Southern hemisphere rugby is in dire straits, of that there can be no doubt. The decision by the power brokers to expand the Super Rugby competition has proven to have been misguided and one based on ego and greed, and New Zealand Rugby, South African Rugby and the Australian Rugby union are all paying a heavy price. All three unions have admitted that none of their Super Rugby franchises have made a profit, and they have had to subsidise them to keep the clubs and the competition afloat.
It was foolish to expand from Super 15 to Super 18. Then, once realising the error of their ways, how they thought that the franchises and the fans of those franchises would accept having their team taken away so easily showed a complete lack of understanding, and gross incompetence. The ARU simply thought they could cull the Western Force, revert to an Eastern states competition, and the ship would be righted and back on an even keel. Now they face possible legal challenges depending on their decision when they make it.
There is great speculation as to what the ARU delegates are going to say when they attend a SANZAAR meeting in Tokyo in the next ten days to discuss the way forward for the competition. What appears even more scary for the fans of the game is the fact that they do not appear to have had a back up plan now that the Force refused to go quietly.
South Africa seems to have accepted that two teams must go. The reason being that rugby fans in that country worship the Springboks as much as New Zealanders respect the All Black jersey and those who are privileged to wear it. In these two countries the national rugby shirt has the same value as the baggy green cap of the Australian cricket team.
As a result the fans know that the increase in franchises has diluted their talent pool and has forced teams to play young talent before they are ready for Super Rugby, and that young talent then picks up injuries that delays their progression to the Springbok jersey. The other contributing factor to the parlous state of South African rugby is the value of the Rand. Many players opting to head overseas and earn money that will secure their financial futures, money that they could not hope to earn in South Africa.
To show just how desperate things are in the Republic, just last week South African Rugby announced that it was considering playing Test matches outside of South Africa. This would have been unheard of even ten years ago.
The governing body posted losses of 23.3million Rand (AUD2.3million). They claim that a lack of sponsorship, a tough economic climate, and having to support 14 professional provincial teams has forced them to explore such drastic measures.
By playing a high profile Test match abroad they believe that it will enable them to earn much needed money that they would struggle to bring in at home Test match in South Africa. It is a ploy that was used by Argentina and Ireland last year, but is this not just a short term fix? If done regularly will such an event simply lose its appeal and earning capacity?
That is no doubt why Jurie Roux the SAR Chief executives was quoted as saying, “We could move an attractive Test overseas if it makes commercial sense, within a four year cycle one year could be set aside to play the New Zealand All Blacks abroad for the commercial good of domestic rugby.”
Fans in South Africa will not like the idea, but are sure to understand that this has to be done if they wish to stay a top international team, and a Test match overseas once every four years is not too bitter a pill to swallow.
South Africa though appears to be making headway in doing what is best for their flagship team the Springboks. They have a criteria on which the current Super Rugby teams will be judged to determine which will be axed, although a decision is unlikely to be made before June. As revealed by Wayne Smith in The Australian newspaper they have even started talks to see if the two displaced Super Rugby teams can play in the Pro12 competition in Europe and have it expanded to Pro14. With South Africa in the same time zone as France and only one hour ahead of Great Britain this makes perfect sense.
Where will the displaced Australian Franchise play?
What is more worrying for the Super Rugby competition, which was when it was Super 15’s arguably the best professional Rugby Competition in the world, is that when the current SANZAAR broadcast deal expires in 2020, it has been suggested that the existing joint venture be dissolved. It will however continue to exist purely for Test match rugby, and as suggested previously on this site that South Africa will compete with the European nations, and Australia and New Zealand will continue their Trans Tasman rivalries.
The debacle that has come out of Super Rugby should be a warning to all sports administrators. A competition involving a number of different nations playing over vast distances in different countries and time zones is a very expensive exercise and fraught with danger. As Super 18 has shown, it is a format that is unsustainable.
Other warning signs are there for all to see, Television is no longer going to bank-roll sport. Television stations globally have forked out vast sums of money for the rights of various competitions, many because they have needed a flagship product on which to build a dedicated sports channel. Yet subscription levels for pay television have reached their peak, so now the only way the television stations can make money is through sponsorship dollars, and with a Global economy that is dipping almost every four years they can no longer be assured of those dollars. The next option they have to generate revenue is to make major games pay-per-view, but as we have seen with many events punters are prepared to illegally stream the sport and hope that the broadcaster will not prosecute as the costs and time taken are ultimately not worth it; and those streaming would probably never have the money to pay the fine.
The fact that the Football Federation of Australia has struggled to find a free-to-air broadcaster to take A-League games confirms that the broadcast market is changing, and sport is no longer the draw card it used to be. With a more global reach fans can watch foreign leagues of a higher standard, or, as with Super Rugby a competition that makes sense and is easy to understand. The expansion complicated a simple well-structured competition and having a third of the teams play in the finals simply did not appeal to fans of the game or the competition.
This also shows that administrators, who often watch the games from the comfort of their sponsors boxes, are out of touch with the views of the paying customers who walk through the turnstiles. Sport has, and always will, belong to the people. It brings together communities, people from all races and religions and unites them. We are seeing that now as fans of the Western Force come together to try and save their franchise from the axe. The fact that even the former Governor General of Western Australia, Malcolm McCusker has come out to lend his support from a legal perspective shows how sport unites.
There are many lessons to be learned from the mistakes made in an expansion that was always doomed to fail. Yet how many other sports are watching and learning? How many will end up making similar mistakes in the next few years?