Rebranding The Boat Race

Pic 1. When Hugh Laurie (and seven others) rowed for Cambridge in 1980, it was the fourth time that the race had been sponsored. This picture must have taken during training as, until 2012, the sponsor’s name or logo (in this case Ladbrokes) was not displayed on kit or equipment during the race itself.
When Hugh Laurie (and seven others) rowed for Cambridge in 1980, it was the fourth time that the race had been sponsored. This picture must have taken during training as, until 2012, the sponsor’s name or logo (in this case Ladbrokes) was not displayed on kit or equipment during the race itself.

Tim Koch writes:

When sponsorship for the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race was first obtained in 1976, no doubt there was much spinning in graves by departed Old Blues and perhaps a lot of turning on bar stools by some of the crustier living ones, all fearing for the race’s amateur and ‘Corinthian’ spirit

The betting and leisure activities group Ladbrokes had signed a five-year deal to support the event between 1976 and 1981 by giving £12,000 a year each to the two boat clubs (naturally there was no thought at that time of supporting the then obscure Women’s Boat Race). How generous was this? Well, £12,000 was twice the average UK annual wage and for about £1,500 more you could buy a normal priced house in Britain. It was certainly enough to save the Boat Race from its enormous financial difficulties and it heralded in the age of the modern race where the standard of rowing is routinely higher than most past Blues could have ever envisaged and where women have access to the same resources as the men. It would be easy to be romantic about an age that increasingly fewer people remember, the days when the race was not so ‘professional’, when it had few sources of income, and when its organisation was almost entirely the provenance of that exclusive group, the ‘Old Blues’. Had this situation continued it is highly unlikely that ‘The Boat Race’ would be as relevant as it is today, both inside the sport of rowing and also with the general public. It had to keep its appeal as an amateur race between students while still providing a first-rate sporting event. As I have often observed about Henley Royal Regatta, for a long established event to appear ‘unchanging’, it must constantly (if subtly) evolve.

Pic 2. Pictured just before the 2015 Veterans’ Boat Race, Steve Fowler (left) and Matt Parish (right) contemplate a trophy from sometime between 1987 and 1998 when the Boat Race was sponsored by Beefeater Gin.
Pictured just before the 2015 Veterans’ Boat Race, Steve Fowler (left) and Matt Parish (right) contemplate a trophy from sometime between 1987 and 1998 when the Boat Race was sponsored by Beefeater Gin.

When support by Ladbrokes ended, Beefeater Gin took over sponsorship. This may have had something to do with the fact that the chairman of the family firm was Alan Burrough. A triple rowing Blue at Cambridge in the late 1930s, Burrough returned to competitive rowing after the 1939 – 1945 War despite having been wounded three times and losing his right leg below the knee when his tank was blown up near Tripoli in 1943. He was not expected to live, but three years later he was Captain of Thames and rowing in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup at Henley. From 1947 to 1949 he competed in a pair, rowing twice more at Henley and also in the European championships. In later years, Burrough became the chief organiser of the Boat Race. His home at Henley looked on to the finishing line of the regatta course and he also bought Temple Island, at the start of the course, and gave it to the regatta.

The international investment management group Aberdeen Asset Management provided £1.4m of sponsorship between 1999 and 2001. I think that the man behind this was the little known multi-millionaire philanthropist and rower, Dr Walter Scott. He is a man who guards his privacy so well that it is difficult to find much information on him.

Pic 3. Xchanging kit modelled in 2011.
Xchanging kit modelled in 2011.

The races between 2002 and 2012 were financed by the ‘business process outsourcing company’ (whatever that is), Xchanging. In 2009, they got agreement for the event to be called ‘The Xchanging Boat Race’ and, in return for extra funding, the clubs carried the sponsor’s logo on their kit during the race itself. This was something that had not happened before and was a visually obvious break with tradition.

Pic 4. The luckless Luke Juckett who crabbed and broke his rigger in the 2014 race, displays sponsors name BNY Mellon five times in this picture.
The luckless Luke Juckett who crabbed and broke his rigger in the 2014 race, displays sponsors name BNY Mellon five times in this picture.

This arrangement continued when the current ‘title sponsor’, global financial services company Bank of New York (BNY) Mellon, took over in 2013. One of the bank’s wholly-owned UK subsidiaries, Newton Investment Management, had sponsored the Women’s Boat Race since 2011. As has often been the case with such deals, there is one remarkable individual that is the driving force behind the massive support that Newton has given to the women. In this case it is Newton’s CEO, Helena Morrissey, one of the founders of the 30 Per Cent Club, which is committed to bringing more women on to UK corporate boards. Among other things, she is responsible both for £50b. of assets and also for her nine children (though possibly it is sexism on my part to mention the latter). From the start her logic was simple: if the men were to be sponsored, the women would be as well – and would receive equal funding. From this, it was only natural that all the Blue Boats should all race on the same day on the same course, something that eventually happened in 2015. In 2016, the women’s reserve crews will also finally receive parity and four races will take place on the Tideway in the space of 80 minutes.

Pic 5. The press were invited to an 8.30 a.m. meeting at the Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank on Tuesday, 19 January for an announcement about the Oxford - Cambridge Boat Races. It was worth the early start to see this view outside the venue.
The press were invited to an 8.30 a.m. meeting at the Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank on Tuesday, 19 January for an announcement about the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races. It was worth the early start to see this view outside the venue.

It seemed unlikely that the sponsors could produce any more major initiatives – or so I thought. A recent e-mail stated that: ‘The Boat Race Company Ltd, BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management invite you to attend the announcement of a world first initiative for The 2016 Boat Races’. Opening the meeting, David Searle, Executive Director of The Boat Race Company Ltd noted that ‘You can tell it’s a special occasion, I am wearing a tie’. What followed was summarised by the this press release:

…..BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management, sponsors of The Boat Races, today announce they are donating their title sponsorship of the annual challenge between Oxford and Cambridge Universities to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the official charity partner. The event will now be known as The Cancer Research UK Boat Races with a new identity that will incorporate the famous Dark Blue of Oxford and Light Blue of Cambridge with the charity’s distinctive magenta and blue. The campaign will see Cancer Research UK receive substantial exposure throughout the Races, which will take place on the Championship Course on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake on 27th March.

Pic 6. The new logo with OUBC and OUWBC Presidents Morgan Gerlak and Maddy Badcott on the left and CUBC President Henry Hoffstot and CUWBC member Alexandra Wood on the right.
The new logo with OUBC and OUWBC Presidents Morgan Gerlak and Maddy Badcott on the left and CUBC President Henry Hoffstot and CUWBC member Alexandra Wood on the right.

In describing the rebrand, David Searle said, ‘In BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management we knew we had sponsors who would do something out of the ordinary. After making history with the introduction of The Women’s Boat Race to the Tideway in 2015, this amazing gesture is breaking new ground in sponsorship’.

Helena Morrissey said that Newton and BNY Mellon were ‘not fussed’ about the coverage of their names this year. ‘We are delighted to be trailblazing a whole new model for corporate sponsorship. The role of business in society is clear: in addition to performing well for customers and shareholders, we can and must use our resources to help solve difficult problems. We hope this news encourages other companies around the world to follow suit…’

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