It’s been a big few weeks in Super Rugby, and though it’s a while away 2020 can’t come fast enough.
Like Americans in the Roosevelt era, Aussie rugby fans are clamouring for a New Deal to rescue us from our current quagmire. Super Rugby in many ways is a dead duck, with crowds and ratings dropping every week.
Jamie Miller summed it up well last week, and I don’t want to rake over those coals again. However on Saturday night, after yet another robust exchange of views on social media, I was asked what I thought the best path was in 2020 and beyond. So here I am.
Paul Cully kicked off the debate on Saturday with his piece in the Fairfax media, advocating for RA to go it alone in 2020 with a local competition in place of Super Rugby. This was reinforced by many who attended the Manly v. Warringah Shute Shield match, with a crowd of roughly 7000 watching a fiercely fought local derby.
Is the future local? Can Super Rugby exist after 2019? How do we keep our head above water?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but I am going to argue today that a local competition won’t be enough in 2020, and the future lies in the Pacific region. Bear with me, let’s step through the logic and I’ll see you in the comments section to fight it out.
A local competition probably won’t work
I’m not against the concept of a local competition. I gaze longingly at the NRL and AFL on Grand Final day, with administrators safe in the knowledge that whatever happens that afternoon there will be one very, very happy set of fans that evening when the whistle blows. We don’t have that luxury.
We can have years when none of our teams lofts a trophy. Where every single fan base leaves the season with a bitter taste in their mouths. When we have a few of those years back-to-back (as we have now), it can lead to real issues.
There are a few ways a local competition could work – either an expanded NRC season, a Club Championship type model or a mix of the two (non-Brisbane and Sydney areas represented by NRC clubs, with existing clubs representing both major capitals). Both would result in closely fought battles with guaranteed winners.
Sadly I can’t see a way for the financials to add up.
Like every Australian sport, TV revenue is king. While Super Rugby has its issues, one of its strengths is its ability to be sold as a TV product in key overseas markets. The current TV deal is divided into 11 separate agreements between SANZAAR and foreign networks, in areas like the Americas, UK, France, Italy, Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Japan.
That puts millions into our coffers before we even start talking to local networks. And it’s those millions we rely on to keep our top-tier talent from booking a one-way ticket to Europe. Yes Super Rugby is a loss-making venture, but its scale allows us to pay sizeable salaries to our players.
While cutting ties with SANZAAR and going it alone may seem appealing, it’s these TV dollars that we would forego by doing so.
Are we selling our local comp into Europe? Japan? The USA? Given the timezones and quality of rugby on display, I’d be amazed if they gave us a second glance.
In all likelihood we’re left with what we can negotiate with local networks and Fox Sports. And that won’t be nothing – it would allow us to sustain a viable local competition. We’d save money on international travel, which we could reinvest in the domestic game.
I’m no economist, but I just can’t see the numbers adding up.
The competition could work in the same way the A-League works – a nice competition for local followers, but it’s essentially a feeder league for the European game. The salary discrepancies would be too big for any good player to ignore, and we’d see most of our top players disappear.
Without players like Pocock, Genia, Folau and Kerevi, we’d be behind the eight-ball before we even started. We’d revert to the ‘rusted on’ fans, and while that has its benefits it just can’t be a sustainable long-term option in my opinion.
And I think there’s a more appealing alternative…
The Pacific Championships
This, to me, is our best case scenario. It may be unachievable for a litany of reasons, but let’s put those aside for just a few minutes.
One of Rugby’s key points of difference is its international appeal. The NRL and AFL aren’t local competitions by choice. While it’s frustrating the Kiwis are currently THAT much better than us, to turn away from them because of it would be madness.
My proposed competition is a 12 team competition, containing four Australian teams, five Kiwi teams, the Sunwolves, Jaguars and a Pacific Island team. Really it’s just Super Rugby without the Saffers.
This competition gives us plenty of high-quality rugby in our timezone. It allows us to tap into lucrative TV markets in Asia and the Americas (while the involvement of NZ would help us to attract eyeballs in Europe and Africa). It harnesses our local NZ and PI expat communities – a valuable source of interest that may be lost with a local model. And it gives us a greater share of teams, meaning a better chance of victory.
What about the Force? I’m honestly not sure. I just don’t think we have the depth for five teams in any international competition. What the Force is doing at the moment is fantastic, though. I’m open to consideration.
This idea isn’t perfect. We’d still be facing years where we don’t win a trophy. We’d still have issues with crowds and TV ratings – though I think success would solve both of these. And that’s before you even discuss whether this thing is even possible.
But the reality is that there are no perfect ideas here. We’re looking for the least worst option, and I think this might just be that.
There is still scope to look at a local competition behind this model – it may be time for a hard chat about the NRC. As much as I love what it stands for and how it may help us, it certainly hasn’t caught the imagination of the wider community.
So there it is. I’ve put my neck out and had a crack. It’s far from perfect, and I skate over a lot of issues that require much more detail to fully grasp. Unfortunately I haven’t got the time to go ‘full Miller’ and lay out 7,000 words, so this will have to do.
The comments section awaits. What do you think? Am I on the right track?