How ex-Tiger bet house on creating Glastonbury of rugby... and won
You can’t but admire the time dexterity of festival organisers in spinning so many plates at once in the giddy countdown to the gates opening for their latest jamboree. It was around 25 years ago when this correspondent had a memorable cold call enthusiastically answered by Michael Eavis in his farmhouse kitchen. The famed Glastonbury visionary couldn’t have been more helpful in generously giving his time for a mid-1990s Teletext feature on the renowned music festival.
Similar praise must now go to Roger Woodall, the founder of the Bournemouth 7s who found wriggle room for RugbyPass in a similarly jammed diary to chat in advance of having 30,000 people descend on his rented 67-acre site this weekend for some raucous revelry – high-quality rugby, top-notch music, lashings of beer, an array of sumptuous food and so much more in the balmy late summer English weather.
If ever rugby in the UK needed a timely reminder that the world is finally reopening after the pandemic it was this. While football galloped ahead in recent months with its return to normality, rugby was left fumbling with its handbrake on. The limited Twickenham capacity at the June Gallagher Premiership final and July England internationals was disappointing evidence that the sport hadn’t quite yet dusted itself down following a year of behind closed doors matches.
Now, though, it finally seems to be full steam ahead, Woodall’s latest rip-roaring 13th Bournemouth 7s Festival the precursor to the fan-starved Premiership clubs throwing open their stadium doors next month to entertain full capacity crowds when the new season gets going. For sure, these cash-strapped clubs can certainly do with the revenue. They could also perhaps do with giving the Woodall success story a listen.
Turning a profit in rugby is extraordinarily difficult but the former Leicester academy scrum-half is repeatedly hitting the jackpot 13 years on from his sobering maiden foray which left him remortgaging his house after his initial £100,000 outlay ran out six months before the inaugural Bournemouth 7s in 2008. That sharp lesson learned, his ambitious sports/music concept now continually washes its face financially but taking his interest in rugby a step further and making a commitment to the pro ranks is something he sadly feels remains best avoided.
? WE'VE SOLD OUT ?
A huge THANK YOU to you all for your continued love & support over the past 18 months ???
Now it's time to repay that support, so prepare yourself for the BEST 3 days of Sport & Music we've ever put on!
WE'RE BACKKKK!!!? pic.twitter.com/evPv7WKOXA
— Bournemouth 7s Festival (@Bournemouth7s) August 5, 2021
“I love the sport but a part of me feels like it needs a proper shake-up and the pandemic could have given it a proper shakeup,” Woodall told RugbyPass while attending to his last-minute to-do list before the festival – headlined by Ella Eyre and also featuring ex-England international James Haskell djaying – cranked into gear. “It doesn’t work as a business model. Someone offered me to come and have a look at buying Gloucester Rugby Club, I had a little look a few years back. But the business model just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work and it needs to go back to basics and find out what business model does work.
“Currently, unless you are actually an older person with a load of money just to get rid of and enjoy it for just a bit of fun, there is no money to be earned out of the game which is a real shame. The agents are earning and the players are earning and I feel for the agents because it is a tough, tough business when you look at agencies for rugby versus football and the sums that the agents are getting for the hard work they are putting in.
“I also understand why the rugby clubs don’t want to pay the agents out of their own money. Things are going to change and it needs to change as it has taken 20-odd years. It is a shame that no one knows when the matches are on, they are on different TV programmes, on different channels at different times. There is no structure but as a game, it is an absolutely wonderful game and the people who play rugby, there are no better people in the world.
“The community we all live in, that rugby community, it is lovely. You can make one phone call and you can open up another door with a player or another person in business who loves rugby. We have been very lucky with our sponsors at Bournemouth because we have had international sponsors come on board purely due to what they are going to get from working with us – it is a win-win situation with us at the festival because the CEO, the owner, also loves rugby.
“Absolutely, I’d be happy to help,” he continued on whether his hotline is open for others to tap into the blueprint behind his winning concept. “There are a number of different revenue streams you have got at Bournemouth 7s festival – from tickets to VIP tickets to glamping to camping to sponsorship to catering and to the bar. There are six revenue streams and I’m sure it is pretty much the same at a rugby club but overheads are too high, players are maybe getting paid too much for the number of people that are coming through the gates, but I’m happy to sit down with anyone in rugby giving my time on how we could improve it for sure on the business side of things.”
It was during his single academy season at Leicester in 1997/98 that Woodall fell into the party organising career that has turned out to be so successful. The Wasps colts half-back had enrolled at Loughborough where he was among a clutch of players invited to Tigers by the famed Bob Dwyer.
“He snapped three or four of us up and while I was there playing matches, playing for the twos and trying to work my way up, I started throwing parties in my final year at university. I was earning £200 as a rugby player plus a car and free stash and all of a sudden I was earning three grand a week throwing student nights at Loughborough University. It stopped rugby instantly and I chose my career in events. Twenty-two years later I own the Bournemouth 7s Festival and have put on 1,500 parties all around the UK.
“Bob’s a lovely fella, a top man,” he remembered. “He knew what he was doing. When rugby turned professional in 96/97, he was the man to come in and he really took it to the next level. Leicester was a massive family. I was playing alongside and against my heroes. You were playing rugby for fun and all of a sudden you were playing and training with Martin Johnson and Neil Back, (Graham) Rowntree and (Richard) Cockerill, Lewis Moody, (Waisale) Serevi and (Joel) Stransky and that is what stood out, that it was one big family and everyone looked after each other.
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“But it was tough. It was a very new academy and it was Leicester Tigers, it was man-up, full contact. There was no sort of give anywhere. It was very regimented and it’s a shame they don’t teach more. I’m not sure what it is like today but people who are looking for that small contract as an academy player and then looking for a bigger contract, they are not learning any of those outside skills.
“One injury can take your career away and it’s important that people in academies now are actually learning skills because even if you make it as an England player, you can’t make a living post-England unless you’re a top England player. People should be looking at learning how to do events. When you’re in an academy like that you are a key person of influence in your town, so why don’t you utilise it and get the other celebrity rugby players to events and sell tickets and learn how to create events? As an events man myself it is the most exciting industry out there and the more players we can get involved in events… Everyone loves going to events, so why not start organising your own events in your spare time while training and playing?”
Bournemouth 7s is now an enviable enterprise, this year’s sold-out 30,000 capacity festival requiring a 14-day site build and 800 staff working daily over the bank holiday weekend to ensure it adequately caters for 3,500 campers and glampers, 180 rugby teams and 400 sports teams competing in the various tournaments.
The kudos that Woodall now enjoys, though, was in short supply when starting out, the lifestyle entrepreneur following through on an idea that originally came to him when out on the local beach one day. He ultimately accommodated 6,000 people, 600 campers, 96 rugby teams and 16 netball sides. No mean feat considering the grave financial risk he embraced.
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“Naivety in business can be really powerful and in 2008 when I said we were going to support a music/rugby festival people were just laughing, thinking you’re mad, what are you doing? Six months prior to our first festival we ran out of money. I thought it was going to cost a hundred grand to put on. I thought I was going to pay everyone post-festival but no one would give me credit and we ran out of money six months before because everyone wanted their money upfront.
“We had to remortgage the house and when you’re having that conversation with your missus when she is not a risk-taker they were difficult conversations but roll on 13 years and I’m glad we took that risk. That festival year one ended up costing us three hundred grand. Back then people wouldn’t pay with their credit card over the internet and there was no social media, so you were waiting at the front gate of your festival looking for people to turn up. So a huge, huge risk but I’m glad we took it. Bournemouth 7s means the world to me. This is my baby.”
The rugby is apparently very watchable, too. Ellis Genge won player of the tournament one year while Lewis Moody, Jamie Roberts, the Armitage brothers and loads of other luminaries have let their hair down over the course of a Bournemouth weekend. “It’s very interesting. In 2008, people were playing 7s with baggy shirts on, just putting a squad of old mates together or a bit of a tour, whatever. Now, we have got 1,500 matches over two days, nine different cups and people are training for this. It’s taken really seriously.
“Everyone is wearing the tight kits and bringing in players, bringing in ringers, but that is all over. Even the social cups are taken seriously, with a bit of light-heartedness as well. Everyone wants to win, it seems, and that main pitch is the spectacle. The standard of rugby on that main pitch is phenomenal. Those players could compete on the European and world stage quite easily. It’s a real delight to witness the rugby with the VIP tent and the VVIP tents at either end of the pitch and everyone watching, having a beer in hand.
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“The way 7s has taken off because it is quick and fun is outstanding. Rugby 15s is complicated, there are too many laws, but with 7s, you have players who have all got good hands and it’s rapid. A short, sharp version that is a lot more exciting than 15s. More emphasis should be put on 7s in schools and there is a lot of room for the 10s as well, it brings a whole new dimension.
“7s is a wonderful sport, a wonderful spectacle, and for it to have that tour going around the world to all these wonderful cities, what an absolute delight. It would be lovely to grab that business model. I know World Rugby own it but it would be lovely if there was a big prize fund at the end where you could really help these smaller nations who produce the most unbelievable players like your Fijians and even your Kenyan players. Have some proper prize money where it is really worthwhile. Again that takes a bit of restructuring and finding the right sponsor to come on board with the right package and the right prize money to make it worthwhile for everyone.”
The final word goes to Woodall’s take on how lovable rogue Haskell has reinvented himself post-rugby. “He’s headlining in the VIP tent on Saturday and Sunday. He’s a great character to have, everyone loves him. A good DJ as well. I booked him a couple of years ago thinking he is a rugby player turned DJ but he is a very good DJ, knows his music and he got the place absolutely bouncing.” Music and rugby – it’s a heavenly match annually made in Bournemouth all thanks to Woodall and his inspired 13-year-old idea.
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