In the week that the British and Irish Lions arrived in New Zealand, brand All Blacks has given an impressive display of its new-found financial muscularity.

As the Lions touched down in Auckland, news was released that adidas has extended its sponsorship of the All Blacks to 2023 in a deal estimated to be worth about $10 million a year.

It came a day after the All Blacks secured a sponsorship with luxury Swiss watch-maker Tudor and a week after it revealed a new relationship with Vodafone.

With AIG having extended its sponsorship to 2024 in a deal thought to be worth about $15m a year and the game in New Zealand also benefiting from a broadcast contract that doubled in value in 2016 to about $75m a year, the All Blacks have in the last six months become big, big business.


From turning over $104m in 2011, revenue jumped to $161m in 2016 and, given the raft of new and extended sponsorships, the New Zealand Rugby Union could earn close to $200m in 2017.

The intangible has become the tangible for New Zealand's national rugby side. For the first decade of the professional age they were rugby's most recognised brand, yet their actual value came nowhere near reflecting that.

They were a paradoxical case where a brand had so much profile, trust and respect yet no ability to convert that into investment.

Those early years were troublesome for the New Zealand Rugby Union as who really cares about brand recognition if it can't be commercialised? Who really cares if the All Blacks raise a nod of recognition in Mongolia and Uzbekistan if it doesn't lead to one extra dollar being pumped into the team?

This whole conundrum of showing up alongside the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Ferrari as one of sport's most iconic brands but in a different, lower league altogether in terms of revenue, was a problem they feared they may never solve.

And it was a problem, because with only moderate income, it was a losing battle to retain the country's best players.

But the picture is different now and while New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew doesn't think they have cracked the winning formula, he does believe the decision to pursue a split strategy of seeing the All Blacks as one entity in their backyard and something entirely different offshore has paid dividends.

All Blacks have signed a deal to become brand ambassadors for Swiss watch maker Tudor. Photo / Supplied
All Blacks have signed a deal to become brand ambassadors for Swiss watch maker Tudor. Photo / Supplied

There are a variety of reasons driving that strategy, none more compelling than the simple truth that there isn't enough corporate horsepower in New Zealand to adequately fund the All Blacks. Added to that is the different growth cycles the game is experiencing in different territories. Rugby is an embedded and mature sport in New Zealand and may have hit saturation point in terms of its appeal.

Possibly the picture is even more bleak than that, as the Herald's series, The Book of Rugby, exposed how steeply some rural communities have declined in recent years and how the collapse of local economies has challenged rugby's position as heartland champion, entwined in the social fabric of the nation.

Meanwhile rugby is a booming and emerging sport in countries such as Japan and the US, which have massive economies and growing corporate interest in the game.

"We do have two quite separate strategies," says Tew. "We need to have commercial relationships with international companies for two reasons. One they bring that economy of scale in terms of the cash deal.

"The re-signing of adidas will mean this is by far the largest rugby sports sponsorship in history.

"The total is huge when it is measure across the 19 years the deal has been running.

"The second thing is that they help us take the All Blacks and the New Zealand story into markets that we don't get to any other way.

"Adidas and AIG and now Tudor will be really important in that regard.

Weetbix's All black limited edition. Photo / John Borren
Weetbix's All black limited edition. Photo / John Borren

"It is still critical for us to have a relationship with Sanitarium for example. So that every morning - probably about 80 per cent of households there is a Weetbix box on the table - mum and dad will pull out the cards and there will be Kieran Read, touchable and accessible."

The diversity of the two markets is only going to grow as New Zealand's increasingly urbanised population and changing immigration patterns are predicted to further dilute rugby's ability to command the domestic sponsorship dollar and discretionary leisure spend. Tew knows the clock can't be turned back and that rugby's gravitational pull within New Zealand is not the force it once was, and most likely never will be again.

"Let's just pause on some of that analysis in the Book of Rugby," he says. "I thought the piece about Northland and the East and West Coast was very telling because that wasn't a rugby story.

"It was an economic and social story of this country. The reality is that the economy of New Zealand has changed significantly. Dairy has had a major impact. Viticulture has had a major impact and the way people farm the land in terms of the hours they have to work has changed.

"So all of that is important and it all adds up to the fact that we have got rugby clubs in rural places that are struggling to survive because the community is struggling to survive.

"And often, and this gets overlooked - and I am not trying to brighten the picture - rugby is the one thing that people still have. It is still there and still an important part of that group."

Jockey ambassadors Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara and DJ Forbes. Photo / Supplied
Jockey ambassadors Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara and DJ Forbes. Photo / Supplied

But New Zealand can't fund the All Blacks. New Zealand can't ensure there is enough cash in the NZRU's coffers to offer up the likes of Read, Sam Whitelock, Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith, the near $1m packages it takes to keep them away from the clutches of European super clubs.

To remain the dominant force they are, the All Blacks are going to have to be funded by global, corporate giants.

At the moment the list of foreign sponsors is AIG, Adidas and Tudor. More offshore sponsors are being sought and more will most likely be found because the All Blacks are not only rugby's hottest ticket, they are becoming recognised as one of sports hotter properties.

They are, having played tests in the US in 2014 and 2016 and also Japan in 2009 and 2013, becoming genuinely popular in those two nations.

Some kind of evidence of that emerged last week when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen revealed he and others in his management team had spent five days with the US Marines. That invitation to the inner sanctum of the world's most renowned military operation said everything about the respect in which the All Blacks are held and the power of their brand.

"We are fortunate that we have a really strong brand which is able to possibly open doors for us that maybe aren't open for other people," reckoned Hansen.

Another test has been scheduled in Japan next year and taking the All Blacks to new territories in the hope they can ignite commercial imaginations will continue for the foreseeable.

Every morning - probably about 80 per cent of households there is a Weetbix box on the table - mum and dad will pull out the cards and there will be Kieran Read, touchable and accessible.

The NZRU are convinced, as are AIG and Adidas, that there is no better way to sell the magic of the brand than by actually exporting it and letting others sample it first hand.

In time, the All Blacks are probably going to end up playing in places such as China, United Arab Emirates and America's Eastern seaboard. That's where the money is - where they can win new followers and sell their story of relentless excellence.

But there is one highly specific issue the All Blacks face with their offshore sponsorship strategy. They are essentially selling New Zealand to non New Zealanders.

The All Blacks can be admired and respected by non-New Zealanders, but can they be loved in the same way?

It's the question never far from the forefront of Tew's mind as potential sponsors need to feel they are making a financial investment in a brand which has the capacity to draw in others an emotional investment.

"When we get compared with Manchester Utd and Real Madrid it is a little bit of an odd comparison because they are sports clubs," says Tew.

"They are not a national team and they are not owned by four and a half million New Zealanders and another one and a half living overseas.

"We want that group to grow, which is why Team All Blacks is important to us because we want a fan base that represents some of those big club teams, but it is not so easy.

"But we can be everyone's second favourite team and be a brand that is respected."