Australian Rugby has suffered a great deal in recent years. The resignation of RA Chairman Peter Wiggs - after a short-lived six weeks in the role - was largely pinned to a complex blend of issues, but financial pressure was being felt right down to the grassroots level. Funding, at every level, was simply insufficient.
However, the incoming new Chair Hamish McLaren - who joined the board only last month - has broken his silence with some choice words, which, amidst some other positive news, suggest the troubled period is finally easing. At the very least, someone is doing something about it. From word of private equity investments, news of a much-needed TV deal and some solid plans for the future will be music to the ears of Aussie rugby fans worried for the future of their beloved sport.
A return to the screen
With no broadcasting deal in sight up until mid-2020, the prospects of pumping money back into the RA were slim. As with any major international sporting body, a reliance on TV rights is nothing new. Therefore, a collective sigh of relief was audible across the country as Fox Sports were able to sign a deal to air a new Super Rugby competition. While certainly not the long-term fix the RA needs, it’s a step forward.
The structure is simple. From July, the domestic league kicks off once again. Similar set-ups have been seen in football, UFC, and basketball leagues. Initially, teams are expected to be flying in and promptly leaving once they’ve played games. The tournament is essentially a ten-week, round-robin style competition, finishing with a short, two-week “final series”, that teams can qualify for on 12th September.
The final would then be hosted on 19th September. In the absence of games, fans are likely salivating at the prospect of fresh competition. Currently, the Brumbies are favourites with rugby union betting putting them at 1.61. However, the odds are tight amongst the top teams, as the Brumbies are followed closely by the Reds (5.50) and Rebels (6.50).
The Fox Sports deal will be a useful injection of cash, however, the long-term issues still remain. The previous TV deals were raking approximately $57m per year for the RA, the new deal is not likely to come close.
Hamish McLaren has made clear he wants to approach the project as something of a clean slate - approaching the rebuild in a five-pronged structure. Speaking recently, he explained in simple terms; "It's a new day and a new opportunity to create something valuable".
Certainly, for a man with extensive experience working for some of the world’s largest media and financial conglomerates - including a period spent working for Rupert Murdoch - this approach makes some sense. McLaren already declared admiration for the situation at Manchester City football club, where a reported $500 million stake was purchased thanks to private equity firms. While this decision would still need board approval, the chances of it happening are strengthened by the simple question; where else will the money come from?
McLaren wants to secure the financial aspect of the RA before anything else, and can anyone blame him? It doesn’t seem so. However, there are circles in the sport who are wary of such a move. A course of action that protected the more prestigious aspects of the nation’s rugby - the national team, for example, and sold off other portions would be more agreeable to the majority.
At the end of the day, private equity firms are profit-driven, and not sentimental investment partners. The RA has to be careful in making their decision. It’s about supporting the sports, from grassroots to national level - without selling the soul of one of the nation’s largest and most loved sports.