Hong Kong Sevens

Just like old times, but even better

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am

The prodigal son has returned. 'We have come full circle,' says Giles Morgan, the bank's global head of sponsorship, referring to HSBC's return to its rugby roots. After a break of 14 years, the bank is back and, along with old partner Cathay Pacific, will again headline the world-famous Hong Kong Sevens as co-title sponsors.

Both these iconic companies have combined their financial might and high-flying profile to support the world's best-known and most-fun sevens tournament. They were partners from 1980 to 1997, when HSBC didn't renew its contract because of the Asian financial crisis. Now they are all back together in what Morgan describes as a 'happy marriage'.

A couple of years ago, HSBC made a decision to embark on increasing its rugby portfolio - which now includes the Asian Five Nations, Asian Sevens Series, the IRB World Sevens Series, the British and Irish Lions, the Penguins and Waratahs clubs. It was the move to come in as title sponsor of the World Sevens Series which paved the way for a return to Hong Kong with HSBC supplanting Credit Suisse, whose position became untenable.

The question on everyone's lips at the announcement on Wednesday was how much the sponsorship was worth. Hong Kong Rugby Football Union chairman Trevor Gregory jokingly told the media audience' 'If I told you, I would have to kill you'. The union and its partners closely guard these secrets but we believe estimates that the four-year deal is worth up to HK$80 million.

It is believed the bank and the airline each puts in around HK$10 million in cash or kind - in Cathay's case this means free flights for the teams - every year. If this sum - HK$20 million - goes towards the cost of staging the tournament every year, everything else is a bonus for the HKRFU.

While the game locally will benefit hugely by the continued involvement of leading blue-chip companies, the return of HSBC to 'its roots' will also give added weight to the development of rugby in Asia, and indeed the world. It is probably no coincidence the bank decided to get more involved in two major sports, rugby and golf, a couple of years ago. They had seen the lay of the land with the International Olympic Committee deciding in 2009 that rugby sevens and golf would become medal sports from the 2016 Olympic Games.

This has led to title sponsorship of the IRB World Sevens Series as well as the Asian Sevens Series. Both are on the verge of being expanded. The world competition has eight legs and is set to grow to 10 next year. The regional event has two ranking events in Shanghai and Borneo. It is likely a couple more will be added over the next 18 months, with India being mooted as a stopover.

Morgan makes no bones about the bank's goals, which are to further its reach in the community and expand to new markets. And he hopes rugby will help pave the way for this expansion. Every deal has to be financially viable, but at the end of the day if the sport too can benefit, then it must be encouraged.

In this way, the bank has put the dollars where its mouth is. The Asian Five Nations - of which the Top Five competition ended yesterday with Japan once again at the zenith but Hong Kong taking runner-up slot for the first time - is an example of how the game is being taken to new audiences. During the course of the 30-match, 25-country regional competition, HSBC has taken its coaching tour on an 11-leg stopover. It has reached thousands of children and hundreds of fledgling coaches, from war-torn Jaffna in Sri Lanka to skyscraper-dominated Dubai, promoting the game.

While the immediate tangible benefits have included rugby kit and balls, the long-term seeds that have been planted included coach education schemes. Former Scotland coach Frank Hadden, who has been at the helm of the coaching tour, has been impressed by the passion and talent he has seen on his travels. Let's hope the green shoots he has observed will flower and Asian rugby will rise.

This is the long-term goal of HSBC. Sevens is seen as a useful conduit to achieve these aims. By again getting involved in the Hong Kong Sevens, it helps raise the profile all around. The same the world over. This year, the IRB Series was televised in 140 countries and to more than 400 million households. NBC in the United States beamed the Las Vegas leg live to millions. Nearly 500,000 fans flocked to stadiums from Hong Kong and Dubai, to Wellington and George (South Africa) to watch the action.

'By 2016, we want to see bigger audiences and higher TV figures. We want to establish sevens in its own right as it is a wonderful way to reach out to new countries,' Morgan says.

The prodigal son has grown up.