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The Licensing Lookout: Sporting chances

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes on the tricks we could be missing within the sports sector.

I was fortunate to attend a unique sporting event last week, or rather two events in one. I attended The Varsity Matches at Twickenham. Oxford University play Cambridge University in Men’s and Women’s matches. This is a long-standing and traditional fixture. I attended with a Start Licensing client, Rhino Rugby. Rhino is a match sponsor and supply kit to both teams.

A couple of things struck me as I sat down to watch the first match, which was the Women’s match. Firstly that I think licensing might be missing a trick in regards to women’s sport. I know sports licensing can be a tricky area, but it seems to me that women’s sport and female sports stars are becoming more widely recognised. Female sports stars are great role models and inspirational. I think there is scope for more licensing on an individual, club or sport basis. The Women’s Varsity Match was a highly entertaining game with Cambridge running out winners in an absorbing match. It was certainly a great advert for women’s rugby. I know that Rhino Rugby sees a lot of growth potential in Women’s rugby.

For the record Oxford won the Men’s match which was an equally entertaining game.


The other thought I had was wondering why the UK hasn’t really embraced Varsity wear in terms of licensing, especially in fashion. In the US collegiate-based licensing seems well established.

In the UK, Oxford and Cambridge Universities have well established licensing programmes in categories such as gifting and toys including science kits, but collegiate sportswear and leisurewear doesn’t seem to have developed in the same way in the UK as it has Stateside. I guess this is linked to sports participation, sports coverage and how universities are regarded in the UK. I think there could be scope for licensees to do more in this sector. I can also see potential for ‘collabs’ with established fashion brands.

Rhino Rugby used its sponsorship and kit supply proactively. It generated great PR for it. One objective was to project its name and product further within the college market in regards to supplying teamwear. It worked with Twickenham to make sure that replica kit and leisure wear was available in the official England Rugby Store on match day. Kit was readily available and in good supply. Good activation by both parties.

The England Rugby Store at Twickenham was interesting in its own right. It is well set and presented. A very contemporary and stylish store.

I am guessing licensed products are blended with own label products. Given its location, it is a great showcase for products and a great opportunity for testing designs. I imagine numbers that can be achieved on certain lines would be significant. It is a destination store on match days, but also for people taking stadium tours or non-match day visitors.

On entry to the store there was a great display of Christmas jumpers. Reinforcing the mantra: right product, right time, right place.


The Store had really good displays of official England Rugby kit and accessories. Shirts were well presented and displayed. I thought a further opportunity here might be selling retro rugby kits from particular moments in English rugby history. Retro football kits are proving popular. Apologies if I missed these – my shop visit was post game and with ten minutes to closing time.

My store visit also reminded me that the Rugby World Cup is on the horizon with the Finals taking place in Japan next year. There was a small range of World Cup branded products. In itself this helps put the World Cup into consumers’ minds and is a good test market for specific products or designs.

The World Cup being in Japan may be a worry to some licensees but with England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland involved and looking competitive it may be an opportunity worth considering, but the clock is ticking. There will certainly be an intense focus on the sport during the event.


It was also noteworthy that the World Cup merchandise carried hologram stickers designed to help minimise counterfeiting and help to control the programme. This is relatively common in sports merchandise, but I expect this sort of approach to IP management to be adopted more widely in other licensing genres.

As licensing becomes more global and retailing is changing IP protection is more vital than ever.


It was also good to see that the Rugby Store and England Rugby are on trend. One of the trends I have noticed in licensed apparel this year is for baby wear and toddler wear targeted at a parental buy.

This trend was covered with a range of babygros with slogans like Daddy Loves Rugby and Me. Accompanied with the England Rugby rose design. A good example that on site sports merchandise needs to try to reflect wider design trends to remain competitive. I imagine these designs could be made available to other retailers, as well opening up opportunities for sales around events like Father’s Day.


Outside of the world of Varsity Rugby, a deal I spotted this week which I thought was intriguing was a partnership between the RNLI and Conker Spirit. Conker partnered with the RNLI to launch a Navy Strength gin. Presented in an attractive bottle coupled with a striking label each bottle of gin sold will result in £5 going to the RNLI.

This is a good example of cause-related licensing and shows an awareness from RNLI of consumer trends. There is also a good connection between gin and sea-farers – the story of how Navy Strength Gin got its name is a fascinating one… involving diluted gin and gunpowder. It is worth a Google.

The link between RNLI and Conker shows that licensing can travel into new categories and be the catalyst for partnerships that can open up new opportunities for organisations such as RNLI. Working with a company like Corker gives the RNLI a new platform for communication, education and supporter recruitment.

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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