Why Professional Rugby In Australia Must Be Saved - Green and Gold Rugby
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Why Professional Rugby In Australia Must Be Saved

Why Professional Rugby In Australia Must Be Saved

Recently, Green and Gold Rugby’s own Reg Roberts wrote an article which argued that it will be very difficult for professional rugby to survive in Australia in the near future. It’s well argued and may prove to be correct, but I still think it’s absolutely important pro rugby does survive, and I believe it can. Here’s why.

The collapse of a professional rugby will not be the ‘reset we had to have’

We all love amateur rugby, and all the community and fun that comes with it. But it cannot be the future of the sport in Australia. The assumption that amateur clubs will see a massive spike in support without a professional competition, is dubious.

Many clubs have already seen a moderate increase in interest because of the decline of super rugby, but it’s nowhere near enough to offset the net drop in the sport as a whole. Furthermore, in Sydney in particular, there are a large number of fans that dislike the Shute Shield competition as an institution in itself, and won’t touch it.

The fact is that most new rugby fans engage in the sport via a professional competition. It’s a high standard of play, that’s fitting for a national audience. True believers, including myself, love amateur rugby, but without a professional competition, exposure to the sport among new fans will continue to diminish, leaving us stagnating at best.

In my opinion, the biggest exposure comes through the Rugby World Cup and the Bledisloe Cup. It’s no secret that having a winning team in these competitions depends on having a large number of professional players. The idea that amateurs can be competitive for the Wallabies is not a realistic one.

The death of professional rugby would make Australia woefully uncompetitive in these competitions, and accelerate the collapse of the sport in the country as a whole. Sure, some players can still be contracted overseas, or maybe even a few in Australia for rep games, but it’s a situation which needs to desperately be avoided.

Most professional players would seek employment elsewhere, like France, Japan and the NRL. This would make them ineligible to play in any amateur rep game in Australia. As you can imagine, sadly, this would make the quality of these games quite low, and particularly in comparison to a professional competition.Worse still, with no professional rugby teams, the NRL would consider expanding into rugby heartland itself with new professional teams.

In short, the collapse of professionalism would be a hammer blow for rugby, which it might not recover from. It must be avoided at all costs.

KMP-WALLvAB-1813

The Bledisloe Cup remains a massive drawcard…and goal.

The broken status quo of Super Rugby is grinding the sport down

Everyone knows that the current Super Rugby structure has seen interest in the sport decline, particularly over the last few years. There are a number of reasons for this, but the competition format has to be the most important one.

Since 2010, Super Rugby has added the Melbourne Rebels, the Jaguares, The Southern Kings (remember them?), and the Sunwolves. Then it kicked out the Western Force, The Kings, the Cheetahs and now the Sunwolves. The reason for these decisions is beyond the scope of this article [the internal politics of rugby in South Africa roughly resembles the National Party], but show that the competition has been anything but stable.

The mere inclusion of South African teams is not in Australia’s interest. The teams draw substantially lower crowds, and incredibly low ratings from midnight games. But there have been two key forces pushing back.

The first is the immediate cash shortfall South Africa leaving would generate. As part of a revenue sharing agreement, South Africa always contributed the most cash. But this was always distributed roughly evenly, in a similar way to our progressive income tax system.

This created a strange incentive – despite South African games being truly terrible for interest in the competition, we desperately needed them for the cash. This was clearly a bad relationship and we were soon manipulated. South Africa railroaded Australia into accepting three new teams, and threatened to leave if we didn’t agree. It was a failure of Bill Pulver’s leadership not to call their bluff.

The second reason was the sheer reluctance of New Zealand to sign up to a trans-tasman competition, for both financial and strategic reasons. In my opinion, with Australia’s professional collapse on their doorstep, New Zealand’s position will change.

Warrick Gelant takes a restart, but Harry Hockings is obstructed

The South African teams just don’t pull the crowds in Australia

A Trans Tasman Competition is still the go

Structurally, a Trans Tasman competition is still the best answer to Super Rugby’s woes. A twelve team competition could consist of the current Australian (4) and New Zealand (5) teams, plus two to three additional Pacific Islands teams (I’ll explain how we make them work further down).

This would give broadcasters up to six games in decent time zones over a weekend. It means Rugby can be competitive with Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon games every single weekend. These are crucial in the battle for eyeballs.

This would also result in the minimum number of casualties from a radical shake up of the competition. As we’ve all seen from the Western Force, burning and churning teams doesn’t just destroy continuity and momentum, it deeply scars the fan base. This model leaves the incumbent teams in Australia and NZ alone, and allows for the Western Force to be readmitted as soon as it is financially stable enough to do so.

A common complaint is that New Zealand doesn’t have the incentive to sign up to this model. This isn’t true, because the NZRU desperately needs Super Rugby to develop All Blacks, in the same way we do. Without Australia, a professional competition in New Zealand would also struggle, and they need to be told that this is the only way Rugby in Australia will stay professional to bring them to the table.

As for the inclusion of Pacific Island teams, in my opinion, they would bring an X-Factor to the competition. There are many athletes in these countries who would cut the mustard, and the teams wouldn’t be a pushover. Further, with their massive contingent of expats, they would bring valuable away support to games in Australia and New Zealand. Tonga v Samoa filled Eden Park with expat fans at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. They should be allowed to do the same in Super Rugby.

The only real problem with the Pacific Island teams is they bring little broadcast cash, which has always been the hesitation in the past. In my opinion, a bold way to tackle this would be through Australia’s expanding Pacific Aid Program. Despite overall cuts to the Foreign Aid budget, aid funding in the pacific region is actually now at a record high of $1.4 billion.

This is largely in response to China’s increasing assertiveness (and goes outside the scope of Rugby). But where Rugby can and should fit in is as a diplomacy tool for the federal Government. Three Pacific Islands teams would bring countless ministerial visits, shared cooperation and goodwill between Australia and Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, in a way that “roads to nowhere” from China never could.

Rugby Australia should pitch that Canberra pay the broadcasting shortfall that including these teams generates, which is in the low millions (out of a total program of $1.4B!). It would be an incredibly cheap investment by foreign aid standards, for a very good return. Further, this would also help to convince New Zealand the competition is worthwhile.

Fijian flick pass

The Drua have brought a new dimension to the NRC – could they do the same for ‘Super Rugby’?

Finding a broadcaster is difficult, but not impossible

There are still live options for the broadcast of Super Rugby. Optus Sport, Foxtel, and potentially Channel 10 are all still potential suitors. Raelene Castle’s relationship with Foxtel broke down, for having the gall to suggest the competition should have an open bidding process.

But Foxtel badly needs content, as conceded by their increasingly desperate response to Rugby AU’s manoeuvring. Many of Foxtel’s oldest subscribers are baby boomer rugby fans, and they all pay full price. Losing rugby will make these people pull the plug.

Rightly or wrongly, the relationship with Foxtel will reset with Castle’s departure. That doesn’t mean Rugby Australia should suddenly jump back into bed with them. We should delay a broadcast deal by six months, while we work out the structure of the proposal with our partner unions. This should include negotiations with New Zealand and Pacific Island Nations, as well as the Federal Government.

Last week, new Rugby AU Chairman Hamish Mclennan told the Sydney Morning Herald that “I am concerned that Fox have moved on, but it’s too early to tell”. Too early to tell indeed – if Foxtel are sensible, they’ll come back to the table, because it’s in their interests to be rugby’s broadcaster too.

The Trans-Tasman model could then go to an open auction between Optus Sport, Foxtel, and Channel 10, should they be interested in one game a week. The structure of the content means that Rugby AU could sell one game a week in its entirety to a free to air broadcaster, and still have local content leftover for a PayTV broadcaster. This is important for maximising both exposure and monetary value.

Stock photo of Foxsports camera

How we watch will be vital.

 

  • Ed

    Thanks Harry for the article.

    One aspect you have failed to mention is players will have to accept a cut in their salaries under any scenario. It is something each of our provincial unions will have to deal with.
    As an example – the QRU today:
    https://reds.rugby/news/2020/05/17/queensland-rugby-union-stands-down-izack-rodda-isaac-lucas-and-harry-hockings

  • Perth girl

    Harry the Western Force is the one team in Australia that is financially stable! RA needs us more than we need them, in fact there are many fans in WA that believe we need to stay clear of RA. The appointment of the new Chairperson and interim CEO has shown that nothing will change!

    • JJ

      Harry has written a nice article, but it is very eastern states orientated. It was all reading nicely for me until he started taking about including the Western Force and pacific island teams later
      He ignored the fact that GRR exists right now and to which Twiggy is totally committed, so there is no financial problems there. GRR already includes the Western Force, Fiji and Samoa and is growing.
      The best hope for professional rugby in Australia in the future, is for the GRR to be a huge success and it allows other Australian professional teams to join it later.

      • RugbyReg

        GRR does not exist right now. There will be no international travel for sometime. WHo will the Force play if not Malaysia etc?

        The best hope for the Force is that the domestic comp happens.

        • JJ

          Well by your definition then Reg, then Super rugby does not exist right now either

        • RugbyReg

          correct. But there will be a domestic competition. With or without the Force.

          What are the Force’s plans?

        • JJ

          I hope you you are right and there is a domestic competition in 2020. I notice that journalists are saying it will have more value to sell to Foxsports if the Force are included.

        • RugbyReg

          I haven’t noticed that

        • JJ

          You should read more widely then Reg.

        • RugbyReg

          I assume you mean more Nick Taylor articles…

        • JJ

          “RA believes a model including the Force would make the tournament a more enticing product for broadcasters”
          MAY 13 2020 – 6:07PM by Adrian Warren, Canberra Times

    • RugbyReg

      are the western force financially stable? What are their cash reserves? Did they turn a profit last year?

      Have a rich benefactor doesn’t mean they are financially stable.

      • JJ

        That rich benefactor owns the Western Force. So Reg, you need to check his cash reserves and profits last year.

        • RugbyReg

          can you confirm he does own the Force? I wasn’t sure but I am sure you will correct me. All I can see is that he bankrolls the GRR, and I expect covers the expenses of the Force. Can’t see anything about ownership?

        • JJ

          Google “Who owns the Western Force” and Wikepedia will tell you Andrew Forrest is the owner.
          But if you want to be pedantic, the ARU/RA never gave the name back to RugbyWA as instructed to by the Senate Inquiry. Instead they leased the name back to RugbyWA for $1. RugbyWA in turn leased the name to Forrest’s private company,

          Twiggy, has also registered the the name Perth Force as insurance, if the RA play more spiteful games in the future.

        • RugbyReg

          so he doesn’t own the Force?

        • JJ

          Who does then Reg?

        • RugbyReg

          I don’t know JJ. But I’d reiterate, they aren’t financially stable just because they have a rich benefactor

        • Hoss

          Read Dickens mate – it will shed more light . Twiggy is Magwitch and the Force is Pip. According to many on here Raelene was Miss Havisham. I ended up buying the DVD to help get me through. Last chapter i read was that Magwithch hated the Easterners because Pip was, no wait. Pip hated Miss Havisham because she, no that’s not it either. I’am not sure really, but i know they all had great expectations, i might have to wait for the sequel.

        • Yowie

          “Great Expectations 2: Judgement Day”?
          “Great Expectations and the Chamber of Secrets”?
          “2 Great 2 Expectations”?

          Help me out with searching for the correct tile for my online book order mate!

        • Hoss

          ‘Greaterer Expectations’. was also produced as an Indy film ‘Reality Bites’.

        • Yowie

          Is that the one where the villain (holding a Persian cat) spins his chair around and says:

          “I’ve been expecting you Mr Pip….greatly”?

        • GeorgiaSatellite

          Who’s the Fighting Boy, then?

        • JJ

          So Reg, which professional rugby team in Australia is more stable than the Western Force in your view? The other teams have all just been forced to negotiate through RUPA an average 60% salary cut with their players. Already 3 Reds players have been stood down for not accepting the cut. Sounds like another messy legal battle coming.

        • Sven Galee

          Hopefully not a legal battle. Those three Reds players, or their manager, were looking for an “out” and a move to France or Japan. The pay cut was a timely excuse, I guess they saw better options there than here at present. And this is something that will tempt other players too, so a resolution like Harry’s suggestion can’t come soon enough.

  • John Tynan

    thanks Harry. If you ref as well as you write, even I’d have a hard time chipping you on the field!

  • Hugh Cavill

    The idea about funding the Pacific teams through the Federal aid budget is very interesting indeed.

    I’ve heard a lot of old ideas thrown around during this time, but that’s a new one. I’m not sure of how possible it is, but it’s not a ridiculous thing to suggest.

    • Kiap

      The idea has been floated before: http://tiny.cc/fund-pi

      DFAT does already fund community rugby in the region. But this is wholy another level.

  • KwAussie Rugby Lover

    Thanks Harry. I like that idea of using aid money to pay for the team but I’m not sure the government would agree. While I’d love to see a PI team in any revamped competition I just don’t see them being able to afford it, and far too much history of mismanagement and outright corruption for a lot of people to invest in it. Maybe allowing a number of PI players in each team would work better. Good idea though and it’d be great if it came off.

    I think a Trans Tasman competition will evolve purely for the reason that travel to other areas will not be available for a very long time, whereas the travel between NZ and Australia is likely to open faster than anywhere else. For me the challenge is for the players to accept a new reality of less money available and so lower wages. It’s certainly going to be interesting times

    • Sven Galee

      Re the gov’t aid to PI – Targetted money avoids problems of cash being dissipated into hands it wasn’t intended for, so the government might be interested in a rugby targetted aid program.

  • Crescent

    Thanks Harry – this kind of article was needed as a nice counter point to Reg’s article, which was thorough, well articulated and kind of terrifying because of it’s compelling logic – thanks for taking the time to put together an alternative view.

    One thing keeps standing out to me – that both camps are stuck in traditional media market mindset to fund the professional level. Maybe I have spent too much time in this working from home arena reading out “opportunity” and “pivot” and “disruption” and have supped too deeply – but to me, it looks like professional rugby in Australia is ripe for disruption. What happens if a new media deal involves bundling all our domestic content – GRR, Super Rugby/TransTasman/Domestic replacement (insert whatever here), Shute Shield, Premier Rugby, U20’s, Womens Rugby, 7’s – the whole shebang under the Wallabies level – and deliver it via a streaming platform on a subscription basis. Can be sold as a bundle, or pay per view – so you can chase and consume the competitions you are committed to.

    Wallabies, selected “premium domestic content” (such as match of the week from GRR/SuperRugby/NRC) are out to free to air, advert free content to Foxtel should they decide they still need the content, but aren’t willing to pay the premium to continue to lock the code up.

    Instant feedback on popularity of various competitions, a revenue split arrangement will all relevant parties to underwrite the clubs and deepen the development pool – just one potential approach away from the traditional model that we continue to pursue of media partners shelling out increasing dollars deal on deal, despite the infighting at a domestic level effectively poisoning the well…. Just a very loose thought bubble from someone who is missing their rugby fix quite badly.

  • RF

    Including Pacific Island teams in a future competition is just dooming us to the same mistakes made with Super Rugby, but with a worse trade off.

    • Sven Galee

      Air fares can be expected to be much higher in the near future, so the plane trips to and from the PI alone will cost. Which is a great shame.

  • Interesting read.

    While in Reg’s article I pointed to a possible model forward as international rugby restructures itself, in yours, I’m going to point to one obvious flaw. Just because you, me, and a host of other, lets call us passionate rugby fans, believe something – and I think all of us, including Reg if I might be so bold, believe rugby in Australia will be better if there’s a professional game there – belief doesn’t make it happen.

    To take a fairly recent, and still painful for many, example. I can’t remember if they’d rebranded or not, but the ARU/RA told us that the Force had to go because of money. Up steps Twiggy with a heap of cash to say “I’ll save the Force and solve their financial woes.” Win, win we believe.

    The Force are gone from SR, they play, or will once Covid-19 has faded and travel bans are lifted, in Twiggyball, and RA, having allegedly cut the Force for financial reasons is in an even bigger financial hole.

    Personally, I think something will be cobbled together. But just because we believe it ought to be, doesn’t mean it has to be.

  • GeorgiaSatellite

    Thanks Harry. Well-reasoned. I’m curious, though, as to this claim:
    “…there are a large number of fans that dislike the Shute Shield competition as an institution in itself, and won’t touch it.” I’m not disputing it – I have no idea – I just wonder where you got it from.

  • idiot savant

    Thanks Harry. I think we all want a professional competition. But Ive been scratching my head ever since reading Reg’s article thinking he’s right. What Reg made crystal clear was that if RA is to run at a profit, not only do Australian teams have to pull out of Super Rugby (as it now is) but the professional players will have to take massive pay cuts to make any competition above club rugby viable.

    On my reading of the RA financials (leaked by I assume an outgoing board member and published by the SMH) there is an almighty black hole looming in 2020 financial year. With no June test income and the possibility of only a test or 2 against NZ this year, vastly reduced Super Rugby broadcast income (less games), and the inability to deliver for sponsors as a result, I find it hard to see how revenue wont fall by about 40 million from around 110 in 2019 to 70 in 2020. Expenditure in 2019 was around 117 million with Super Rugby chewing up around 30 million of that. Player payments and RUPA cost another 20 million. Now you can slash and burn RA’s corporate costs from 19 million down to 10 million if you like and sack some suits but that wont be enough to make RA solvent.

    Broadcast rights aren’t going to help either as the 38 million paid last year (down from 60 the year before due in part to the RWC removing June tests) is tied to having South Africa in the Super Rugby completion. Toss the Saffers out and its questionable that Foxtel will think the 25 million it apparently offered will still be on the table. So if you covet a ‘sustainable’ budget like the 10 captains and the Mosman cowboys continually regurgitate, Super Rugby has to go and Goog’s 190 professional players are gonna have to get used to the take home pay of a Clerk Level 1. At that level a domestic completion might be viable (Foxtel willing).

    Now I think Hamish Mclennan is a class above the Mosman cowboys and Im sure he will look to chart a course that isn’t as drastic as gutting the professional game. But just spitballing here – I can’t see him doing that without a lot of borrowed money. Im thinking private equity with a guaranteed share of the Lions tour might be a way to get through the next few years when revenue is going to be belted.

  • Gnostic

    Hello Harry, Whilst its good to see your passion remains, there is very little connection between the Pro level game and the club game now. Next to no connection at all with the club game below the “Premier” clubs. I too am a referee, I am lucky enough to have a reasonably successful business and sponsor a few different Rugby events, teams and groups, which I do because I love the game. I say this to show I actually have real skin the the game so to speak, apart from prognosticating in an online forum, not because it makes me special in any way. In my direct experience with the people I know in the game from multiple clubs and Unions, few have any significant engagement with Pro rugby in any way. They still play or are otherwise involved, but do not have a subscription to Fox or Kayo and do not attend Pro games. Indeed before the last RWC one First Grade Captain had no idea who was the Wallabies Captain and had little interest.

    My argument has been for years that the Pro game had distanced itself from its roots and your argument that the actual people from the clubs form the biggest part of the subscription base for a new broadcast agreement is from my direct experience just not the true case. I wish it were so, indeed I wish the performance of the Pro sides from Australia could motivate that engagement, the fact it it doesn’t and has not. This year I finally disconnected Fox and Kayo and I doubt I will reconnect. I remain engaged with the game at the local and regional level, but after the debacle of the RWC, Folau, Beale, and the self entitled group of 11 etc etc I find I am disengaged to the point I really don’t care if Pro Rugby ceases altogether in Australia. I don’t believe it will have an impact at all on the Club game, except for those who want a career from playing sport. My greatest fear was and remains the status of Insurance for players and Officials and Clubs if RA is actually insolvent.

  • Sven Galee

    The structure of the content means that Rugby AU could sell one game a week in its entirety to a free to air broadcaster,

    Absolutely agree. How else can anyone get into rugby watching? I wasn’t brought up eith it and it was a mate who introduced me. Imagine there was a game on TV each week, it’s like an entry level drug. As you said many people have Foxtel largely for the rugby.

    Having a game on free to air will be good for Fox because it increases the interest in the game, and those who want to watch more now have a reason.

Rugby
@HarrySpicerNews

An amateur rugby referee and an even more amateur journalist

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