Privately owned rugby teams could be the answer to the missing third tier of Australian rugby, according to the Warren Livingstone, president of Balmain Rugby Club.
Yesterday the Inner West Courier broke the story that Livingstone was behind a push to create a competition bridging the gap between Super Rugby and current competitions.
I spoke briefly with Livingstone to try and nail down a few more details about what this might mean for the landscape of rugby in Australia.
Vital to any new competition is where the teams will come from. I wondered aloud if it would be a qualification system for current clubs, a licensing fee and first in best dressed or completely new entities.
Warren interjected and said “yes, we are looking at a private ownership model,” going further to add, “We’ve spoken to net worth individuals and there is interest there.”
In the near future, Australian rugby fans may be watching brand new teams running around, employed by high-rolling rugby fans themselves.
If there is indeed enough interest among the business community, this will certainly be a fascinating test and would make this proposal a lot more Kerry Packer-esque.
Rugby fans are painfully aware of the previous attempt at a third-tier competition in Australia.
When asked about the proposed iteration Livingstone kept referring to the business side, “What we are working on is building a viable business that works.”
A viable, privately funded competition would be in stark contrast to the previous ARU funded Australian Rugby Championship that posted a $4.7 million loss in year one and subsequently folded.
A key factor in putting together a viable tournament, as Livingstone sees it, is being realistic about the scope of the competition.
“The best thing would be to have a national competition, but in the short term that isn’t viable,” he said. This is because of the nature of travel costs in Australia, especially if a competition were to ask teams to jet around the country.
Initially it “will start in Sydney… the whole premise is to make this financially viable.”
Livingstone is cautious at this early stage. He admits that “we want something like the ITM cup,” in Australia but it is imperative not to despise small beginnings.
This competition will be short and sharp; probably a seven match round-robin followed by finals.
Livingstone sees it fitting in “a window when Shute Shield is over, or in finals.”
By not working within current club rugby structures, players not in Wallabies camp, young guns trying to impress Super Rugby teams and possibly imports from overseas would make up the teams.
Players aren’t going to earn all their money in this competition.
This would seem to indicate showcasing young talent will be an important part of the package.
However, Livingstone has a track record attracting stars. He has previously convinced Sabastian Chabal, Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau to sign on with Balmain.
This is where the comparisons to World Series Cricket become most salient. There is inevitably going to be significant tension between traditional rugby administration and a new kid on the block if players do indeed start signing on.
Any new sporting competition is legitimised by securing a television deal.
Livingstone didn’t want to betray any secrets to me but revealed “discussion [with the networks] on what they would be looking for,” had been going well and was subsequently a point of reference for planning.
This is tied to why Livingstone believes “double-headers, at neutral grounds, or not,” are integral parts of the plan.
It appeals to television viewers and is much easier for a broadcaster to manage production costs. Double-headers also present value for fans at the ground.
As for a time-slot that suits this competition Livingstone said, “Channel Nine has the football (rugby league) on a Friday night. We think we could offer an opportunity for other networks.”
He specifically mentioned Network 10 and Fox Sports as organisations that may be interested in that opportunity.
Fox Sports currently show Wallabies games and having rugby to show on a Friday night, the night before most Test matches, may appeal. Network 10 don’t have the rights to many sports right now and are inevitably going to be interested in new ventures.
The suggestion of internet streaming as an option to make sure all games are shown was put forward and Livingstone was adamant that, “the best case would be to get it on a television station.”
The main thing I took away from speaking to Livingstone was what he said right at the beginning of our conversation, “We started working on this in March this year.”
Six months of silence until now indicates the amount of ground work it has taken to get the idea to this news-making stage, and there is still a lot further to go for this to become a reality.