Rugby in SA: the blind leading the lame

Right, so in my opinion the lack of business acumen and vision are two of the main reasons why rugby in our country, as well as globally, has not become the showpiece it has the potential to be. Why do I care so much to write 3 posts on the topic, it’s only a sport right? Yes it is, but one with the potential to uplift nations, inject resources into communities that need them, offer opportunities to those most in need of them and teach a variety of skills and nurture talents within our youth.

If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. The rugby structures currently employed in our country are at best broken and, at worst, dangerously negligent.

The President’s Council

Sounds a little cloak & dagger doesn’t it. In fact, I think every meeting of these elderly gentleman indeed feature cloaks and daggers! The President’s Council (recently renamed the General Council, but still the same people doing the same thing, which is nothing) is composed of the president’s of the 14 provincial unions which make up SARU. Now barring any missed information during my research, all of the presidents lack one essential quality for running a professional sports team: none of them have ever run a business and all of them have always been part of administrating rugby. Now some might ask what’s wrong with that? Well, for one, how does a person not familiar with running a profitable business do so? And be sure that a rugby club is now a business!

Do they have the business acumen to identify and exploit commercial opportunities? Do they have a vision for their union and the skill and knowledge to execute on it? If the answer to these questions was yes then we would have a very different situation in SA rugby, one where our clubs consistently vie for finals places and win them, one where players aren’t played into the ground and one where stadiums aren’t sparsely dotted with a few die-hard fans during the grind of the season. NFL teams average attendance of around 85% throughout the season, even with ticket prices starting at the equivalent of R1500 per person.

Rugby unions feel like an old boys club, one where you are only accepted if you played club rugby or coached a high school team. You read right, I couldn’t find a president of a union that was involved at an elite team or successful business in any meaningful way. Their involvement stretches back to amateur days or those appointed more recently have come from within the unions structures through the administrative ranks. The very definition of an administrator should exclude them from running professional sport: a person who is in a position of authority or who manages people, practices and policies.

Therein lies the heart of the problem, rugby politicians in charge of R700 million revenue a year. And we all know how well politicians can manage budgets.


In August 2001, SARU restructured itself and created SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd with the latter responsible for the management of the commercial activities of SARU. That’s right, the business people employed to run a business, are reporting to the administrators mentioned above. They’re beholden to the 14 president’s of the unions. A decade later, in 2011, they merged the two arms again into a single entity again placing the commercial interest of the national union into the hands of administrators with the CEO reporting to them.

That all seems so backward. It also makes the union look indecisive and unsure on how to increase revenues, keep the sport sustainable and grow the supporter and player base. The political babble also astounds me. An excerpt from an article on ESPN Scrum:

Ultimately, SARU maintains it is not an organisation that is driven by profit and loss. Rather, it seeks to be financially well-managed and if it earns more money, it aims to spend it on development. This January, it contracted 15 women’s players for the first time in its history and launched ClubWise, an introduced an accredited training program for club administrators at grassroots level.

What?! They aim to not make money? How in the world are you going to sustainably and with impact grow and maintain your development programmes if you don’t aim to make any money? Here’s my problem with the quoted paragraph:

  • SARU contracted 15 female players. Awesome, I’m all for it. Problem is, the women’s game doesn’t generate any revenue at this point and further places a drain on limited and dwindling resources. First make sure your primary sources of income are growing and then focus on the programmes that expand the player and supporter base beyond the primary market.
  • Spending money on training administrators. I don’t know what to say. So how does the training of administrators increase the value of the clubs and unions on a commercial level? Should money not be spent rather on recruiting or training sales people, brand specialists, marketers, business development specialists etc? People that know how to leverage brands into revenue streams.

In the same ESPN Scrum article Jurie Roux was quoted as saying:

He anticipates the organisation will have to operate in this more careful environment for the next two years. Either that, or hope to find a way to make money by going north instead of staying south.

So they don’t aim to make any money, yet money is a problem and they need to make more of it so they can continue supporting the unions? Unions which aren’t capable of supporting themselves and rely on TV broadcast rights handouts to survive. Without any plans to generate revenue other than dwindling ticket sales, merchandise sales and the sponsorships from other businesses.

Player contracting

Here’s where I really get hot under the collar.

So here’s how I understand player contracting in SA currently works: a player signs a contract with one of the provincial unions to play in the various age group or senior team leagues (Curry Cup, Super Rugby). The players’ salary is thus paid for by the union. Should the player be chosen for the Springboks, he gets a national contract based on seniority, potential contribution to the team and other factors. The player could also be paid per game if he doesn’t get a national contract.The union contract, however, supersedes the national contract. That means neither the national coach or SARU can dictate to a union or provincial coach how a nationally contracted player can be deployed.

It’s this scenario that causes player burnout, strings of injuries to elite players making them unavailable for big matches and shortens the career span of our top players. A union coach has a contract with deliverables, to achieve those deliverables he plays his best players. Those same players are also involved with the Springboks and the national coach also has to achieve certain goals, so he plays his best players. That means that the best players play from February to December and only really have a break (other than if they get injured, which they invariably do) between the second week of December to just after the New Year when they head back to training camps for Super Rugby.

As lamented by almost every South African coach in every Super Rugby season after a loss, “Injuries played a big role in disrupting our preparation.” Yup, playing an elite player non-stop for 1500 minutes of rugby or more per year will have that effect. Players have to be managed more effectively. Recently, Louis von Zeuner has pulled off a masterstroke and got himself on the Executive Council of SARU as the players’ representative. Hopefully he can stand up for player-rights and bring in some much-needed sanity to SARU.

Fans come to see the star players take to the field, not the second stringers.


Last but not least is the infrastructure of the unions. Not just the stadium mind you, but all the resources involved in running a professional rugby team.

Stadiums come first to mind though, so let’s tackle that first. All but one top-tier union reside in their traditional stadiums that have been renovated and upgraded many times over the last few decades. Mostly these renovations have been geared towards increasing seating capacity or security and safety but these upgrades and renovations are slapping paint on outdated infrastructure.

In hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup, South Africa built grand new stadiums for the global showpiece. No matter what FIFA, the IRB or the IOC say, these events always cost more money than they should and the infrastructure developed for these events usually become white elephants. In our case, 5 of the stadiums are perfect for use by rugby unions who can shed their old shells and move into nifty new digs a stones throw from their current locations. The Pumas and Kings have already done that, and good on them. WPRU, KZNRU and GLRU refuse to move from their traditional homes to these newly built venues citing escalating costs of renting the new stadiums compared to their current outright ownership of the stadiums they play in now.

This when it’s impossible to find parking at Ellispark or Newlands and foot and traffic congestion gets so bad it could take you hours to get out of the immediate area, Kings Park lies directly opposite Moses Mabhida stadium and the current site could be redeveloped for commercial use that benefits the union. Loftus Versveld has the same parking and traffic problem. This when in the first three cases there are modern stadiums with better public transport and road infrastructure, higher seating capacities and better crowd and security management available to them as we speak.

It all comes to down again to administrators who cannot comprehend and exploit the commercial opportunities put in front of them and cling to the old and stayed because any sort of change frightens them. I cannot for a single moment imagine that there is no commercial agreement to be made with the municipalities or regional governments (that currently own the stadium) that will reasonably satisfy the unions. Sure, their might be a financial impact over the short-term but that would easily be negated had the unions had robust, sustainable and growth-focused business plans. Which they don’t.

Other than the visible infrastructure, other areas in dire need of improvement are the technological frameworks that the unions lack, marketing and PR systems, supporter infrastructure, retail and merchandising and commercial partnerships.

In the last post of this series I will be looking at solutions to the problems facing rugby in SA as well as globally – Dragging Rugby Into the 21st Century.

Follow me on Twitter @reinardduplessi or connect on LinkedIn.

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