Talking Rugby League: Q&A with the man behind England’s new World Cup shirt

Lee Jenkinson is the Chief Executive of Elite Pro Sports, the company that incorporates OXEN, which was commissioned by the RFL to produce the new England shirt, which was revealed for the first time last week.

I was given the opportunity to ask Lee some questions about the process that led to the shirt’s production and its being made public for the first time last week.

Here is a transcript of our discussion.

MS: Can you explain the process you undertake when designing an international team strip?

LJ: It’s a very similar process with all our partners. It’s starts with a brainstorming session between the design and retail team at OXEN, along with the senior management team from the club or organisation in question. We begin by assessing any data that is available to us, usually in the forms of previous sales data, analytics from online platforms, along with engagement and feedback from the previous year and designs from the consumers.

We then move to a wider discussion that takes into consideration the research and ideas that both parties would provide, that would assist us to begin looking at themes and concepts that provide the basis of a design brief, for our team to begin work on the storyboards. At this stage, we will have not only consulted with the senior management team within the organisation, but we will have also met with the performance department to understand their needs and requirements.

After the initial meeting, the design team will work with the retail team to create a range of initial design concepts (usually between 10 and 15) that will be presented to the partner as an initial draft. There will then be numerous meetings around these designs, to which points are raised and changes to designs made before we arrive at the proposed final concept.

With this shirt in particular, there were more meetings than usual, given the significant changes from the previous years. Once we landed on what we believed to be the final design, it goes to the Board for the final approval.

MS: Previous England strips have incorporated the Cross of St George. What made you move away from that? 

LJ: All the data that we had available to us, indicated that from a sales perspective, this wasn’t resonating with the fans. Over the last ten years, England Rugby League have struggled with sales of Replica Shirts, and they have all been White/Red and in some instances, featuring the St George’s Cross. Despite reaching a World Cup semi-final on home soil in recent years, sales of the shirt have never been at the level that collectively, we feel they should be – and this was a key part of the conversation that led to the change.

MS: Do you test out the design with potential consumers before amending and releasing it?

LJ: Similar to the first question, with all our partners, we conduct extensive research both internally and externally throughout the design process. Due to the number of years within the industry, we have a large network of consumers that we canvass opinions with from a cross section of clubs. Some of the suggestions which they made, helped shape the final design that was launched last week.

I think it’s also worth noting that Navy was a discussion point prior to the 2021 shirt, so it’s something that has been part of the conversation for 18 months. Throughout 2021, we ran four different training wear colours within the England retail offering –  Navy, Red, White and Charcoal. Sales of the Navy outstripped Red and White by four to one.

MS: Some Rugby League supporters have pointed out that the blue colour is reminiscent of that used by Scotland. How do you respond to that observation?

LJ: Colours are always going to draw a comparison. The Chevron, or the 13 Chevrons in this case, play a big part in the design and something both us and the RFL believe that can help shape England’s Rugby League identity over the coming years. Had we used the Red with this design, it would no doubt draw comparisons to St Helens as an example. Navy is a universally renowned colour for strong commercial sales across a number of sports and in general retail. It’s also a colour that has featured in England shirts historically.

England football teams have been playing in blue shorts or with blue on their shirts for decades. England cricket teams have always played in blue since coloured clothing was introduced. And both have enjoyed major commercial success – suggesting they’re popular with supporters.

MS: How do you judge whether a new strip is successful?

LJ: Our main KPI (key performance indicator) within our partnership with the RFL and England Rugby League, is to help drive commercial revenues so we will always be measured on what we can deliver in this area. I believe the key indicator of whether a new strip is successful or not is by the sales. After 48 hours of the shirt being on sale, we sold the equivalent to that of the first three months from 2021, so I would say this is an encouraging start. For all of us – suppliers, RFL and Rugby League fans – we want England Rugby League shirts to be more visible and recognisable than ever during the World Cup this autumn, hopefully as we win three trophies. In the end, that’s the main reason we’ve made the change.

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