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The story that could change the face of professional rugby union began with a decked out Sprinter van and a journey from London to Manchester City to watch Kevin De Bruyne play against Southampton in the Premier League in November 2019.
To pass the time during the 200-mile trip, Juan Perez, one of the owners of Roc Nation, the US entertainment agency founded by the rapper Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and Michael Yormark, the president of the company’s UK operation, flicked on one of the big screens that had been fitted inside the back of the vehicle.
Six thousand miles away England were preparing to face South Africa in the World Cup in Yokohama. Neither man had much interest in rugby union, but there was little else on to watch. By the time the Springboks had completed their 32-12 victory over Eddie Jones’s side, it had left an indelible mark.
De Bruyne is one of Roc Nation’s most high-profile European clients in a sporting division that is dominated by some of the biggest stars of US sport. But even before the Sprinter van had reached Etihad Stadium, Yormark had become convinced the company had to get involved in rugby union.
“We watched the match and at the end saw Siya Kolisi lift the Webb Ellis Cup and give one of the most powerful and eloquent victory speeches I had ever heard,” Yormark recalls. “It wasn’t so much about the sport but the meaning that this victory was going to have on his country. A country that had been racially divided for so many years and how when they come together and work together they can accomplish great things, and that is what the Springboks did. I knew then we needed to talk to him.”
Within 24 hours, via their South African operations, Yormark had set up the call and after meeting Kolisi and his wife, Rachel, in person, he was signed up.
“I congratulated him on his victory, said that when things calmed down, we would love to meet him because we wanted to help him tell his story across the world.
“When we later met up with him and his wife Rachel and listened to his goals, purpose and mission and what they wanted to accomplish in life - by the time the meeting was over, I was more convinced than ever that he should be part of our family.”
Since then, Roc Nation has placed itself front and centre in plans to rebrand rugby union and grow the game: it is now partners with the United Rugby Championship, as well the Sharks in South Africa; Yormark has been appointed to advise Saracens following their takeover last month; and his company is in talks with the organisers of the 2023 World Cup in France about marketing opportunities.
But perhaps most significantly, Yormark embarked on a recruitment drive to carefully select players he believes have the character and profile to transcend rugby’s traditional confines. That drive includes Maro Itoje, one of Kolisi’s adversaries in the World Cup final, and Springbok team-mates Cheslin Kolbe, Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi, with more high-profile signings to come.
“Maro wants to transcend rugby,” Yormark adds. “Rugby is the most important thing in Maro’s life but he knows his chapter of being a professional player is only going to last for so long. The modern-day player needs to start laying the table for success later in their career while they are playing.”
We have to understand what the next generation want
Eddie Jones recently warned Marcus Smith about the dangers of off-field distractions, citing the form of Emma Raducanu since her US Open tennis triumph as an example. But Yormark believes that in growing the profiles of standout players and telling their stories, the sport will also benefit.
“Recently I flew to Europe for a football match and some younger members of our party only wanted to talk about England’s match against Tonga and this upcoming star [Smith],” he says. “That tells me that players will get the next generation excited.
“When you talk to young kids today, they are following their favourite players, who are cool, stand out or are trend-setters. We have to understand what the next generation is looking for and give it to them without alienating the traditional supporters.
“We have got to allow those players to tell their stories, to talk about themselves and market themselves because they are also marketing the sport.”
To do that, he insists that the players must have a greater voice in the decision-making process with clubs and the national unions, and the global season revised to ensure competitions do not overlap.
“The game needs to be open to new ideas and suggestions. It is not easy for people to accept change. The most important asset are the players to grow the game,” Yormark adds.
“We have to get everyone at the table with the same agenda and same goals and objectives and determine what is best for the sport and that needs to guide us through this next chapter for rugby.”
With less than two years until the next World Cup, Yormark believes that tournament could be the biggest catalyst for change.
“The World Cup is the opportunity to take this sport to the next level,” he says. “The tournament needs to reach more than just the hardcore rugby fan. It is an opportunity for rugby on a global stage to say ‘something cool is happening in Paris right now’.”