Saturday, May 21

CVC’s £ 365 million endorsement of rugby union may be less sexy than it sounds | Six nations

TO “New age” for rugby is how it is being portrayed. The Welsh Rugby Union has gone even further, calling it ‘a pivotal moment in the history of international play in Wales’. If you hear all the trumpet fanfare after the confirmation of CVC’s £ 365 million investment in the Six Nations championship, then “game changer” is indeed the obvious phrase.

Or is that it? The truth is that no one can be completely sure. On paper, it all sounds wonderful: more money in the coffers at a time when financial reserves are low, a canny business partner with experience in the field of maximizing revenues from digital and television broadcasts. Quick, where do I sign?

Actually, the equation is a little less sexy. The average private equity firm could teach a group of piranha fish a lesson in the art of determined cruelty. A healthy return on investment, preferably sooner rather than later, is all that counts; the rest is frivolous. There are plenty of precious doses up front, sure, but rugby managers wouldn’t do well to sit back, relax, and assume they now own a one-way ticket to the land of milk and honey.

Because if the sport was carried out extraordinarily well and everything in the garden was free of weeds, the CVC contribution would not be necessary. And with the TV rights market showing all signs of having peaked, where exactly is all this game-changing extra revenue guaranteed to come from? There are already too many games on the schedule, so simply putting more tests on the schedule is not an option.

The trick, clearly, is to be smarter than most rugby managers have been in the quarter century since the game turned pro. Before this week, nobody has managed to separate the international game completely from the club weekends, to offer more than a secondary role to the international women’s rugby in commercial terms: “for me it is a wonderful opportunity for the women’s game”, says Ben Morel. , the executive director of the Six Nations, or reinventing competitions to capture not only the national imagination, but also a huge number of fans globally to compare to those of, say, the Premier League, the NFL or the NBA.

Dragons v Ulster at Pro14 last Saturday
Dragons v Ulster in Pro14 last Saturday. He will become the Pro 16 next season. Photograph: Mark Lewis / Huw Evans / Rex / Shutterstock

Rugby union, you might well argue, could never be that big. Maybe that’s his Achilles heel – he thinks he’s bigger than he is. On the other hand, almost everyone in rugby feels the same way – the sport has been woefully under-promoted and is still misperceived by far too many people as a middle-class game aimed at middle-aged white men enjoying a cake and a pint.

In that sense, at least, CVC timing is excellent. “We are moving, whether we like it or not, into an era of more individual content consumption,” says Morel. “People want to see what they want to see, when they want to see it, on whatever device they want. It’s about making sure we can provide that service to our fans … and help people better understand the game. “

Part of that will involve “moving from the simple passive audience to participating in the game,” as Morel puts it. “If you want to see the best attempts of a player from the past, you should have easy access to that. Tracking player movement within games, tracking the ball itself … is also an opportunity to make the game much simpler for the casual fan. Helping people understand the complexities of the game is something that I really want to push forward. “

Let’s put aside for a moment, though, the gadgets, the lively game-day “experience,” and the broadcast vs. paywall argument and focus on the commodity. Morel does not hide the fact that one of the priorities will be to create “a true recap story on the international games of fall” that works for the players as well as for the announcers and fans. Then there’s CVC’s investment in both the Pro14 / Pro16 and the Premiership, which would suggest that one day the two leagues will align more closely. Once again, there is a certain logic there.

South Africa's Siya Kolisi lifts Webb Ellis Cup in 2019
South Africa’s Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. CVC might one day be looking forward to participating in the Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

One wonders if they will eventually fancy the really big, Rugby World Cup, with World Rugby already nervous about the “clout” CVC may have. For now, however, it is the adjustments made to the Six Nations that will define whether the posh folks of private equity are truly brilliant white knights or, ultimately, something else. Will they advise placing a game each round (answer: probably) behind a paywall? Or will they be smarter and try to boost the global audience by other means?

Is it almost too easy, for example, to imagine a tiebreaker between the winners of the Six Nations and the Kings of the Rugby Championship? And if you were to do that, why not have one between the bottom side in the Six Nations and the top side in the European Rugby Championship, whose top four teams are currently Georgia, Romania, Russia and Spain? Currently, Italy’s point difference after just four games is a ghastly -142. Losing at Murrayfield this weekend by 10 points or more will ensure, statistically, the worst Six Nations campaign recorded by any team. Can such negligible performance be tolerated indefinitely? If your “new age” partners make a strong enough financial case, even turkeys may be forced to vote for Christmas.

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The mighty ‘Scoop’

How sad to hear of the death, at 70 after a long illness, of the brilliant sportswriter Martin Johnson, as hilarious in person as it is invariably in print. He spent much of his career covering cricket, but he also had a decent season as a rugby correspondent for Leicester Mercury at a time when, as he put it, “the rugby reporter for a local newspaper was not in the running for a journalistic award like Victoria Cross ”.

The first chapter of Rugby and All That – he dedicated the book “to my liver” – is particularly glorious, detailing the time he spent in “the curled-up hedgehog position” and was taught the differences between a ruck and a maul. forwards and hung by the ankles from the Avon Bridge in Stratford. Rare was the journey when he returned home with his pants or a shoe that hadn’t disappeared through the center skylight of the team bus and his old-school tales of the Tigers are still a treat.

Here is a brief example: “The club secretary, in his 60s, once decided that the modern player could not dive the bar in the same style as in his day and tried to clear about 17 chairs – Evil Knievel style. – in the bar upstairs. They needed a tow truck to clean up the mess and they never found his glasses. “RIP” Scoop “and thanks for all the laughs.

One to look at

All eyes on Paris, where Wales have a chance to win a fifth Grand Slam in 16 years, more than England, Ireland and Scotland have garnered from each other in the last 25 years. There have been different coaches, different staff, and some intermediate valleys, but no other country can match their strike rate in the championship. France is still hopeful, but when Wales win a Six Nations trophy, they have a track record of results.

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