‘The time is now!’ – Rugby must embrace its stars or wither on the vine

Michael Yormark is late. Which is surprising as the president of Roc Nation Sports International, the athletic branch of the multinational talent agency owned by the rapper Jay Z, doesn’t seem the tardy sort. A quick scroll through his personal Instagram page shows a man devoted to exercise and his image. There he is in a tailored suit, standing next to some of the most famous athletes and musicians in the world. This is not the life of someone without a regimented schedule.

“So sorry about that,” he says 20 minutes later as he walks into the boardroom of the company’s central London office, his dusty pink cashmere polo pairing perfectly with his grey plaid trousers. “My phone call with Steve ran over. We were just catching up on some of our guys.”

That would be Steve Borthwick, England’s head coach. His guys refer to Marcus Smith, Maro Itoje and Ellis Genge, three of England’s most important players who are also on the books at Roc Nation. “We were just getting aligned on a few things moving forward,” Yormark says.

Of course he won’t divulge any secrets. Every answer Yormark supplies across an hour-long interview is as curated as the walls around us. When talking about the intersection of politics and sport – a central theme in the Roc Nation mission statement that seeks to embolden athletes to use their platform to speak truth to power – Yormark is measured.

Yormark, left, rubs shoulders with a range of sports and music superstars including England’s Maro Itoje (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Sanderson Design Group)

He references the legacies of Muhammad Ali, LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick while challenging critics who’d argue sports stars should refrain from outspoken social activism. When speaking about racism and mental health, and the need for widespread cognitive reform amongst sports fans, he remains firm but measured. Only once does he raise his voice and give way to frustration.

“The time is now!” he exclaims, not quite banging his fist on the table though the implication hangs heavy in the air. “In life you have to have a sense of urgency.”

You have to get players closer to the fans. There is not enough star power.

He’s talking about rugby’s apparent inability to adequately market itself and its stars. “It needs to be modernised,” Yormark says of “the special game” he has come to love. “All the stakeholders need to get in a conference room and discuss how to grow the sport. How to modernise it. How to align schedules. How to make sure the players are not playing too much and are staying healthy.”

Yormark bemoans a particular strand of rugby culture which champions the collective effort at the expense of the individual. Rugby’s mythologised values help maintain a code of conduct that is rightfully revered, but this can often stifle the unique characters of its participants and create a homogenous group of indistinguishable parts.

“You also have to get players closer to the fans,” Yormark explains. “There is not enough star power. The American leagues are star-driven leagues. Fans go to stadiums and spend a lot of money watching individual players. There isn’t enough of that in rugby.

“Siya Kolisi [a Roc Nation client] is the biggest name in rugby. But there needs to be more Siya Kolisis to drive the sport. We need storytelling to do that. We work with Ardie Savea, Beast Mtawarira, Maro Itoje, Marcus Smith and Ellis Genge. They’re all different and their stories all need to be told. They need to be encouraged to tell their stories, but they’re not. 

“If the stakeholders in rugby start looking at players as their partners, rather than their employees, we will start to see a change.”

ROC Nation clients Ellis Genge and Marcus Smith feature prominently in the new Netflix series (Photo by Shane Anthony Sinclair/Getty Images)

Yormark was speaking weeks before the release of the Netflix series ‘Six Nations Full Contact’ which documents the 2023 championship from inside the respective camps. It’s compelling in parts but the lack of cooperation and buy-in from some teams yields an often-lukewarm product, neither gripped with tension nor flowing with intimacy. Given the sport set a standard with the Living with Lions film in 1997, which chronicled the famous British and Irish Lions victory over the Springboks that year, this latest offering can be viewed as a symptom of a ubiquitous skittishness in the game.

“We’re selling entertainment,” Yormark continues, now in his stride and leaning forward as he presses home his point. “And if we’re not comfortable with the idea we’re selling something then [we should] stop charging admission. If we’re not selling then don’t go out and maximise media revenue or ticket sales or commercial partnerships.

“But if we’re going to be honest and recognise that the aim of the game is to monetise and that we’re in a business, then the brand and the sport have to both embrace the players.

“The NBA is a perfect example. The players feel like they’re part of the business. That they’re helping to guide the league from year to year to year. Rugby players don’t have that. I believe that it rests on the stakeholders. They appear to be afraid of change. But they have to have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

After the Rugby World Cup final, I went onto my ESPN app and it didn’t have a story [on the game]. It was like the world wasn’t watching.

Earlier this year, England’s players dropped the Rugby Players Association, ending a 20-year relationship with the trade union, citing concerns over the way international contracts and commercial deals were negotiated on their behalf. This decision was led by several senior players, including Genge, who, back in 2020, expressed his desire to see a new union preside over English players.

During a tumultuous time for the sport this was viewed with scepticism but, as Yormark might argue, it is a sign of the increased recognition amongst players that they are the stars of the show.

Yormark also credits CVC Capital Partners, the private equity firm which now has stakes in Premiership Rugby, the United Rugby Championship and the Six Nations. “You’ve got to take advantage of that [investment],” he says of a commercial relationship which has, according to some reports, kept the lights on in multiple rugby ecosystems.

But money on its own is not enough. Recalibration is needed across the board. “On fan engagement, it can’t be all about the sport,” Yormark adds. “When someone buys a ticket they shouldn’t just be buying a ticket for rugby. What makes sport in America so special is that it is entertainment. When you go to an athletic event, it’s an event from the moment you step out of your car at the stadium to the moment you leave. Rugby is behind in that regard.

“The [men’s] World Cup is going to America [in 2031]. That is a great opportunity. I’ve said the World Cup [in France last year] was amazing. As a rugby product it was incredible. I went to eight matches and they did a wonderful job in France. But did they really leverage it as well as they could have? The answer is no. It was a missed opportunity. It was a great event in one of the great cities in the world but it sometimes didn’t feel like a global event.

“After the final, I went onto my ESPN app and it didn’t have a story [on the game]. It was like the world wasn’t watching. It was as if the event didn’t take place. That simply cannot happen again.”

Yormark is calling for rugby to make more of its individual stars and make them feel part of its business model (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)

Yormark concedes he “doesn’t have all the answers”. His first interaction with rugby came in 2019 when he happened upon the 2019 World Cup final while on his way to meet with the Manchester City star, Kevin De Bruyne. It was Kolisi’s post-match speech which attracted him to rugby and gave him the idea this was a sport with potential but one which needed a lift.

“I’m new to rugby,” he says. “But I come from a community and a country where sport is everything and we have some of the biggest stars in the world. I know where rugby can go. I have been involved in this industry for the better part of 27 years. So it is frustrating. Rugby takes a lot of time to think about change but it doesn’t have that time. It’s about now. It’s about the moment. About a sense of urgency. Things could change tomorrow.”

Things are at least changing, albeit slower than Yormark might wish. But when Scotland’s Finn Russell likens himself to Lionel Messi, as he does on the Netflix series, and at least half of the comments on social media are accepting of the tongue-in-cheek line, then perhaps we can start to envision a sport that takes itself a little less seriously.

It’s just a bit of fun, after all, and the standard has never been better on the pitch. So, despite the very real concerns over player safety and well-being, and the financial challenges many unions around the world face, the raw ingredients are there to create a commercially thriving product, one that places its key protagonists front and centre and celebrates their individualism.

In truth, rugby has no other option. It will either adapt, as Yormark suggests, or it will wither on the vine.


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