European cup chiefs play ‘long game’ over sponsor deals

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European rugby chiefs could face a year-long wait to complete the five main sponsorship deals for the new-look Champions Cup.

The inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup campaign could run its entire course without all five principal commercial partners nailed down, bosses have admitted.

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) finally confirmed Heineken as the “founding partner” of the Champions Cup at yesterday’s tournament launch in Dublin.

New governing body board 
director Paul McNaughton said he would be unfazed holding off until next summer to tie down the remaining four sponsorship deals.

“Realistically, I would be happy if all five partners were in place for the beginning of next season,” said the Ireland Rugby Football Union’s EPCR board representative.

“On the commercial front, we could have four or five now, done, but at a much lower value than we ascribe to those sponsor slots.

“So, again, we’re not being smart, but we’re trying to play the long game here.

“When you sign a deal, you’re signing up for four years and we want to get the best deal for the competition.”

McNaughton believes the completion of the long-delayed French and Italian television rights could prove the catalyst for further sponsorship contracts.

The former Ireland team manager admitted the EPCR board expected sponsorship delays as early as May.

“If there was pressure on us to get it done in a month or two, to get it all kind of done before the tournament starts, I suspect you’d be giving away an advantage, in commercial terms,” he said. “We may have a couple of additional by Christmas, but I would project that we will have the five on before the beginning of next season, at the right value.”

Two years of political wrangling eventually yielded the Champions Cup, to replace the 19-year-long Heineken tournament, with meritocratic qualification and record British broadcast deals in place.

Tournament bosses unveiled trophies, the Gilbert match ball and match officials’ kit laid on by Canterbury at yesterday’s launch.

McNaughton conceded he understood fans’ frustrations at the three-month delay in announcing fixtures for rounds three and four of the pool stages, to be held in December

He said: “Of course I understand (fans’ frustration), I’m a fan myself.

“I’ve got plenty of stick from my mates about not knowing when round three or four was.”

The Champions Cup kicks off on Friday, October 17.