Cigarettes and alcohol – A history of English rugby league sponsorship

Stones Bitter Championship

Wigan with the Stones Bitter Championship trophy and prize money

AS IS the way with nearly all sport in the 21st Century, there is barely any aspect of rugby league which is not being monetised by sponsorship in some way or another.
Companies as diverse as utilities, motor manufacturers, sports drinks, bookmakers and opticians either hold the naming rights to various competitions, or have their logos emblazoned on the shirts of teams and even the match officials.
It is therefore incredible to think that as recently as 40 years ago, sponsorship was still something of a novelty in English sport.
Strangely though, it was that reputedly stuffiest of institutions, county cricket, which led the way in this country with Gillette taking title sponsorship of the new one-day knock-out competition in 1963 and John Player Special becoming associated with the Sunday League on its inception in 1969.
Sensing a further opportunity to create ‘brand awareness’ though sponsorship of sporting events – and perhaps some slick marketing executive thinking Northern males who spend their time in smoky social clubs might be their target market – Imperial Tobacco ponied up the cash for the new League Cup competition introduced by The RFL in the 1971-72 season.
Originally titled the Player’s No. 6 Trophy, the inaugural competition was the first major domestic rugby league tournament to have a title sponsor and carried prize money of £5,000 – nearly £60,000 in today’s money – for the winners.
The League Cup, as it was officially known at RFL HQ, would be associated with cigarettes for the entirety of its 24-year lifespan, being renamed the John Player Trophy in 1978 and the John Player Special Trophy five years later, before eventually becoming the Regal Trophy from 1989 to 1996.

Regal Trophy

The perfect rugby league booze-and-fags sponsorship combination

Two years later, the short-lived Captain Morgan Trophy gained sponsorship from the rum manufacturers, but it was not until the start of the following decade that naming rights really took off – along with Bradford Northern and Hull Kingston Rovers obtaining shirt sponsorship from SGS Glazing and Rank Xerox respectively.
Perhaps predictably, it was the brewers who followed in the footsteps of the cigarette manufacturers as Slalom Lager – produced by Workington brewer Matthew Brown – became title sponsors of the Rugby League Championship and even produced their own beer mats with rugby league trivia on them as a tie-in.
Sheffield-brewed Stones Bitter took over the naming rights in 1986, a contract which continued right into the switch to summer rugby before eventually ceding the Super League rights to JJB Sports in 1998.

Slalom beer mat

So now you know – and it’s all thanks to Slalom!

The Challenge Cup received its first title sponsor in 1980, with British American Tobacco’s State Express brand – curiously, being named as the Three Fives Challenge Cup for 1981 only – followed by Silk Cut in one of the sport’s longest-running sponsorship deals, which lasted from 1985 until 2001 when the ban on tobacco advertising kicked it.
Both the Lancashire and Yorkshire Cups had their own sponsors too, with the former initially being sponsored by the Rugby Leaguer newspaper in 1974, followed by Burtonwood Brewery under its Forshaw’s brand and then by the brewery itself until Warrington-based brewer Greenall’s took over sponsorship until the final edition in 1992.
The Yorkshire Cup also had associations with Webster’s and John Smith’s, but its original sponsor back in 1972 for seven years, with Philips Video equipment also having the naming rights from 1983 to 1984.
In a sign rugby league may have been keen to move away from the booze-and-fags image, Kelloggs Nutri-Grain took over the Challenge Cup sponsorship in 2002, followed by electricity supplier Powergen in 2004 and then Leeds Metropolitan University under the Carnegie brand in 2008.
Brewer Tetley’s, who also sponsored Super League from 2000 to 2004, then had two years as title sponsor before the current deal with Ladbrokes started, which is due to run until the end of 2017.
Super League attracted a six-year commitment from Engage Mutual Assurance in 2005, believed to be worth around £750,000 a season, but 2012 saw the clubs vote for what has come to be regarded as one of the most boneheaded marketing deals them and The RFL have ever made.
Turning down an offer from Betfair which would have netted a similar amount as the Engage deal, the clubs narrowly voted to approve a sponsorship deal with haulier Eddie Stobart which included no extra cash but did see hundreds of the company’s trucks repainted to advertise Super League.


Super League keeps on trucking with the ill-fated Eddie Stobart deal

Part of the reason Betfair’s bid was rejected was due to then-RFL chief Richard Lewis believing in ethical sponsorship and felt a bookie was not an appropriate sponsor. Indeed, it was widely reported a sponsorship deal with had been turned down previously too.
Of course, any marketing expert would say there could be no price put on such nationwide exposure. However, Stobart decided to exercise their clause to break the deal after one year, bringing that to a swift end and embarrassingly leaving Super League without a title sponsor in 2013, before current sponsors First Utility came on board last year.
Even the men in the middle have not been immune to having sponsorship plastered all over their shirts, from the aforementioned Stones to games developer Midas, various competition sponsors and as part of the short-lived deal The RFL signed with electronics company Elonex.
But, in an ironic twist, recent seasons have seen the match officials sponsored by opticians Specsavers – giving supporters somewhere else to tell the referee where to go when a decision goes against their team.


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