Rugby is stuck in the stone age.

Here’s an interesting read for sports-lovers: Forbes’ Top 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams in the World.

You know what’s really sad about that article for me as a rugby fanatic? Not a single rugby team in there, not even the mighty All Blacks. Yes, sure, one could argue the size of the American market as the primary driver for the dominance of their sports’ teams in the Top 50, also the massive global following of soccer, hence the Top 2 spots going to soccer teams. Rugby doesn’t have that global market captured yet and we’re a little fragmented with League, Union and Sevens.

All those reasons are a cop-out in my opinion. The NFL claim a total of 205 million viewers over the 2013 season over a total of 256 matches excluding the Superbowl. The showpiece event attracted 100 million viewers on its own of which 93 million were in the USA. Total revenue for the NFL in 2013? 6 billion dollars. From a total domestic market (which accounts for 98% of interest) of 300 million people. Rugby on the other hand, over a full season including Northern and Southern hemisphere, plays a total of nearly 300 matches at elite level (Super Rugby, Test matches between the top 10 nations including Rugby Championship and Six Nations, European Champions and Challengers Cup). Add another 300 matches for national championships such as the NPC, Curry Cup, Top 14, English Premiership etc and the total number of competitive, professional matches played during a year easily surpass 600 matches across 10 countries. Viewership of these matches are nearing the 300 million mark. These viewership numbers for rugby exclude Sevens and League which would easily double all the figures.

Total revenue in broadcasting rights (which makes up the bulk of revenues in rugby) is only a tenth of the NFL number, somewhere in the region of 600 million dollars. Put into context, rugby is a fast-growing international sport played across 103 registered nations in the official rankings and over 2.3 million registered players. Compared to the NFL and Collegiate football who have a combined total of around 14 000 registered players across the 32 NFL teams and the 340 Division-I college football teams.

“Something doesn’t add up.”

Something doesn’t add up. How can rugby with a superior number of players and teams, global reach, active growth strategy and mountains of history and nostalgia not fare better financially? Maybe the last part of the previous sentence carries the most weight. History and nostalgia. Many of the current administrators come out of the amateur era and do not have the nous to run a business, they are also nostalgic about the sport and feel that professionalism ruined the spirit of the game.

The NFL was founded in 1922 and the sport of American Football was first played in 1869. Rugby union, under its first written laws, had its first game played in 1845 while the first proper international league competition was only held in 1987. Gridiron, long seen as a cousin of rugby, is only just over 2 decades younger than the sport that inspired it. Yet the NFL has grown into a commercial powerhouse while rugby has had a much tougher time of growing its base and subsequent financial return.

Among many reasons for this, one stands out above all the rest. Politics and bureaucracy. Either of the two in more measure than the other depending on which country you’re in. But beyond all these reasons the one that carries the most weight for me is the fact that rugby is still run by administrators from an amateur era, before the advent of professionalism. They have not been able to make the jump to the professional era where clubs should be run as businesses and players treated as assets and not commodities. Just look at the Frans Steyn fiasco. A very straight forward image rights contract completely bungled by administrators, people not skilled or equipped to deal with professional athletes.

“Locally our rugby unions are in a mess.”

As a mere mortal, I’m not privy to the inner sanctum of any of the South African rugby unions, so I’m relying on reports by the media to piece together a picture of what’s wrong locally with rugby, what other countries are doing better and what could be done to improve rugby’s financial performance within the hemispheres and globally.

Locally our rugby unions are in a mess. From CEO’s accused of corruption, a lame President who cannot seem to shake the shackles of his union masters and politically connected or influential administrators who won’t know an income sheet from the lunch menu. This and many more examples of mediocrity, cronyism and short sightedness are hampering our provincial teams as well our pride and joy, the Springboks, from competing effectively and sustainably. I will be addressing the following issues in the local rugby scene over the next few posts:

  • President’s Council
  • SARU
  • Player contracting
  • Infrastructure

Please read the next post in this three-part series – Rugby in SA: the blind leading the lame.

Follow me on Twitter @reinardduplessi or connect on LinkedIn.

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