regional generation North of the M4 who will always see teams based in Cardiff and play at the Arms Park as rivals, will never be enticed to support a capital city team no matter what they are called. Unless they’re a Pontypridd/Valleys team based out of Sardis Road and/or The Wern then professional rugby won’t interest them.
There is also the fact that regionalism does not mean representative rugby. It’s not like playing for a schools team, or for your country. If that were the case then only players from within that region would play for the team. Cardiff Blues are a professional sports team responsible for operating a regional development pathway, that’s what regionalism is.
Alun Jones was spot on with his very clear assertion during Wendesday’s Q&A that the branding of the club and the regional development responsibilities are not mutually exclusive, which leads us on to the final fact; ‘Cardiff’ is better than ‘Blues’ from a commercial angle. We can be Cardiff but still be a region through operating our development pathway.
As each of Jones, Richard Holland and Andrew Williams pointed out during the Q&A, ‘Cardiff’ has the two-fold benefit of being an historic brand in rugby terms, and also an emerging powerhouse economically. It is the financial centre of Wales and one of the fastest growing cities in Europe.
There’s a reason so many sports teams and businesses generally display the year they were established in their branding, because history and heritage sells. Having that age-old trusted reputation helps commercially, people want to be associated with well-established brands and Cardiff Blues need to drive up commercial revenue in order to be successful on the field.
Will making a shift towards ‘Cardiff’ as a brand, and potentially even dropping ‘Blues’ altogether lock the door to the aforementioned generation of supporters North of M4 who feel disenfranchised? Yes it will, but it will be no loss to Cardiff Blues because those people don’t contribute anything to the business currently.
Instead it will open the door to the increased commercial revenue, which will give us a better chance of being competitive on the field and enticing the casual rugby fan who does not care what the team is called, they just want to watch good and winning rugby. It also has the added benefit of going down very well with the core customer base who are largely Cardiff fans that tolerate the ‘Blues’ branding but know who the team really is.
17 years it’s taken. 17 years wasted trying to appease rather than achieve. Let’s push forward now.