22 Feb 2021

Selling off our national game

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 22 February 2021
All Black midfielder Sonny Bill Williams.

Sonny Bill Williams - highly marketable.  Photo: Photosport

New Zealand Rugby is in serious financial trouble, staring down the barrel of a $40 million loss for 2020.

But American technology investment firm Silver Lake - which counts among its $60 billion portfolio such companies as Dell, Motorola, and the City Football Group - has reportedly offered New Zealand rugby some $465m for a 15 percent stake in its commercial rights.

Were the deal to go ahead, it would mark the most gargantuan development in rugby since the sport went professional in the mid-1990s.

But is there something fundamentally a bit off about the idea of selling a chunk of a national sporting body?

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to NZME journalist Liam Napier, and Halo Sports Management chief executive Simon Porter about the nuts and bolts of the deal, what each side stands to gain ... and whether this could lead to a sea change in how the world of rugby union operates.

"New Zealand Rugby has realised their financial model is broken, essentially", Napier says.

"In blunt terms, they spend more than they earn ... they need capital, and they also need expertise - particularly in the technology, streaming, broadcasting field, to grow their revenue and access new markets."

Covid-19 has, obviously, affected the balance sheet. But NZR's 2019 annual report also shows a $7m loss. This slip into the red can't be laid solely at the pandemic's feet.

This downward trend has seen the organisation explore its options, Napier says - and while it might be a novelty here, big investment firms are getting involved with rugby union in other places.

Last year the Financial Times reported the Luxembourg-based equity firm CVC Capital had invested nearly $600m to acquire a 14 percent stake in the Six Nations tournament, which sits alongside stakes in the European Pro14 club competition, and a 27 percent holding in Premiership Rugby, England's top club rugby competition.

And Silver Lake is no stranger to the world of sport either: as well as having a stake in the City Football Group, which owns Manchester City FC and New York City FC, it's also an investor in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the value of which has soared in recent years.

Investment firms don't put their money up for charity; clearly, Silver Lake thinks there's money to be made through the New Zealand Rugby brand. The question is, why can't New Zealand Rugby tap into that potential itself?

"There is a limit on the commercial revenue they can access," says Simon Porter.

"One, we've got small stadiums [and] a small population, so filling the stadium is hard.

"We don't have a national stadium, like Twickenham [which is owned by the English RFU, meaning they keep the gate receipts], which just prints money for them.

"They have bigger markets when they're selling commercial rights, or media rights.

"All that stuff means we are at a disadvantage when it comes to the commercialisation of our rugby properties."

Napier and Porter both say Silver Lake's involvement could see big changes in how the game is played and marketed.

Players could be encouraged to let their personalities and principles shine through more readily, mirroring athletes in the NBA and NFL.

It would also likely lead to more inter-hemisphere competition - and, possibly, some kind of club world championship, pitting the best of Europe against the best of the Southern Hemisphere, and possibly leading to a reshuffle of the infamously gruelling global rugby calendar.

The move has been met with cautious optimism by many in the game, but ultimately the decision will fall to the provincial rugby boards, which NZ Rugby is reported to be currently courting.

But there may well be resistance to the idea of selling off a piece of what could be thought of as 'national property' to a faceless, deep-pocketed technology firm.