Dragging rugby into the 21st Century

Pointing the finger, taking responsibility

Sounds like I’m complaining and not providing solutions? This post will humbly try to put forward possible solutions. I don’t for a moment purport to have definitive answers, hopefully someone of influence reads this and at the very least think there’s some merit in the concepts.

With the economy the way it is and Joe Public having to squeeze every last bit from his hard-earned Rand, entertainment options becoming more plentiful and DStv subscriptions and petrol prices always on the rise, buying a ticket to the next game or watching it on the telly start being compared to a dinner and a movie, a braai with friends or a weekend away for the family. The smaller unions are already in trouble, most can’t survive without the TV money they get from SARU and even the bigger unions are shying away from moving to new stadiums as the costs are reported to be prohibitive. Meanwhile 6 NFL teams are building new stadiums, or are in the process of renovation, to the tune of 3 billion dollars.

The point being that rugby, like any other form of entertainment, has been commoditised, and therefore needs a business plan to extract the most value from the brand and accompanying product while competing with other forms of entertainment both locally and internationally.

What other countries have started doing right

There’s not much to talk about here. In my post about capping playing minutes for elite players, Expat Dad SG commented that England have instated such a system. That’s a massive step in the right direction and I applaud the RFU management for implementing it.

The NZRU has also adopted a central contracting system of their players. This basically means that the countries’ elite players are paid for by the national union, and not the local franchises/unions. The NZRU can thus dictate when and where those players play and manage their careers and wellbeing accordingly.

The big difference between these two unions and the situation in SA is that SARU is beholden to the 14 presidents of the 14 provincial unions. Which is absurd, commercial entities being managed by bureaucrats! We’ll delve into what needs to happen in the rest of this post.

The NFL model

I’ve been referring to the NFL a lot through the three posts. The reason being that they’re obviously doing something right! Sure, the NFL is not perfect and they have their own issues, but these issue are of a positive nature. Meaning that the foundation of the sport is solid, they just need to iron out a few kinks. Many of their issues are similar to ours: player welfare, transformation and increasing the amount of games played per season.

However, the NFL does more right then wrong. Here’s why they are so successful:

  • total parity between teams, every team has an equal chance to make the playoffs each season. How do they do that?
  • salary caps, no team can create a squad of superstars as each team has the same amount of money to spend on player contracts
  • even distribution of revenue. All the franchises share in all revenues equally from TV deals, merchandising and sponsorships

There is a massive amount we can learn from the NFL, also from the NCAA that runs collegiate sports in America including College Football. Francois Pienaar has started something with the Varsity Cup but much work still needs to be done to improve the quality of the product and commercialise if effectively while tying it in more tightly with the professional arms of the franchises in the regions and improving training, player distribution and welfare, coaching skills and expansion of the tournament. One again only needs to look at the NFL Scouting Combine to see how it should be done.

Solutions

I’m going to take a shot at suggesting solutions to the problems. I am fully aware that I don’t have all the information but sometimes it’s better to ignore the status quo and start from scratch. Here we go:

  • Disband SARU and create SARC
    • SA Rugby Union must become the SA Rugby Corporation. Sounds silly I know but it conveys the message. We can no longer allow our unions to be run by administrators with agendas other than building the union, its supporter base, player development and commercial viability. Rugby in this country, and globally should be run as a business, sustainable and responsible commercial citizens.
  • Sell the unions to businessmen
    • All 32 teams in the NFL are privately owned (with the exception of the Green Bay Packers which are actually owned by the fans). In rugby, there are only a handful of teams that are privately owned. Soccer also has multiple teams (more than 60 teams), other teams in La Liga and the Bundesliga are member owned (Bayern Munich has over 230 000 club members who collectively own the club). When you put brands as strong as a sports team with a built-in fan base that are ready to spend money on the brand, in the hands of proven businessmen, you will make money. Let’s have a few smart individuals go visit the boys at the NFL and see how they did it. They have already made the hard yards, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The initial sale of the clubs/unions will generate stellar amounts of money that can be used to set up the systems and infrastructure required to take rugby to the next level.
  • Stadiums
    • The Lions, Western Province and The Sharks need to move to the new stadiums (built for the 2010 SWC) now. The existing stadiums need to be either demolished and way made for retail complexes (either rugby themed or generic) and can include training fields and other facilities (such as conferencing, live events, accommodation for junior players etc) that can be rented out. With the exception of maybe Ellispark, the other stadiums are built on prime land in sought after areas. Imagine building an upscale apartment block where Newlands now stands and decorating the building with memorabilia from the union! I’m sure many ex-players and other well-to-do individuals will snap up an investment like this in no time. Both the unions and the local governments need to come together and hash out plans to make it financially viable for the new club owners as well as sustainable to the municipalities. Loftus Verslfeld does have plans to develop the adjacent land into commercial facilities as well as additional parking. This will go a long way to ease the pressure on the rest of the infrastructure on match days.
  • Technology
    • My word but the websites of all the unions are just plain terrible. Functionality is awkward and design is well below current standards. It’s like a 90’s time warp. It’s time the unions embrace technology and look at what Apple and the MLB have done with iBeacons. Develop websites that are easy on the eye, include modern standards in social media sharing options, ticket purchases, merchandise sales, highlight reels and galleries, paid-for streaming of matches (see commercial rights below), supporters club members area (see below), behind-the-scenes action (training session videos, fitness tips, coaching tips), relevant documentation regarding player and coaching development programmes and the union academy, a section on provincial school that act as feeders to the system as well as updates on school match results, up-and-coming schools players as well as updates on Varsity Cup standings and Club Championship news. An app for supporters or any other once-off visitor or matchday attendant that has location-based functionality when the app picks up you’re at the stadium giving you updates on weather, real-time video replays, audio commentary, social media integration, wireless payment system for merchandise and food & beverages etc. My company is willing and able to lend a hand 😉
  • Backroom personnel
    • At most unions a lot of work will need to be done here to ensure existing staff have the required skills (or are able to be trained to get the required skills and knowledge) to drive the club forward. All the clubs seem to think they do not need engaging marketing strategies and still pump out communication straight out of the 80’s. The same with business development, sponsorship managers (which still seems to be done by the union president with a lunch and a handshake), proper merchandising and retail trained staff, technology and IT staff etc.
  • Club members
    • Why does it seems all the unions still run membership programmes based on models from the 70’s? See the theme here? Expecting someone to pony up some cash in exchange for a jersey and other merchandise and early access to tickets is not good enough anymore. Clubs should introduce a tiered system where the entry-level membership grants merchandise, discount on season tickets, the option to prepurchase a la carte tickets at a discounted rate and a special access pass that identifies the person as a member. Subsequent tiers need to up the discounts, add Test match specials and members-only events, higher quality and more merchandise, access to players and staff (post match meet & greets), training session events, accommodation, shuttle and travel specials etc. These memberships don’t need to be cheap either, entry-level memberships can start at R2000 for an annual membership. NFL season tickets (while price isn’t the only factor) can cost as much as R35 000 per year per ticket and normally have licensing rights associated with them. The clubs are missing out here, not just on more revenue, but also on happier and more passionate supporters.
  • Commercial rights (TV deals)
    • I don’t know who is negotiating on behalf of SANZAR with the TV networks, but it seems they think they are beholden to the networks. This cannot be the case. SANZAR and SARU sit with a product that there is a proven market for. I know the new deal was significantly better that the one before and the coming expansion of Super Rugby to 18 teams from 2016 probably will include a team from the lucrative Japanese market and will drive the price higher, but they are still missing a trick. Again, look at how the NFL has built its product and commercialises it. If SANZAR tells DStv tomorrow that they will not renew the broadcast contract and will instead be streaming all the matches via their own service, DStv will drop at least half of their subscriptions in that first month after the announcement. Guaranteed. SANZAR needs to structure their own independent network (see the NFL example) and on top of that provide broadcasters with the option as well. Partnering with our Northern neighbours (see global calendar below) will make the negotiating even easier as a top class, unique and product with tremendous exposure will be on the table for all to bid for. Yes, to bid for. Highest bidder gets the most options and it scales down from there.
  • Player contracting
    • I’ve already spoken about central contracting in my previous post but the basics are that players, all players, are contracted to the national union. Why, because all revenues lie there (assuming the adoption of a model similar to the NFL). The players are then drafted by various teams based on salary caps (they don’t pay the players, the national league/union does) but as with fantasy leagues, each club has a salary limit within which he can work. National interests (Springboks, AB’s, Wallabies etc) trump club commitments. We should also start looking at a system similar to the NFL Scouting Combine where talent from local clubs and varsities are showcased. Lastly, no country can no matter the revenue generated contract all the star talent in a country. What can be done is to contract players (through play restrictions) to foreign clubs i.e. a player comes through the junior Gauteng ranks and is ready to take the step up to Curry Cup but there are no available spots. SARU can then contract the player out to another club for a fee while the player gets game time, a salary and the home union gets a commission. The player can be drafted back to the local setup within certain guidelines.
  • Global calendar
    • This one is a doozy. Again, discarding the old and starting from scratch for the benefit of the game is the ideal goal here. Currently the Northern and Southern hemisphere seasons do not match up, mainly because of seasons. What has happened over the last few years though is that the seasons have lengthened to a point where rugby is no longer played only in winter but for almost 10 months of a year. Starting with Super Rugby in February to the end-of-year tours in November for the Southern hemisphere and the provincial leagues, European Champions/Challengers Cup in September to the June outgoing tours for the Northern hemisphere. That’s 10 months of rugby for both hemispheres.
    • To bring about a global calendar, 2 new global leagues should be launched, one for international teams and one for provincial teams. Think a combined Six Nations/Rugby Champs league and a Super Rugby/European Champions Cup league. Many would argue that the international league looks like a World Cup, in many ways it is and that’s the idea. Massive one-off events are no longer economically viable for the hosting nation, and in some cases, participating teams. The concept put forward here is to have the top 10 nations compete on a yearly basis with a final to determine the best team. Secondary leagues for the next 10 teams (11 to 20) and those outside the top 20 can also be held including promotion/relegation elements to motivate unions. This ensures that supporters get to watch the best teams play each other every year and reduces the insignificance of one-off tests or short series which mean nothing as one team is at the start of their season and the other at the end of theirs. Strength-versus-strength from the first match to the last with semi-finals and a final. Each team plays each other team home and away. 18 games per team excluding the semi’s and final. Travel wouldn’t be that big a deal, the Top 10 already play each other in disjointed tours combined with hemisphere leagues, streamlining the matches and giving it structure makes for a much more appetising product.
    • The same goes for the provincial league. Here we could adopt the conference model of the NFL with leagues in various conferences determining their conference champion through a final and the finalists going through to a playoff and eventually a final. I propose three conferences, NSA Conference (North and South America), the Pan-Asian Conference (Japan, Australia and New Zealand) and the EA Conference (Europe and Africa). The three winners get joined by the next highest league finisher of the three combined conferences who then play semifinals and a final. Imagine seeing Toulon take on the Crusaders, or Saracens playing the Waratahs or Suntory Sungoliath against Leinster? The teams in the PRL are determined by their local competitions such as the Aviva Premiership, Curry Cup, NPC etc. The big mind shift with this concept comes from the change in who I support as fan. A franchise should aim to build a fan base globally, not only where it is situated geographically. Franchise value should be based on success because on this model, all franchises have parity as players can play anywhere they are drafted (see below) and winning (not the size of the owners’ bank balance, because of salary caps) determines the fan base. Clubs can be bought and sold (within certain regulations) and even be moved geographically to better exploit a potential market. As a Sharks fan, I don’t really mind if they aren’t situated in Durban, as long as they win the title!
    • The last point on these proposals is player availability and cross franchise/club movements. All participating, professional players can play anywhere they like on provincial level. Because all players are contracted centrally and all teams have salary caps, players should be allowed to play anywhere they like (or are needed) without the restriction of not playing for their country if they don’t play for a local league in their country. Restrictions can still apply for international teams.

I know there will be many other suggestions for how this could work and I would love to see your ideas, who knows, maybe we package them all and send them off to the IRB and top 10 unions and see what happens.

Follow me on Twitter @reinardduplessi or connect on LinkedIn.

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