WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The brand value of the All Blacks has soared past the $200 million (156 million pounds) mark and the visit of the British and Irish Lions will serve to push it higher into the top echelons of global sports brands, a branding expert has told Reuters.
The All Blacks were valued at more than $170 million after winning the Rugby World Cup in 2015 but new sponsorship, including a four-year deal with Vodafone announced last week, and moves into the Asian and North American markets had increased that valuation further, Mark Crowe, Managing Director, Australia of global brands consultancy Brand Finance, told Reuters from Sydney.
"There is no doubt now that the All Blacks value would be north of $200 million," Crowe said.
"If you look at the last study into the top-50 football (soccer) brands ... the 20th ranked brand is AC Milan and they're sitting on $207 million.
"So the All Blacks are close to being ranked as the 20th most valuable football brand in the world."
The top-ranked soccer brand, according to Brand Finance's research, was Manchester United at $1.7 billion.
While the All Blacks' brand value pales in comparison to that of the English Premier League side, they were now perfectly positioned to grow with the Lions tour coming at an opportune time for them to capitalise, Crowe added.
The Lions will play 10 games in New Zealand, including three tests against the All Blacks, and Crowe said the tour was generating global interest.
"There appears to be greater interest in the All Blacks-Lions series (in Australia) than the Wallabies tests in June," Crowe added.
"The Lions tour is providing that additional burst of activity and in many respects because of the nature of the Lions tour it will drive the All Blacks brand.
"It provides them a nice link between the last World Cup and then building towards Japan in 2019."
Southern hemisphere rugby bosses have long eyed the Asian markets as a potential for future growth, with the introduction of a Super Rugby team in Japan seen as important in establishing a foothold in the region.
The All Blacks have also announced they will play a test match in Japan against the next World Cup hosts in 2018 as they prepare for Asia's first hosting of rugby's global showpiece the following year.
Crowe said a 10-year, $100 million investment by e-commerce giant Alibaba into Chinese rugby would also allow the All Blacks to leverage their brand in the world's most populous country.
"The Asian market does offer a tremendous opportunity for the All Blacks and I would be very surprised if they are not thinking about how they can leverage that momentum in China," Crowe added.
"The All Blacks are not just relying upon the size of the rugby market, they're positioning themselves in terms of the overall sporting market.
"Rugby is not necessarily a limitation on it growing the brand. It can take advantage of the success of its brand and take that beyond what might be a defined rugby market."
Crowe said other non-traditional rugby markets like North America were also proving lucrative despite rugby still battling to establish a foothold against the traditional big four sporting codes and soccer in the United States.
The All Blacks have a sponsorship agreement with multinational insurance company AIG, reportedly worth $80 million, and have twice played in front of sold-out crowds at Soldier Field, the home of the NFL's Chicago Bears.
"One of the things the All Blacks have been successful in doing is transcending the game of rugby. It has become a global sporting brand," Crowe said.
"It can go into the North American market and it doesn't have to rely on the size of the rugby market to take advantage of the commercial opportunities that a global sporting brand brings to the table.
"It's a great position to be in."
Editing by Peter Rutherford