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FEATURE 'Star power of individual players can grow overall size of rugby's pie'

'Star power of individual players can grow overall size of rugby's pie'
3 months ago

The main event last weekend for Marcus Smith was on the pitch obviously. He had a Champions Cup tie against Glasgow to win with Harlequins and thanks to a blinding display from the boy-band buzz-saw, they made it into the quarter-final.

But while watching Smith made for compelling viewing, big picture-wise it was also instructive to see broadcasters TNT Sports garnishing their coverage with a cooking segment featuring him as a chef.

He was on the boil in both.

While he knocked up a traditional Philippines chicken dish for Ugo Monye, the easy conversation the pair indulged in opened up a window on an engaging personality.

Marcus Smith
Smith’s full array of skills were evident during Harlequins’ thrilling Champions Cup win (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

He told of how his Filipina mum rather than his rugby-mad English dad is his main motivator.

He revealed how he actually wanted to be a footballer but that ‘failing’ in his teenage years – his word – after being overlooked by Tottenham in a trial steeled him to work harder at rugby.

And he unpacked how criticism that he could not tackle and would never play for England had driven him to make it as an international.

Thirty-one caps and counting, he has emphatically won that argument.

The ‘band of brothers’ mentality which underpins the ultimate team sport has acted as a handbrake on the elevation of individual players.

Monye, who rated Smith’s creation, was not Jeremy Paxman but he wasn’t meant to be and for an audience who might not have known much about the stand-off beyond the floppy hair and fast feet, it was a worthwhile five minutes.

Perhaps some of those who saw it feel they know the Harlequins stand-off a little better now and will be minded to tune in to see how he gets on against Bordeaux on Saturday.

You wonder why rugby does not allow this sort of thing more often.

Rugby union attracts characters – it is in the nature of the game – but it has traditionally been hesitant in showing them off.

The ‘band of brothers’ mentality which underpins the ultimate team sport has acted as a handbrake on the elevation of individual players.

Marcus Smith
Smith’s trademark hitch-kick has been a feature for club and country during his rise to stardom (Photo Franco Arland/Getty Images)

This outlook is laudable but out of date. Unfortunately for rugby it is individualism which drives modern-day sport in the social media age.

Gen Z still supports teams but supports the star player just as intently. Lionel Messi has 500 million Instagram followers; the team he plays for – Inter Miami – has 17 million.

If rugby wants to keep pace, to avoid being an also-ran, it has to play the game too.

Michael Yormark is the American president of Roc Nation Sports International, the transatlantic agency founded by American rapper Jay-Z who represent Siya Kolisi, Maro Itoje – and Smith.

He has a world view shaped through a client list which also includes the footballers Kevin De Bruyne and Vinicius Jnr.

It is no longer just about the on-field highlights reel. Rugby needs its stars to offer insight into themselves as people too.

“Star power is so important in sport,” he said. “In America this past week the audience for the women’s championship game in college basketball outdrew the men’s for the first time in history. Why? Because on the women’s side you’ve got some of the biggest stars and personalities and whether you are a male or female you want to embrace them and follow their journey.

“You can apply that same theory to rugby. Most rugby executives are traditionalists. Brand-building around a player is not something they are familiar with or perhaps even feel comfortable with but if rugby is going to continue to gain popularity, it has to be done through the great personalities who are involved in the game. That storytelling is critically, critically important to reach a new audience.

“You have to develop those stars to help promote the game – not only amongst hard-core fans but more importantly the casual sports fan.”

It is no longer just about the on-field highlights reel. Rugby needs its stars to offer insight into themselves as people too.

Ellis Genge/Marcus Smith
Smith attended the premiere of ‘Six Nations: Full Contact’ with another Roc Nation rugby client, Ellis Genge (Photo Shane Anthony Sinclair/Getty Images)

For Smith, who remains a refreshingly open book, this comes naturally. He is sufficiently happy in his own skin though to take a risk and put himself out there.

As he admitted in the film, he isn’t really a cook but he was happy to roll with it.

“It was something Marcus really wanted to do,” said Yormark. “To be able to connect cooking with his heritage was absolutely superb on his part. He’s embracing the moment. He enjoys it. He’s having fun with it.

“He recognises all of this doesn’t happen without his success on the field but he is a special young man and a very inspiring guy. You’re going to be seeing other things that he is going to be doing in the future that connect with his heritage, connect with youth and give back to the community while also telling his story.”

Smith is a hard worker who is committed to his profession but he is not naive to the endorsement opportunities that being a recognisable sportsman can bring.

Maybe it is his outsider’s upbringing, coming into English rugby as a teenager having spent his formative years in the Philippines and Singapore, which helps Smith come at this from a different angle and to lead a rebellion against rugby’s pack mentality.

Maybe it is simply his age. He knows that for his peers this is the way the tide is flowing and if rugby wants to remain relevant, then it needs to move with the times.

Rugby needs more players – and just as importantly more clubs like Harlequins – who are open to selling the sport in a different way.

Smith is savvy enough to know what is good for the game can also be good for him.

He is a hard worker who is committed to his profession but he is not naive to the endorsement opportunities that being a recognisable sportsman can bring.

His range of endorsements include being the face of Charles Tyrwhitt’s England Rugby clothing collection.

Marcus Smith
Smith scored one try, created two more and kicked four conversions as Quins progressed in Europe (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Individual promotional contracts are tough on less glamorous team-mates but if marketable players help to grow the overall size of the pie in rugby, everybody is a winner.

There are signs that rugby’s closed mindset is beginning to open up.

Full Contact, the Netflix docuseries on the Six Nations, was a decent first offering – even if it did not afford the access that some other sports have done. There are promises that the second season will dig a little deeper.

Podcasts featuring current players like Danny Care, Joe Marler, Ben Youngs and Dan Cole provide an illuminating window into the sport and its characters.

The landscape is changing. Just not fast enough.

“Change takes time but I do see light at the end of the tunnel and I’m encouraged by the small progress we’ve seen,” added Yormark. “I’m just hoping for a lot more in the future.”

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