Find a new rugby sponsor – quick

The gaping financial hole left by the departure of one of the game's principal backers in Asia needs to be filled fast

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 May, 2014, 8:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 4:24pm

Make no bones about it. If not for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, the world's local bank - well, that is what it used to call itself - would not have got involved in Asian rugby.

HSBC has close links with the union and is a co-title sponsor of the Hong Kong Sevens.

Although headquartered in London, its origins were in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and it continues to have strong links with this city, especially with rugby.

It would be far better for the Asian Rugby Football Union to start trawling now to see who it can net as a replacement. It will not be easy

The local game is historically rooted in the British forces and had its first civilian links with the big trading companies and this bank.

As such it was no surprise when, back in 2008, it was announced HSBC would become title sponsors of the Asian Five Nations, a 15-a-side-tournament which touched every rugby nation in the region.

Back then it was believed the bank coughed up US$500,000 in its first year, matching a similar grant from the International Rugby Board.

That money has since doubled, and perhaps even tripled with costs and needs rising with the inclusion of the Asian Sevens Series in 2011 - initially a two-legged tournament which last year saw four legs being played.

Hong Kong memorably won this tournament pipping Japan, and were crowned Asian sevens champions for the first time in 2012.

My sources say that last year the bank dished out between US$1 million and US$2 million to support both forms of the game in Asia. Let's take the middle ground and settle on US$1.5 million. This is almost HK$12 million.

Now it is all gone, with HSBC pulling out of the title sponsorship of the two flagship Asian tournaments.

This has left the Asian Rugby Football Union (Arfu) reeling. It must surely be more serious than a "blow", which was how Trevor Gregory described it. Gregory, who will soon step down as HKRFU chairman, was wearing his other hat as Arfu president when he commented.

Losing HK$12 million in annual sponsorship in times like this is a calamity. This is what has sustained the growth of (and interest in) the game in Asia.

This money had allowed Arfu to provide annual competition to teams from Brunei to Uzbekistan who otherwise might never have contemplated taking up rugby.

What now? Can Arfu sustain the growth and expansion of the game? In the short term, yes, with competitions being downsized, but in the long term it will need someone with deep pockets stepping in.

Arfu was formed in 1968 with its original founding members being Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan.

Today the game has spread to places like Iran and Mongolia. The presence of China and India as full IRB members in Arfu makes Asia potentially the largest rugby-playing continent.

But the sport has really not caught on in these two most populous countries, although China is investing a lot in its sevens programme due to it being an Olympic sport.

It was hoped sevens becoming an Olympic medal sport at the 2016 Games would be a useful hook to keep the bank involved in rugby but sadly that has not been the case.

A changing business model and the need to downsize, have probably played a part in the bank's decision to pull out of rugby.

Is this the end game? Gregory is still hopeful that the bank might stay involved in some way. In October 2010, the IRB announced a five-year deal with HSBC as the first title sponsors of its Sevens World Series.

It is believed the deal was worth US$100 million. This comes to an end next year. What happens afterwards could affect Asian rugby too.

If HSBC continues as title sponsor of the IRB Sevens World Series, there is a small hope that it might continue to back Arfu in a small way.

But it is looking grim. It would not have pulled out of Asia if it wanted to remain as the worldwide sponsor of rugby sevens.

It would be far better for Arfu to start trawling now to see who it can net as a replacement. It will not be easy.

If Hong Kong played a huge role in bagging HSBC, perhaps it is time for the big Asian power Japan to step forward and come up with someone with deep pockets.

As host of the 2019 World Cup, the Japan Rugby Football Union has repeatedly trumpeted the message that this tournament is for all of Asia.

It is deeds not words that count now. And the best way would be for them to help keep the game alive by finding a replacement title sponsor.