If there was any need for a reminder that sport is a business like any other, it arrived yesterday with a sponsor for the front of the All Black jersey.

With the current economic climate affecting businesses large and small, the New Zealand Rugby Union would have been remiss to turn down the multimillion-dollar deal offered by American insurance giants AIG.

The three white letters which now adorn the centre of the black jersey may upset purists who treat any alteration as sacrilege, but NZRU chief executive Steve Tew said the agreement was one that needed to be made to ensure the continued pre-eminence of New Zealand rugby.

Players of the game in this country have been focusing on the bottom line for years, and the number of athletes lured by the financial incentive of overseas contracts is likely to increase. Tew said the NZRU needed an increase in cashflow to safeguard rugby in New Zealand and, in AIG, it has found the perfect partner to remain competitive in the growing global game.


The deal, which will run until May 2018, is believed to be the second-most-valuable sponsorship agreement in world rugby - trailing only the NZRU's current partnership with adidas.

With the pair of corporate giants now boosting the NZRU coffers, Tew believes the benefits of selling advertising space on the black jersey outweigh any concerns over tradition.

"We are in a challenging time in this world we live in," he said. "We have a business that has roughly $100 million turnover a year - it needs to be significantly more than that if we're going to survive, if we're going to grow the game at the community level and if we're going to retain players. It's a challenge for us, and we need some money."

While the exact amount of money remains under wraps, AIG executive vice-president Peter Hancock said the company's contribution was considerable.

"We really are placing our faith in the continued success and values of (New Zealand rugby)," he said. "This is the largest commitment that weare making to any sport anywherein the world."

It is safe to say, though, that the agreement will fall some way short of the $28 million a year the insurers paid Manchester United to appear on the red shirt from 2006-2010 - a deal which was not renewed after AIG fell victim to the global financial crisis and had to be bailed out by the US Government.

Critics of their involvement in New Zealand rugby may wish for a similar turn of events, but Tew hoped the financial sense of the decision would eventually prevail over the inevitable backlash.

"We think there will be a balanced analysis of this. People who consider very carefully what is in behind this for New Zealand rugby - the way we have respected the jersey, the fact we have chosen a truly global partner with New Zealand interests - hopefully will celebrate it the way we are."


In addition to the All Black jersey, which will make its debut next weekend in the Rugby Championship match against the Wallabies in Brisbane, AIG will also appear on the shirts and shorts of five other teams - the Black Ferns, the Maori All Blacks, the men's and women's sevens teams and the under-20 men's side.

Unlike those teams, however, the logo on the All Blacks' playing kit will be without its border and will be smaller. Tew said the sizing was one-third of that allowed by IRB regulations, a decision which was intended as a "sign of respect" to tradition.

For those who remained unimpressed, Tew had a simple answer.

"We respect people who decide that it's not a good idea, but we're the ones in charge of the legacy at the moment and we'll make the decisions we need to make."