27 March 2021
By Robert Treharne Jones
Robert Treharne Jones has been taking a press man’s look at Boat Race sponsors through the ages.
The recent announcement that Gemini, a company specialising in bitcoin and cryptocurrency, was the new lead sponsor of the Boat Races, has left me feeling even more bewildered than usual.
I’ve now been writing, commentating, and photographing the Boat Race for more than 35 years – this year will be the first that I have not been present at the races since 1985 – and as the years have slipped away, so has my understanding of what the sponsors actually do.
It was not always like this – the first Boat Race sponsors were Ladbrokes, the High Street betting chain, who came into the fold in 1977. It was the year after I had first placed a bet, so obviously my five quid outlay had tipped the commercial argument in their favour. It was a time when almost everyone placed a bet on the Grand National, followed by the Boat Race, and didn’t let the odds bother them particularly. It was only a while later that I realised that with just two crews taking part, one (usually last year’s winner) was always going to be the odds-on favourite, and even placing money on the other crew was never going to swell the retirement fund.
Ladbrokes’ support may have gone a long way to help the crews, but their largesse didn’t extend to the press, who had to pay for their own launch to follow the training outings (and the race!) via the snappily-titled Newspaper Press Boat Fund. The brainchild of Richard Burnell, the doyen of press heavies throughout that era, he was joined by other such luminaries as Geoffrey Page, Jim Railton, Chris Dodd, and eventually me. There was no published programme of outings, nor any press officer, and so this happy band would huddle round the small gas fire in Thames Rowing Club, being tended by a man of senior but uncertain years – Ham, the house steward – until a glance out of the window would confirm that one or other crew was getting boated and we would summon our own launch in hot pursuit.
The advent of Beefeater Gin as the lead sponsor meant that things moved on in a very positive way, no doubt assisted by the fact that gin appeared to be the favourite tipple of many press members, who consequently knew what gin was all about.
The sponsorship coincided with Burroughs, founders of Beefeater, selling their company to Whitbread, and key to the Boat Race deal from a rowing perspective was family member Alan Burrough, three-times a Cambridge Blue and owner of a palatial residence on the Henley finish line. It took a few years but suddenly the press had a paid-for launch, and a frig which was stocked with copious quantities of pre-mixed doubles. The press office at Midland Bank RC (now the Dulwich College boathouse) was now the place to be for all the Tideway boatmen to finish off their day. Men like Jim Cobb and Albert Andrews would happily share their inside knowledge of the crews, while Chas Newens took charge as his usual sociable self.
The Beefeater years also marked the beginning of branded kit for the press as well as the crews, so all the correspondents were given all-enveloping padded jackets with the sponsors name writ large in bright scarlet, which could be spotted on a dark night from the other end of the 4 ¼ mile course.
But all good things must come to an end, and so the sponsorship baton passed to Aberdeen Asset Management, a company with a track record of sport sponsorship, including rowing. They were keen to open doors in the City, and the market exposure generated by the Boat Race sponsorship helped sales of their first-ever retail product. Their clients included my mother, who now had another important reason to watch the race, besides listening to her son commentate for BBC Radio 5.
The camaraderie in the press office was just as strong, assisted by whisky which, with its roots in Scotland, had usurped the place of gin in the frig, while the journos valued their new kit, in a more subtle dark blue, which meant that it could be worn on other occasions without necessarily drawing ribald laughter.
The year 2004 marked the 150th Boat Race and the end of the Aberdeen sponsorship. Into the fold stepped Xchanging, which described itself as ‘a provider of back-office solutions’, and which was keen for the market exposure in advance of the company going public. At least, that is what I understood, whatever a back-office solution might be, as I tried to explain to fellow journos on The Embankment. My new Xchanging waterproof jacket did not actually have the word Expert’ embroidered on the front lapel, but plainly that was the assumption of many passers-by, who seemed to regard the sponsors stash as a mark of accreditation and knowledge.
Next on the scene was BNY Mellon, the corporate investment bank, which included Newton Investment Management within its group. Newton, whose CEO was Helena Morrissey, took on responsibility for the Women’s Boat Race, with the clear ambition of moving it to the Tideway, which they achieved in 2015, but outside that remit the goals appeared less clear.
The synergy between corporate business and elite sport has long been recognised, hence the recruitment of many Blues, from both camps, into City jobs after graduation. But long gone were the days of sponsors looking to recruit the best from Oxbridge over other universities, as I knew from my own years as event manager for the Henley Boat Races, where JP Morgan stepped down after many years’ support. So, the title sponsorship petered out, to be handed to Cancer Research UK, leading to yet more unanswered questions on The Embankment.
And now we have a sponsor which specialises in something I still don’t understand – a currency invented by an unknown person, in an unregulated market, of which the governor of the Bank of England has said that people must be prepared to lose all their money.
I can’t see my mother investing in that.