Interview with Sarah Saunders Commercial & Marketing Manager at Blackheath Rugby

Sarah explains what her role at Blackheath Rugby involves and the challenges she faces.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in rugby?

I’ve spent the last 15 years or so working in golf at two high end clubs in Kent. Before that I worked for a company providing premium solutions for marketing campaigns which took me all over the world working for various blue chips including PepsiCo and the Disney Corporation. A chance conversation with one of my members at my last golf club, Littlestone, started the ball rolling and a year or so after that initial conversation I found myself enthralled by the prospect of working with Club and made the change. It’s been a big learning curve of course but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Blackheath is based South-East London which is probably one of the most populated areas in the country for rugby clubs. How does this affect the club when reaching out for new sponsors/partners?

It’s a double edged sword. Of course I came to Club bang in the middle of the pandemic so I’ve not experienced a ‘normal year’ thus far but I’ve found every bit of available sponsorship is being spread more thinly and it’s far more about exposure and how we can partner with our sponsors to benefit their business. Being in SE London as you said, competition is fierce but we have we have a fantastic pedigree being the oldest open rugby club in the world and now we have far better systems in place to maximise the opportunities for sponsors.

The facilities at Blackheath offer a wide range of commercial opportunities. Tell us how you take advantage of this.

We do! Our geographical situation is unique being literally on the corner of the A2 and South Circular and with a massive car park (a rarity in itself in this location) and 5 minutes from Eltham Station. Our pitches are complimented by an all-weather pitch with flood lights too and of course are first team pitch is second to none!

We have pretty much full utilisation for our outside space and we are now focusing on our inside spaces. We already have three weddings booked for 2022 and numerous private parties as the clubhouse has capacity for 100 plus and is great space, however it stands empty during much of the week day, day time so would love to get some local community groups using it and I will be concentrating on that early in 2022.

Sports sponsorship is constantly evolving. What new sponsorship opportunities have you been offering at the club?

When I first came to Club, we were in the middle of creating a new website and that was completed early this year together with an online retail facility too. I also bought in a new system called Intelligent Sport which is developed by Intelligent Golf. This is an holistic product linking EPOS, Membership and communications and provides excellent reporting to enabling far more accurate data for budgeting. We have grown our social media presence so we now have this plus our communications and website linking together and giving our sponsors a high visual presence to our membership and supporters.

The days of a pitch side sign being the only advertising for sponsors is long gone although it still forms part of the packages I offer. I spoke before about partnerships so if a sponsor takes a page on my website for example, they can update their call to action or offers as often as they wish and this is repeated in my communications which are often twice weekly. Alongside this are kit and player sponsorship and we have invested in an enormous stand cover for the off season which can be seen clearly from the A2 (and space!) I am also more

than happy to create bespoke packages for customers that want something specific so flexibility is key.

How important is developing relationships within the local when help to grow the commercial department at the club?

Vital of course. We want to do even more but this year we decided to offer all young adults aged between 18 and 22 free membership of the club. This was a direct result of the pandemic when statistics suggested those just starting out in university or their first jobs were isolated from their peers and suffering with their mental health. We wanted to encourage those young people to come along to training, socialise with team mates and benefit from both without any financial restraints. We also work with Greenwich in supporting their programme offering lunch combined with sport for school aged children during the school holidays and we provide coaches for that. The benefits commercially are simply to increase our presence in the community. Many people that have booked with us for funerals or parties etc are unaware that we have facilities to hire and only found out about us because of referrals.

The past 18 months has been challenging for all rugby clubs. How has it affected Blackheath Rugby Club, and the commercial department?

Of course it’s been catastrophic for us all. We rely heavily on match day sales from the gate, F&B and merchandise. This was gone in an instant and even since rugby came back gate sales have not completely recovered as people still act with some caution. In terms of sponsorship, many of the conversations I’ve had have been focused on Brexit and the pandemic and many companies are acting, understandable with trepidation and of course the first budgets to be cut in an economic crises seems to be the marketing one.

One conversation I had stays with me and that was of an organisation who started by telling me that 2020 was their best financial year on record but they wouldn’t consider sponsorship because they didn’t need any more business! That was a unique prospective but primarily companies are nervous of committing because of the current uncertainty. However we have new sponsors and retained many of those from the previous season. We have the tools in place to support our partners and so far feedback has been good and commitment given for next season.

And finally, what does the future hold for Blackheath Rugby Club and the commercial team?

Our membership is growing and utilisation of the club house increasing and this trend looks to continue. We have spent the last 18 months upgrading the facilities and developing initiatives to drive the business forward plus we have the most dedicated and loyal membership and supporters working together to ensure success. Of course the realities of the current situation still hang over us all but we will continue to focus on the future and adapt to face any further challenges.

This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here