ARU CEO Bill Pulver answers your burning rugby questions

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    After Roar expert Brett McKay‘s summary of the state of rugby in Australia last week, The Roar put the questions from our experts, as well as some from Roarers, to ARU CEO Bill Pulver.

    READ MORE:
    » The Roar’s burning questions for ARU CEO Bill Pulver

    » Live Q&A session with Bill Pulver

    » SPIRO: The ARU Gospel according to Pulver

    He’s generously answered each and every one, and also held a live Q&A session on Wednesday 2nd April, 12pm.

    Brett McKay asks:
    Is all the cost-cutting having a positive effect on the game’s finances?

    Yes, it is, Brett.

    We’ll be releasing our formal financial report at our Annual General Meeting in May, but it’ll show that we had a good cash balance at the end of the 2013 calendar year. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve that without making some tough decisions, so those decisions have helped us reach the position we’re in now.

    Overall, we need to reshape how the financial management of our game operates, as we’ve relied too heavily on major windfalls in the past, rather than building a sustainable future.

    Our financial result for 2013 comes off the back of the incredibly successful nine-match British and Irish Lions Tour.

    This year, we have three inbound Tests in June (in addition to the four Tests we’ll host as part of the Rugby Championship). With next year being a Rugby World Cup year, we’ll only host two Tests – so our revenue will be impacted.

    Ensuring we have a sustainable business from a financial perspective is a real priority for me, so while some of the decisions I’ve made may not please everyone, they’ve been essential to ensure we’re adopting a more sustainable model.

    While we’re making progress, we still have lots of work to do to ensure we can build a financially sustainable future.

    What is Australia’s preferred model for Super Rugby from 2016, and how close will that be to what eventuates?

    Our preferred Super Rugby structure is a two-conference model, with Australia and New Zealand linked with Asia. However this option wasn’t supported by our SANZAR partners or the broadcasters.

    SANZAR – the joint venture between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – has a tough job, because we’re trying to cater for the needs of very different markets, with different challenges, opportunities and perspectives.

    SANZAR modelled and considered a number of wide-ranging competition options and representatives from all unions, negotiated in the right spirit – one of collaboration and respect for the needs of all countries involved.

    This is a process that always involves some give and take and that has happened in recent months.

    My biggest priority for the Super Rugby competition now and from 2016, is that we add value to our potential broadcasting revenue and that our players continue to play against the best players and teams in the world, week-in, week-out.

    We were open to building a completely separate and new Australasian competition, and while New Zealand was interested, the desire to include South Africa in more regular competition is an important element for them.

    So it’s complex, but I’m feeling really confident that we’ll have consensus soon among the SANZAR countries, and then our next steps will be to speak to broadcasters before releasing more information to the public.

    Is rugby doing enough to promote and market itself in Australia?

    We know that Aussies love a winner – and winning on the big stage will certainly help us.

    Fan engagement is critical for the success of rugby in Australia, and we are looking at a number of ways to ensure we generate interest from our most avid fans and sport lovers in general.

    While we don’t have the large marketing budgets of some other professional codes, and the fact is we do exist in the world’s most competitive winter sporting market, our key focus is making sure the product – that is, the rugby being played – is being played in an entertaining way.

    Our coaches are fully aware that we operate in a competitive market and the fans want to see smart, creative, running rugby that ultimately wins games.

    We also want to make sure the fans of rugby get to know our players in a more fun and personable way. We realise that the players are our stars and it is important for rugby followers to get to know the players on and off the field.

    As a result, we will be using our digital and social media channels, our media partners in Fox Sports and Network 10 and our sponsors to showcase our players.

    Stay tuned for some entertaining TV commercials and social media activities during the Tests against France, Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship.

    Also, we recognise we need to get out among the community and meet the fans and kids who play our great game.

    As a result, we have fan days planned in each state leading up to the Wallaby Tests. We’ll also have some exciting fan initiatives leading into the first Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney – we’ll have more information on this soon.

    We’re also really concentrating on the fan experience at the matches, so I hope our rugby fans come along to our Tests and get involved in these activities and cheer on the Wallabies in 2014.

    Spiro Zavos asks:
    What are you doing about the loss of influence with John O’Neill’s resignation from the Rugby World Cup organising committee? O’Neill had a huge influence on the laws committee, the payment of SANZAR countries for Rugby World Cup year losses, and the politics of the IRB, such as the Rugby World Cup 2003 in Australia and 2011 in New Zealand.

    John has been a terrific servant to rugby in his time at Australian Rugby Union and also on a world stage. Fortunately for us, he did not resign from the Rugby World Cup organising committee until much of the planning and preparation for next year’s tournament had already taken place, so the event will still benefit significantly from his involvement.

    We continue to have representation and influence on the IRB Executive Committee and each of its sub-committees – the Rugby Committee; the Regulations Committee; and the Audit and Risk Committee.

    It’s worth mentioning in this context, that the IRB is currently going through a governance review in which we have been fully involved, including as part of the Governance Working Body.

    We are confident this review will result in a new governance model which promotes the most effective decision-making for world rugby but which also preserves the appropriate level of influence for Australia.

    What about the poor attitude SANZAR takes to supporters with the local referee system, the clashing jerseys, the lack of promotion of big matches and players and the general way SANZAR keeps everyone out of the loop? SANZAR needs reform – are you going to lead the charge?

    Spiro, I don’t share your views on SANZAR needing to be reformed. SANZAR is in a unique situation where it’s trying to bring together the interests of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; as well as Argentina.

    It’s a tricky business trying to keep everyone involved happy all the time.

    SANZAR hasn’t really been set up to promote big matches or players – that’s primarily the role of the individual unions. SANZAR Management, while it certainly has a role in administering and advancing Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship competitions, in fact acts on directives of the unions.

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to about SANZAR keeping everyone out of the loop – and would be happy for you to get in touch with me with some examples so I can keep that in mind for the next SANZAR meeting.

    Clyde Rathbone asks:
    What do you consider the single greatest risk to the future of Australian rugby?

    I think the biggest risk for us is that we need to truly re-engage our fans, and if we don’t do that, our game will be under risk.

    I come across people all the time at functions, or junior club fundraisers who say they love and support rugby – but when I ask how many of them have been to a match in the past 12 months, generally three or four people put their hands up out of a room full of people.

    That’s not good enough and shows me that we’ve still got a lot more work to do to re-engage fans and build on the momentum that already exists across the country in relation to rugby.

    I know you’ve only asked for one risk – but there are a couple of others that I want to mention – they are financial and player welfare. I’ve probably covered the financial side of things in the questions from Brett McKay, but I want to touch on the player welfare risks we face.

    Players are the key to our game – they’re the people who perform for fans, engage our fans and create the magic of a great game of rugby.

    So we need to take care of our players – that covers everything from ensuring we take medical and sports medicine issues like concussion seriously and use the latest medical advice to guide our approach, right through to ensuring their travel schedules are suitable.

    Scott Allen asks:
    You’ve made significant cuts to the overheads in head office expenditure since you started – how do Australia’s overheads now compare to other top nations?

    In most businesses, people are one of the biggest costs, and we’ve made some tough decisions that have impacted people in the past 12 months or so.

    To be honest with you Scott, I don’t know how many staff the other top rugby-playing nations have, but we all operate in really different markets and my focus is on being smarter about the way we work, rather than getting too caught up in exact staff numbers.

    We also need to continue to look at our revenue, and look at more ways to increase our revenue, as well as how we’re spending our money – not only on staff, but more generally, in everything we do. That will continue.

    Questions from Roarers

    FWH asks:
    What, if any, are the plans to change the development path in rugby union from the age of 16 onwards? I have seen too often the best talent in rugby be taken to NRL clubs straight out of school, as the pathway and future is clearly laid out for them. Those who do stay in union are often athletically short of where they need to be to compete against other countries in Under 20s etc, as they have not been in a structured program or training institution.

    This is a really great question, because our development pathway hasn’t been very clear for kids who want to move from junior rugby right through to representative ranks and ultimately selection at the elite levels.

    We now have a really clear pathway that makes it easier for kids to see how they can transition through each stage of the pathway. Some examples are:

    Junior Gold Cup – national competition for Under 15 and Under 17 teams played February to April (the final will be held this Saturday, 5 April). The competition involved 48 teams, 1,400 players, 96 coaches, 86 match officials, playing 126 matches right across the country.

    Under 20s – we’ve changed the program for Under 20s, because it was clear that our teams didn’t have enough preparation going into the Junior World Cup competitions. This year, we’re holding a number of regional and national Under 20s competitions (NSW Colts won the National U20 Championships last week), and the Australian side will ultimately be picked at the end of those competitions, which will culminate in a 28-player national squad to play at the IRB Junior World Cup in New Zealand this June.

    Pacific Rugby Cup – this has just finished and gave our Super Rugby development players an opportunity to play against teams from the Pacific and Argentina. It means development players are actually playing hard rugby, rather than just training – and it also gave them a chance to impress the Super Rugby coaches – so we’ll be watching those who took part with interest as the Super Rugby season progresses.

    National Rugby Championship – you’ve probably heard some news about this, our new domestic competition to help bridge the gap for players between Premier Club Rugby and Super Rugby. It’ll be kicking off in August, and will include nine teams from across the country. It should be great.

    So, you can see that there’s a lot going on to help players develop, specifically through a challenging talent pathway that is based on playing, not training.

    Having a clear pathway is really important, because it will ultimately generate more successful national teams in the longer term.

    I would also add that the pathway has been created not only with players in mind, but coaches and match officials, because it’s important that we create pathways for them as well.

    We’re comfortable that the athletic preparation of our kids moving through the pathway is working well, as our players match up very well athletically in the 16- to 20-year-old age group. We may not match the overall size of other countries, but we’ve had success in providing quality training programs for our best young talent at state and national level.

    Players who recently competed in the Under 21 age group have proven that, including Super Rugby players Curtis Browning, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Sean McMahon and Australian Sevens player Cameron Clark.

    I’ve had quite a few emails from parents of kids who’ve been competing in the Junior Gold Cup in recent weeks, saying that they’ve been really happy with the opportunity, so hopefully that means more kids will be ready to take the next step up through our pathway.

    Viking asks:
    Is there any chance of some Super Rugby being shown on free-to-air TV? To me that’s one of the biggest impediments to growing the game beyond the traditional rugby viewership.

    Our current broadcast deal expires at the end of 2015, so we’ll naturally be exploring all options, including free-to-air options when we negotiate our next broadcast deal for 2016 and beyond.

    I would love to see more rugby on free-to-air networks to reach more people, but previously, there hasn’t been an appetite from free-to-air networks to make this happen.

    Our challenge is to secure the best broadcast deal possible – which helps fund our game – with the need to ensure there is access to rugby for fans across the country.

    You’d be aware that our Test matches are available on free-to-air TV, but with our broadcast deal for 2016 still a little while away from being finalised, I won’t have any updates for you on this for a little while yet.

    I do hear this feedback often when I’m speaking to rugby fans though, so I’m certainly aware that there’s a desire for more Super Rugby content to be on free-to-air for our fans.

    Simon Livingstone asks:
    Do the ARU have plans to take 100 per cent control of the Australia Super Rugby and Wallaby TV recording and presentation rights so they can be sold and distributed to cable, free-to-air and digital TV outlets in Australia and worldwide? And will they vary player contracting so Australian rugby benefits from Australian star players moving overseas?

    Simon, our broadcast deal is negotiated as SANZAR, and the money from the broadcast deal in each of the SANZAR countries (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) is then divided up.

    So – we don’t have any capacity to do what you’re proposing at the moment, because as long as we’re part of SANZAR, the negotiations are done as a collective.

    Our starting position on all eligibility for players to play for Australia is that they need to be committed to Australian rugby. We’re not considering changes to that at the moment, but we’ll certainly let the rugby community know if that changes.

    James P asks:
    Given that Sevens is now part of the Olympics, and the success of the Big Bash Twenty20 cricket both in crowd numbers and  television audiences, does the ARU have any plans to use Sevens to grow the overall viewership across Australia?

    Sevens is a huge opportunity for us on a number of fronts – it’s encouraging more people to play rugby, particularly girls and women, and it’s also an opportunity to attract new fans to a new format of our game.

    You’ve made a good point about the comparison with cricket’s Big Bash and they’ve done a terrific job at making T20 a great event for families.

    Sevens is a really exciting spectator sport – we host one the legs of the men’s international series on the Gold Coast in October – but we do need to do more work to ensure the sporting and general public understands more about the game and how they can get involved.

    It’s also a game with a huge international flavour, with some of the leading Sevens teams coming from countries that aren’t as strong in the traditional format of rugby, so it’s exciting on lots of levels.

    Our women are currently number one in the world – and we have a big year ahead with our men and women needing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, so it’s a really exciting time for Sevens and you’ll see and hear more about it.

    We’ve had great support from Fox Sports with Sevens, and they’ve been broadcasting many of the tournaments which is great – so we’re making progress to raise the profile, but I’d say that we still have a lot more work to do.

    The Roar’s burning questions for Bill Pulver.

    Bill Pulver live Q&A session.

    Bill Pulver was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Australian Rugby Union (ARU) in February 2013.
    Throughout his career, he has lived and worked in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia across a diverse range of industries including media, research, internet, sports marketing and linguistics.
    Mr Pulver holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of New South Wales.

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