What the Crusaders really thought of their name

Concerns about the rugby team’s name emerged when it was conceived, Crusaders’ management tells sponsors. David Williams reports.

In early April, less than three weeks after the Christchurch terrorist attack, the Crusaders rugby team announced a brand review.

Pressure for a re-think started building immediately after the attack, especially because the alleged shooter’s manifesto referred to the Crusades. The Crusaders – whose name is reinforced by its knight-and-sword logo, and chainmailed horsemen at home games – decided to face an uncomfortable truth: that they probably got it wrong.

Not that they were saying so publicly.

Sure, the horses were gone from their next home game. Fake castle imagery was scrubbed from the stadium. But the public messages were more nuanced.

Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge said in a statement on April 3: “One of the contentious issues that has been brought up in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks is the name of our rugby team – the Crusaders.”

A similar narrative of a post-attack review came from NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew. (NZRU owns the Crusaders brand, which is licensed to Crusaders Limited Partnership.)

Tew said in the statement: “In the wake of the Christchurch attacks, it is apparent that the symbolism the club has used, combined with the ‘Crusaders’ name, is offensive to some in the community…”

Privately, however, in a letter to sponsors – “commercial partners” – the team’s management admitted it knew its name was problematic from the beginning, and hanging onto it was “an example of naivety”.

The Crusaders' horsemen controversially returned for the Super rugby final in Christchurch. Photo: Getty Images

Newsroom asked, under the Official Information Act, for the University of Canterbury’s post-attack correspondence about its sponsorship of the Crusaders. The partnership with the rugby team had been important for the university, which increased its marketing budget in the wake of the deadly 2011 earthquake to boost flagging student numbers.

The information reveals that, on March 19, the University of Canterbury hid two webpages “until a decision was made regarding Crusaders branding”. Crusaders “content” was put on hold after the incident, such as jerseys used as prizes for social media competitions.

The university also asked the Crusaders to provide a logo without knights and swords for its posters. In June, ahead of an announcement by the rugby franchise, the university mocked up a press statement saying it was suspending its sponsorship, just in case the Crusaders decided to definitively keep its name.

But the most revealing information comes from a letter sent by Crusaders’ management to its sponsors, including the university, on April 2 – a day before the release of its joint statement with NZ Rugby.

The letter – signed by Mansbridge, head of marketing and communications Doug McSweeney and head of commercial Amelia Kininmonth – invites sponsors to be part of discussions about “offensive connotations” of the Crusaders’ name and brand. (It notes the discussions aren’t a democracy and the final decision will be made by NZ Rugby and the Crusaders board.)

It calls on two Oxford Dictionary definitions, that a Crusader is a “fighter in the medieval Crusades”, or a “person who campaigns vigorously for political, social, or religious change; a campaigner.”

The Crusaders’ organisational values might align with the second definition, but its marketing – including the pageantry of knights and horsemen, with swords and banners – “creates an association with the first”. Research firm Research First was commissioned to survey interested parties, including sponsors, fans, shareholders, players, staff, community groups, and Government agencies. Two options were on the table: keeping the name but changing the branding and imagery; or undertaking a complete rebranding.

“It was apparent that even during the conception of the name that some people had some concerns.”  – Crusaders management

Much of what was said in the letter mirrors what was said publicly the next day – which sparked plenty of debate and columns. However, the question and answer section reveals much more, including shattering the myth that the problematic name wasn’t raised with the Crusaders previously.

“It was apparent that even during the conception of the name that some people had some concerns,” the document says. “Discomfort was withheld and we pressed on in an example of naivety that we are now looking to address.”

From the team’s perspective the Crusades “were a genuinely quite horrific era”. “There are ways in which the campaigns were run that we do not want to be connected with.”

The review “can’t drag on”, it says. “We are committed to having any decision reflected in our 2020 marketing, playing kit, and at-stadia experience, and there are long lead times to get some of this stuff ready.”

The team had an open mind about a possible name change, the material says. “The Crusaders legacy is so much more than a name. The legacy and success that we are renowned for worldwide has been created by and will be continued by people, not by a name or by any branding or marketing material.”

There’s “no fear whatsoever that our legacy will be tainted or stalled”, the Q+A says. While it’s “not qualified” to weigh up the various viewpoints – that’s why it commissioned research – the final decision is “ours and NZ Rugby’s to make”.

The Crusaders run onto the field during the Super rugby final against the Jaguares in July, flanked by knight-and-sword banners. Photo: Getty Images

Yet in June the Crusaders kicked for touch. Just how far the thinking had shifted from April’s behind-closed-doors view was evident in a statement from the Crusaders and NZ Rugby. They announced the name would be retained this year and next.

(The announcement was brought forward after NZ Rugby chairman Brent Impey let the cat out of the bag, suggesting, perhaps, some tension between the game’s parent body and the franchise.)

Mansbridge’s earlier position that the process “can’t drag on” was abandoned, as recommendations from Research First, and another firm, Allen+Clark, suggested taking more time. A “full” review would decide its brand for 2021 and beyond, the statement said, but the knight and sword image would be dropped from next year’s apparel and marketing.

Social media lit up, including comments from University of Canterbury academics that came to the attention of the Crusaders CEO.

That prompted an insightful message from Mansbridge to one of the academics, whose name is redacted. (That person posted: “You have now officially lost a fan. It is absolutely abysmal that you have not changed your name after the shootings this year. Embarrassing. No other words for it really. I am just so embarrassed for our country and for rugby.”)

The Crusaders CEO talked of meeting different leaders of the local Muslim community, and having conversations with “people we trust in the Middle East”, and leaders of significant minority groups in Cape Town and Fiji. Its research also took the views of local Muslim fans and non-fans.

While acknowledging there were varying opinions within the Muslim community about what should happen, Mansbridge said he came to the view that changing its name in response to the attack “would not only be NOT a sign of respect but would expose the community to a backlash that they simply did not want exposure to”.

Continually dividing the community with the name debate – “especially when the majority want no change” – was also potentially disrespectful, he said, to a community figuring out how to support its orphans, widows, widowers and people who have lost children. “I was advised that the greatest respect I could offer the community was to work on inclusion and find ways to make them feel more at home.”

Another conclusion Mansbridge arrived at, of what was being said, was, simply: “This is not your fault.”

Name should change: academic

University of Canterbury associate professor Ekant Veer, a marketing expert, knows the Crusaders are aware their name is problematic – because he told them “some years ago”.

He mentioned it “casually” to the marketing team after attending a game. “I saw the horses and the knights and the castle and I’m like, actually, all this iconography together is not flash.”

After the attacks, he was one of several of the university’s academics who explained to the team’s management what their name actually meant.

He acknowledges the Crusaders weren’t directly associated with the attack, and the team never supported it. But the name is a “terrible association” and should change, he tells Newsroom. “That’s my personal view but not necessarily what I think is going to happen – I have no idea what’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s up to them as to what they do with that name.”

The academic has also told the university’s marketing team that the name doesn’t sit well with its values. But he supports the university’s role, as a sponsor, of being part of discussions about the name change, especially because it’s an educational organisation.

Veer says sports teams are built on loyalty and the name becomes a central point – a source of pride – that fans hold on to. “The bigger following you have then, obviously, commercially that becomes very important for selling jerseys, selling tickets, getting fans along to support you.”

The risk, Veer agrees, is the Crusaders taking a leadership position that wins favour with non-sporting sectors of the community, while harming them commercially as upset fans pull their support.

“Whatever they end up doing it’s going to be difficult for them, regardless.”

Brand review ongoing

Newsroom asked the Crusaders and the University of Canterbury for interviews but they declined, offering emailed statements instead.

Mansbridge confirms none of its sponsors have withdrawn since March 15.

“As we announced on 8 June, we are currently undertaking a full brand review and that process is ongoing. We are fortunate to have an engaged group of sponsors, who value the communications we have with them and the opportunity to be kept informed and inform us and our process. We will continue to have these conversations with them throughout the course of our brand review.”

Newsroom asked if the university was proud to still be associated with the Crusaders. It ignored the question and rehashed a statement it put out on June 13.

In it, executive director of student services and communications Lynn McClelland, says: “The University of Canterbury supports the development of the next generation of rugby players by funding the annual secondary school rugby competitions for young South Islanders – the UC Championship and the UC Cup – in partnership with the BNZ Crusaders.

“UC has been a community partner of the BNZ Crusaders since 2015 and over the years has supported over 3000 young male and female rugby players. As with our other sponsorships, we will continue to review this partnership on an annual basis to ensure it aligns with UC’s values and long-term strategy.”

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