Rugby: Paul Lewis – The ugly truth emerging as Silver Lake deal remains deadlocked


Elton John once sent this verse to John Lennon in a birthday card for the latter’s 40th birthday, a send-up of Lennon’s famous song Imagine:

Imagine four apartments

It isn’t hard to do

One is full of fur coats

The other full of shoes

Elton was famously fluid with his many millions, once admitting to spending $57 million in 20 months. When queried, he said: “I am not a nest egg sort of guy”.

The New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association do, however, seem to have an eye on the nest egg rather than the nest by stalling New Zealand Rugby’s desire to raise $387m through selling 12.5 per cent of NZR’s commercial rights in perpetuity.

The ugly truth is emerging from these hogtied negotiations: self-interest rules. NZR fired off a rude letter to the players, basically accusing them of putting their elite selves ahead of the good of community rugby. The players – already paid 36 per cent of NZR’s revenue – now effectively want 41 per cent; NZR, on the other hand, want to reduce the percentage the players will receive, though they insist the players will receive more money from a revenue pot inflated by the Silver Lake deal.

The players armed themselves with a BDO report that said NZR could be a loss-making venture by 2025 if the deal doesn’t result in the proposed increased revenue. Both sides are starting to look a bit like the seagulls fighting over Silver Lake’s fish and chips.

In the middle of all this came some media articles bemoaning the corrosive effect of private money on New Zealand’s sainted game. Perhaps provoked in part by fans’ rebellion against football’s hated and quickly ditched Super League proposal, this stuff seemed to be searching for a similar “save-our-game, it’s-our-sport-not-yours” reaction here.

There is no empirical evidence or market research but, anecdotally, Kiwi rugby fans do not seem too worried by the view of some dissenters – that NZR could lose control of the All Blacks, forcing players to extol the virtues of things like triple mushroom & cheese rabbit burgers, and underpants.

If you search for signs of boiling outrage, you’ll likely find the consensus seems to be cautious consent, allied to concern about what happens if the silver (lake) tarnishes.

There is one inalienable truth in all this – the game’s grassroots and community wellbeing is pretty much munted and NZR’s current model is headed for loss anyway.

There’s really only one answer – trouser the dosh and set about fixing the game while building in as many safeguards as possible for NZR to maintain control. Outgoing chairman Brent Impey has pretty much gone blue in the face assuring everyone the All Blacks won’t change and won’t be caught up in some commercial rugby circus that diminishes everybody.

It’s all about new revenue streams, like broadcast and streaming platforms, awakening the potential support (and money) to be gained from enhancing the All Blacks’ global brand and millions of fans overseas. Tell me NZR can unlock that on its own.

More revenue equals a bigger share to the players but their insistence on a hard percentage has seen Impey go on the attack, PR-wise. The players had philosophical problems with the deal, he said, but were prepared to overlook that if the money was right.

There’s probably no universe in which I would believe the players are just money-hungry elitists who don’t give a stuff about the grassroots, even though Dane Coles made me laugh when he went on TV and said it wasn’t about the money.

But the players are losing the perception game, painted as entitled. NZR cast themselves as guardians of the grassroots; NZRPA hit back with the BDO report, dismissed by NZR, addressing a scenario where Silver Lake don’t make their revenue targets but still hoover up millions for their shareholders.

However, the NZRPA can see what it looks like when athletes earning comparative gazillions stand in stark contrast to the little guys.

Rugby has people, clubs and provinces in need of oxygen. The players need to jump on that bus and help make it work. You know, like a team.

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