Professional Clubs Based Competition Could Be The Answer…

Sydney University Players High Fiving
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Cover Art

The Gemba Group a company who specialise in insights, strategy and marketing communications to the global sports industry, have published their research on Super Rugby. Unsurprisingly, have found that the current Rugby model doesn’t work. And, more importantly, provides a broadcast product in which 65% of its games are of low value to Australian Broadcaster. The low value is generally because of a poor time-zone or featuring games where there are no Australian teams. Robert Mills CEO of the Gemba group has proposed a club rugby based competition to try and reignite the game. This competition would have a promotion/relegation mechanism and would have a similar model to England’s Premiership Structure.

Let me start by saying that I love this idea. Nothing is more intriguing to me than the thought of Sydney University playing against the Tuggeranong Vikings in a grand final. But I’m also conflicted, having been a Brumbies fan since their inception in 1995. The thought of a professional Rugby competition without the Brumbies makes me sad. Having said all of that, I want what’s best for the games longevity in Australia so I’m willing to buy into whatever is best for the game.

Now to reiterate, I do love this as a concept. The thought of being able to take a team who’s playing in country NSW or far north Queensland and within a few seasons have them playing in the top competition in Australia gives me goosebumps. But, if you think there’s lots of politics at the top of Rugby in Australia. Just wait until you spend some time down in clubland.

There’s no doubt Australia has the club infrastructure to support a competition like this. With roughly 850 clubs across 40 competitions. But, to get all the clubs and state bodies to buy-in might prove challenging.

Structure

A competition structure like this would require a complete overhaul of all club rugby competitions. One of the biggest hurdles I see is getting clubs and competitions to agree about which competitions fit where in the grand scheme of a new promotion/relegation system. I’ve had a crack below, modelling it after the UK system. But there are some obvious flaws.

Proposed tiers for promotion/relegation club rugby in Australia

The biggest and most obvious flaw is the geography. One of the huge advantages that the UK has over Australia is it’s relatively small size. I’ve tried to use the existing club infrastructure but where it starts to get problematic is in the QLD, WA, NT cluster on the right of the graph. The travel alone would sink a lot of clubs financially. Maybe there’s a mechanism for those Queensland teams to play in the Canberra competition rather than in WA in 5th tier. But at least Geographically these make sense (even though Brisbane is a long way from Perth).

I’d say the final consideration in regards to the structure would be what happens to the lower grade and under 20s competitions? For me, there are two options.

The first option is to model it the same as the UK. This means there are no longer under 20’s or lower grades competitions. Each of the competitions above is now a premier (1st) grade only competition. So, for example, Sunnybank’s first-grade team might be playing in the premiership, but its reserve grade team might be down in QLD Subdistricts and so on.

The 2nd option, which would be my preference. Every competition maintains it’s under 20’s and lower grades competitions. but only the premier grade can be promoted and/or relegated. This means that it’s for a clubs premier grade side to play in a competition that’s technically in a lower tier than it’s 2nd-grade side. which is technically a higher tier of Rugby.

None of this is prohibitive but it is challenging.

Rugby and Private Equity Investment and Ownership

Australian Rugby has always had an aversion to private equity in the professional game. Outside of the Western Force, there are no professional clubs that are owned by a sole entity outside of Rugby Australia or a State Rugby Body. Even local rugby clubs are heavily reliant on government funding, sponsorship and membership fees. Although, if you go to most rugby clubs in Australia there’s usually a couple of people willing to pick up the tab.

Having said all of that Brumbies chairman Matt Knobbs has stated that private equity is something Rugby needs to consider. And, as this writer sees it something the game cannot survive without. Not only does this mean private ownership of teams and clubs. But it also means privatisation of the competitions and their tiers. Speaking of which…

Competition Administration and Governance

For as long as Rugby has been professional in Australia the national body (Rugby Australia) has been involved in administering the competition. The common misconception in this country is that the national body has to run the competition. And, believe it or not, Rugby is actually in the minority here. Many of the most successful sporting leagues around the world are administered independently from the sports national body. Still don’t believe me? Google the English Premier League, the NBA, the NFL, even the NBL in Australia has had a massive resurgence since it was taken over by Larry Kestelman. But your search will highlight that each of these competitions is run by a private company. Separate from its sports national body.

I’m not saying Rugby Australia shouldn’t have a seat at the table. However, if the professional competitions are privatised, it’ll allow RA to focus their attention on their national teams and providing the resourcing to make sure they can be successful. Rugby Australia has already had a degree of success taking this approach with the Aon Uni7s Series. Rugby Australia has partnered with the 10 Universities and UniSport Australia to run the competition. Pulling roughly $1 million in funding from the Universities to run the competition. And since it’s inception in 2017 the Women’s National 7s Team has had a world series win, a commonwealth games silver, a world cup bronze and before its postponement was sitting 2nd on the world series for 2019-20. Showing that as a concept it can work.

Which Clubs Will Start Where? And a Brief Timeline.

The first point I’d like to make is that it would probably be a mistake to add the top 3 all at once. My suggestion would be to add the top professional tier first. Then, throughout maybe 5 – 8 seasons introduce the next two. Going from 5 professional clubs to 22 in one season would not be sustainable. But, over several years is a reasonable goal.

There are probably three ways to approach this. Noting that in all three instances some things’ll need to be worked out. Additionally, each of these approaches isn’t going to suit every club, but in my view, they present the fairest ways to seed clubs into their tiers.

Approach 1 – Business As Usual

With this approach, we’d keep the 5 professional clubs already in Australia in the top tier. The remaining 5 spots in the top tier would be determined in one of two ways. Performance-based or business model-based.

With a performance-based approach, we’d take the top two clubs in Queensland Premier Rugby and the Top Two Shute Shield teams and the top team from one of the John I Dent Cup, Dewar Shield or WA Premier Rugby after a playoff.

With a business model based approach, clubs would put forward a business case to be given an initial spot in the top tier. Performance would be a key criterion. But, a spot in the top tier would heavily favour those clubs with the significant financial backing and ability to sustain a jump to the professional game.

Approach 2 – ‘Just Win, Baby’

With this approach, my beloved Brumbies would be wound up along with the Waratahs, Force, Rebels and Reds. Players would be released and allowed to sign with new (hopefully domestic) clubs.

This approach is purely based on performance. The top 3 teams from both the QLD and Sydney competitions, along with the top 2 from the ACT and the top team from Victoria and WA would be included.

With some additional cash from a new broadcast deal. Clubs would be able to have their pick of players from the dissolved Super Rugby Clubs.

Approach 3 – The Elevator Pitch

As with approach two, all of our existing professional clubs will be dissolved.

However, this approach is purely based on a clubs ability to present a sustainable business model. And, as with approach 1 performance in the local competition would be a factor, but the business model will be the deciding factor.

Final Thoughts

As you can see there’s a lot to take in and a lot to get through. And that’s before we’ve discussed what happens with the state Rugby bodies.

Building this competition and its tiers over a long period could ultimately provide the best roadmap for sustained success. But making the jump too quickly could prove detrimental. I mean look at what’s happened to Super Rugby. Highlighting the need for long term vision over short term gains. I understand the game is hurting right now but if we continue to look at short-term solutions we’re doomed to repeat our previous mistakes.

None of the above is impossible but it will be challenging and in some instances problematic (particularly travel). But you can’t tell me that Rugby supporters, Broadcasters and Sponsors wouldn’t find this product more attractive than the current Super Rugby Model? Add in a Champions League style competition to go along with it and Rugby could reach new heights.

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