In what could be seen as either a blow for rugby purists lamenting the descent into commercialism or a massive boost for the New Zealand Rugby Union—and the game as a whole—global insurance company American International Group (AIG) has signed a five and a half year sponsorship agreement that will see its logo take pride of place in the middle of the All Black jersey.
"This is a great day for New Zealand rugby," NZRU chief executive Steve Tew said in a release filled with arbitrary capitalisation. "This is an exciting new partnership that will further secure the future of rugby at all levels in this country and pave the way for our game to reach new fans around the world."
"Under the sponsorship arrangement, AIG will be the Major Global Sponsor of the New Zealand Rugby Union and Official Insurance Partner of the All Blacks. The company will directly sponsor the All Blacks, the All Blacks Sevens, the Maori All Blacks, the New Zealand Black Ferns, the New Zealand Women's Sevens and New Zealand Under 20 teams."
As expected, no word on the price paid (or any mention of the role AIG played in the GFC, the bailouts by the US government or the name change to Chartis), but it backs up its sponsorship of US rugby that was announced recently and, for the NZRU, it replaces Italian truck-maker Iveco on the sponsorship roster (Coca-Cola, Unilever, Sanitarium, Barkers and Bvlgari re-signed recently).
"Today's announcement is a game changer for New Zealand rugby," said Tew. "New Zealand rugby was already benefitting from the most valuable sponsorship in the rugby world through its partnership with Adidas. To the best of our knowledge, the partnership with AIG is the second most valuable rugby sponsorship. We sincerely thank Adidas for helping to ensure we were able to develop this valuable new partnership. Adidas remains the Principal Partner of the NZRU whose support has underpinned rugby in this country since 1999 and will continue to at least 2019.
"AIG's support provides significant additional financial security for the NZRU. The partnership will help ensure rugby continues to flourish at the community level upwards so that we can keep producing winning teams, run the most exciting competitions in the world and keep turning out, and retaining, the world's best players and coaches. We have new and ambitious goals, including winning gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 with men's and women's sevens, so it's vital we have sponsors like AIG and Adidas backing us over the long term. This new partnership will significantly strengthen our ability to maintain New Zealand rugby's edge in the competitive world in which we operate."
"This is a company that once chose one of the most famous and successful football teams in the world - Manchester United [a three year deal thought to be worth more than $100 million]," said Tew. "Now they have chosen the All Blacks, one of the most successful teams of any sport in the world—and New Zealand rugby. This is an extraordinary endorsement of what we do by a truly global company. AIG is committed to taking rugby to new countries and new fans through its operations in more than 90 countries, its global workforce of more than 60,000 staff and 88 million customers. This is an unprecedented opportunity to promote New Zealand rugby that only a global company can provide."
Bob Benmosche, AIG president and chief executive officer said: "Prominently associating the AIG brand with the legendary All Blacks and the highly competitive and successful New Zealand Rugby Union teams, as well as passionate rugby fans around the world, represents a tremendous opportunity for AIG, the NZRU, and rugby.
"The All Blacks' winning tradition and reputation for tenacity, integrity, and performance reflect attributes in AIG's own culture. We are extremely honoured to be the All Blacks' newest front-of-jersey sponsor and excited by the benefits that come with the teaming of two world-class franchises. Together, AIG and the NZRU are a powerful global partnership, symbolising strength and potential ... Rugby is popular around the globe and growing rapidly in the United States, and the top rugby nations align with regions where AIG is strongly represented and is targeting growth."
AIG will be the jersey sponsor for all six national teams beginning with the All Blacks Sevens tomorrow at the HSBC Sevens World Series tournament on the Gold Coast in Australia and for the All Blacks when they take on Australia in Brisbane on 20 October.
"We are adding the AIG logo to the black jersey, in addition to that of Adidas which has appeared since 1999," said Tew. "However, this is not a decision we have taken lightly. Like all New Zealanders we greatly respect the rich and proud heritage of the black jersey, which is why NZRU consulted with senior players and others as we carefully weighed up this latest move. On balance it is a very positive opportunity to secure the additional funds that we need to help safeguard the future of the game in this country."
The AIG logo on the All Blacks jersey is just under one third the size of the maximum allowed under International Rugby Board guidelines in consideration of the historical significance of that jersey.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw came to the party and said the new sponsorship arrangement had his support.
"It's really flattering that a company this big has chosen New Zealand rugby to be its cornerstone sponsorship. It shows incredible respect for our traditions, heritage and record of success across all our teams. This will really help make our game stronger right from the community game to the All Blacks so this is great news for rugby."
Adidas' global head of team sports, Max Van den Doel, said he was pleased to welcome AIG to the NZRU and All Blacks sponsor family.
"This is another significant boost for New Zealand rugby, which will further grow and strengthen the sport at all levels. We think it's fantastic that the NZRU not only has the biggest sponsorship in world rugby, with the support adidas provides, but also now the second biggest sponsorship in world rugby with the new relationship with AIG."
Tew also thanked those involved in making the partnership happen.
"My thanks go to AIG's team, led by Director of Global Branding Mark Clowes and NZRU's own commercial team headed by General Manager Commercial Mark Adam for the work put in to achieve an exciting outcome for all parties involved."
And while there will no doubt be plenty of discussion about this decision and the supposed sanctity of the All Blacks jersey, the last word goes to Joe Bennett, who summed up Sonny Bill's decision to have a stint in Japan situation brilliantly when he said:
He is acting no differently from a builder who moves to Christchurch because that's where the money is. And whereas a builder can expect to build for 40 years, Sonny Bill can expect to play rugby for a dozen years at best. He is wise to wring all he can from those years.
But that does not explain the intensity of the hatred that Sonny Bill has generated. Clearly Anonymous is an All Blacks supporter. Yet I doubt he believes that Sonny Bill's defection will ruin the All Blacks. Sonny Bill is a fine player but New Zealand abounds in fine players.
What is eating Anonymous is that Sonny Bill has revealed the professional game to be just that. It is a game in the sense that it actually doesn't matter much. And it is professional in the sense that it is being done for money. And that money derives from people like Anonymous who believe rugby matters.
Sonny Bill is like the priest who suddenly reveals that he's an atheist. To him it's just a job. He's only in it for the salary.
Thus he rips the veil from the tabernacle and reveals the sacred World Cup to be cheap tin plate. The elaborate edifice of belief is just a con.
It isn't Sonny Bill that Anonymous hates.
It's that Sonny Bill has made him look in the mirror and ask, "Who's the dupe?"