What CVC plan to do with Rugby

23 January 2020  |  Richard Mayson

Rugby has struggled through infancy: survived childhood: pulled through adolescence: and is now heading for the shock of the adult. From the charmed and quaint beginnings of the Victorian era to modern day ballyhoo, Rugby has changed immeasurably. It has predictably succumbed to the force of capitalism and globalisation. Our wee moral hill (and glen) has long been abandoned. Time to grow up.

Nothing signals adulthood more than CVC’s entry to the market. The domestic leagues in England and France, the Six Nations and the Champions Cup are all alluring. Gate receipts, commercial sponsorship and TV deals have all been steadily increasing over the years. 

After CVC’s experience with Formula One – an asset that printed money for a decade – they spy an impressionable young adult they can hitch their wagon to. CVC will have a 7-10 year plan for rugby. Perhaps slightly longer as the interests in Rugby are so fragmented and will take time to align.

A British league

The Pro14 and Premiership are likely to be amalgamated in some fashion. The structure would either be an East/ West conference (like the NBA) or a Tier One/Tier Two set-up with promotion and relegation between them (less likely option). The bundling of these two leagues will transform the commercial value. 

This will also harmonise the calendar and put an end to the Yoyo of promotion and relegation in the premiership. One potential sticky point will be the Champions Cup. Will the commercial value of the Champions Cup reduce if we see Exeter play Munster twice in the regular season, for example? Possibly. CVC – through their stakes in the Premiership and Pro14 – already own a part of EPCR. It’s hard to see the French and the RFU waving this through.

Governance

Another major signal that it is time for Rugby to grow up and enter the real world is governance. Rugby has always been run by rugby people. Ex-players or enthusiasts have traditionally occupied influential positions within the game. Saracensgate is another example of when a winning obsession, hubris and weak governance collide. Sports fans have seen this movie before.

Have the PRL learned some lessons from Saracens-gate? In 2015 clubs had been showing utter contempt for the salary cap. This should have been gypsies warning but PRL seemed to learn nothing from it. . Following this, the PRL changed little to the governance structure or control functions. Which means the PRL were either complicit or incompetent in Saracensgate.

Independent professional administrators – people who do governance for a living – need to be given a far-reaching remit. The behind-closed-doors culture must be history if the game wants a future. We know that self-regulation has not worked in banking or Silicon Valley. Don’t even start on FIFA.

The point is this: rugby can no longer mark its own homework. CVC will enforce better governance because the asset will be worth more with it in place.

Midweek games

In professional sport, a huge amount is dictated by the broadcasters. In short, if broadcasters want Monday night games (like the NFL’s Monday Night Football) they’ll get them. Especially if a new blockbuster British league TV deal is struck. The broadcaster will want to show more games, more eyeballs and more advertising revenue. Inconvenient logistics for fans trying to get to Sale or Exeter on a Monday night will be irrelevant.

New market push

Expect CVC to punt the game into Asia (China) and America. America is a prize market if you’re selling anything. But particularly if you’re selling competitive sports coverage. It is hard to see CVC making enough inroads in those two markets within ten years to generate the required returns. World Rugby has had an ambition to grow the game for years and have had tepid success – Japan standfast. Rugby X, the Women’s game, Sevens and Global Rapid Rugby will all help but expect a glacial progress. 

A further point to note for Rugby’s boss is this: if you want to break into China with a sports product, kiss goodbye to your moral virtue. Players, owners and administrators will not be able to show any support for Tibet, Hong Kong protestors or whomever is a victim of Chinese hegemony. Ask the owner of the Houston Rockets or Mesut Ozil.

Conclusion

Rugby is currently infuriating and infatuating in equal measure. It is an exciting time for the game. CVC are likely to bring structural change, better governance and ambitious ideas to commercialise the game.

But don’t celebrate just yet. Formula One viewing figures in 2008 were circa 600M and a decade later had dropped to 490M. Many chastise CVC for loading it with debt and disappearing with a 400% return. One thing that is irrefutable: the time has come for rugby to grow up and aspire to the relative stability of middle age. And hopefully CVC can help make this happen.