Bristol Bears: A step too far?

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Just days after confirming promotion back to English Rugby’s top flight, Bristol Sport announced the rebranding of Bristol Rugby to the Bristol Bears ahead of the 2018-19 season. The event has caused much debate amongst fans and pundits alike. So what can be made of the situation?

Bristol Rugby has much to thank Steve Lansdown for. The local businessman, worth $2.3bn, saved the club from financial oblivion and moved it to the renovated Ashton Gate; a stadium far superior to the failing Memorial Ground. However, this does not mean anything he says goes – the name change to Bristol Bears is unnecessary and a step too far.

Ian Madigan has 30 caps for Ireland

The club stated that the main reason for the change is to get more people interested in rugby and to help fill up the 27,000 seats of Ashton Gate. This is a very reasonable aspiration as last time Bristol were in the top flight, there was an average attendance of just 13,988 1, barely half the stadium. Nonetheless, rebranding is not the way to achieve this. The club had already taken the correct steps to increase crowd sizes prior to the rebranding by appointing Pat Lam, an inspiring coach with a clear vision of regular European Champions Cup rugby for the city. In addition, he secured the signings of several high-profile players, namely Ireland fly half Ian Madigan and New Zealand international pair Steven Luatua and Charles Piutau, with the latter being one of the world’s most exciting players and undoubtedly the best fullback in the northern hemisphere. These eye-catching signings, along with competitive performances under a superb coach, will certainly be enough to help improve crowd sizes without the need for rebranding. While it is true the club has been previously mismanaged at times, nearly folding twice since the start of the professional era, effective changes had already been implemented before the rebranding, with Lansdown’s public takeover in 2012 and appointments of the enigmatic Pat Lam and the club’s record point scorer Mark Tainton as Head Coach and Chief Operating Officer, respectively.

Bristol Sport believe that the change to Bristol Bears will also help the club become a successful worldwide brand. Again, this is well intended but wide of the mark. Despite 11 out of 12 top flight clubs making losses for the 2015-16 season, rebranding will not help bring financial rewards. Large clubs that have rebranded, such as Leicester Tigers or Wasps, have struggled financially just as much those who haven’t, such as Bath Rugby or Gloucester Rugby 2. Similarly, from 2018-19 onwards the premiership will be sponsored by American insurance brokers Gallagher. This will bring much needed investments into clubs through simply increasing the money that the clubs receive from the league, plus potenial exposure to American fans. While it has been argued that the rebranding will make the club more recognisable worldwide I don’t think that it is the best way to do this as playing exciting rugby with world-class players is the only way to make the Bristol Rugby brand more recognisable to a foreign fan base. Whichever clubs are successful in Gallagher’s first few seasons as sponsors will gain the most financial rewards.

Bristol Bears is also alienating Bristolian fans, Bears having no connection to the city at all. This highlights how the change was made in order to attract a potenial American fanbase, maybe even to the people of Chicago, home of NFL team Chicago Bears, where Gallagher are based, rather than Bristolian fans. That is frankly no less than a disgrace. Furthermore, the Bristol Bears concept disregards the heritage and history of Bristol Rugby Club. The new kits, despite the lack of Bristol Rugby’s iconic blue and white hoops, look modern and are an improvement on this current season’s kits. However, the main problem is with the badge where a tacky looking bear has replaced the rugby club’s historic crest containing Bristol’s coat of arms. This certainly creates an identity problem. The current badge is synonymous with the city of Bristol and if locals find it harder to associate with the team, this is a fundamental issue. It is also alarming how Bristolians Steve Lansdown and Mark Tainton, as well as chairman Chris Booy, who received an honourary degree from UWE for his services to the city of Bristol, could create an idea that is so disconnected to the city and which certainly sets a dangerous precedent of money over loyalty. Moreover, the talk of bears ‘coming out of hibernation’ as a selling point simply sounds like smooth sales talk. Fans hardly want to be reminded of Bristol’s countless failed promotion attempts and abysmal attempt at top flight rugby.

  1. Statbunker, Aviva Premiership 16/17 Home Attendance 
  2. Ruck, Aviva Premiership finances: the full club-by-club breakdown