A popular dance, the Rumba is sometimes referred to as the Latin Waltz because of its slow rhythm and sensual movements.
It is also what is known as a spot dance, where the couple does not travel around the dance floor, but stays in one location.
Indeed, a box diagram of the dance demonstrates a series of sideways, front and backward steps – ultimately tracking a journey that, while it might involve some fun along the way, ultimately ends up going nowhere.
It is an apt metaphor for rugby fans for whom there is a palpable sense of frustration that the game is captive to economic imbalances that are resulting in the game in the southern hemisphere being slowly picked apart by northern hemisphere clubs, and being devalued by local administrators whose only apparent expertise is in driving increasing number of fans away from the game.
The first sticking point for Australian rugby fans is the inability of the sport to control its own destiny. The fact that SANZAAR exists in the first place and that Australia’s rugby destiny depends on it is simultaneously detested and misunderstood by many who cast a jealous eye towards the domestic behemoths, the AFL and NRL.
No matter that rugby is both a professional and amateur game, and that the sport’s administrators are charged with funding and administering both. No easy task when the commercial arena is global, comprising competitors in more populous markets and operators with pockets far deeper than Australia and New Zealand’s.
Even so, if the voices of fans are to be believed, Australia extricating itself from SANZAAR would be a very popular move.
Of course, this would only be for as long as it took people to realise that there would be no money to keep young talent from the grasp of voracious NRL clubs and keep elite players at home, pathways into professional rugby would be destroyed, widening the gulf between the Wallabies and other nations, and the notion that there is a free-to-air television network waiting to pounce on a semi-professional domestic rugby competition and elevate it to prominence would be exposed as a fraud.
Rugby’s reality is that for all of its imperfections and frustrations, SANZAAR isn’t going anywhere. It is indeed rugby’s Rumba.
Following the completion of the 2017 season, SANZAAR conducted a detailed strategic review, culminating in the production of a SANZAAR 2030 strategy document.
As anyone who has worked in a corporate environment knows, such exercises can provide a functional blueprint for a forward-thinking business or they can be a vanity exercise for box-ticking executives, something for a successor to toss aside as quickly as it was conceived.
The method of SANZAAR’s strategic approach is important because the nature of its governance – three founding members plus Argentina, spread far across the globe – implies a complexity to the decision-making process, where matters are dealt with by committee, always with a view to individual members balancing their own needs with the collective good.
Setting aside all of the detail, some important points are worth revisiting.
SANZAAR’s challenges are formidable: declining match-day and television viewing audiences, retention of players and coaches, the financial sustainability of franchises, changes in the ways live sport is provided and consumed, the economic strength of the northern hemisphere rugby market, among many others.
For the period covered by the review, until 2030 at a minimum, all four nations have pledged commitment to SANZAAR. What this means is that while South Africa may continue to explore various options with regard to participation in northern hemisphere competitions, there will be no substantive change in the forseeable future.
There is a commitment to the delivery of competition structures with improved integrity, such as the shift to a 14-team round-robin format in 2021.
New fans in new markets will be sought via increased digital presence and potential aggregation of broadcasting rights across all platforms. The upcoming broadcasting rights negotiations are subject to factors both accretive and decremental.
Opportunities to expand both the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby will continue to be explored, either within the existing competition structures or through additional, branded competitions – think the potential addition of Japan, Fiji, and the USA at Test level, and potential new second-tier Super Rugby conferences incorporating the Americas, South Pacific and Asia.
Changes will only be countenanced that deliver commercial uplift and meet credible high performance criteria – a reality check for the preceding point.
This high performance emphasis speaks to a contradiction that is at SANZAAR’s heart – one that continues to be a driver of its success at international level, and an impediment pushing Super Rugby further underground.
Despite the efforts of some UK and French clubs to prove otherwise, Test rugby retains primacy in the game, with the World Cup – rightly or wrongly – now the pinnacle of the sport.
SANZAAR nations have won seven of the eight cups contested to date, including filling all four semi-final spots in 2015. As outgoing NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew explained to me at a meeting in 2017, for an organisation that supposedly gets so much wrong, SANZAAR gets a lot of important things right.
There are signs, too, that in the wake of the just completed season, the Super Rugby model – while strained – is not broken.
Following the reversion to 15 teams and a 2019 competition that delivered unprecedented numbers of close, exciting matches with unpredictable results, the decline in Australian TV viewer numbers has been arrested and average match-day attendances have stabilised – particularly when taking into account issues around Sydney’s Allianz Stadium redevelopment.
Admittedly, crowd numbers remain soft in New Zealand – driven mostly by the Blues stubbornly refusing to join the upper echelons of the competition – while the Stormers remain a shining light in South Africa, as fans switch attention to following their favourite individual players in other competitions.
But healthy, vibrant crowds in Tokyo and Suva, and for the finals in Buenos Aries, confirm that there is an appetite for quality rugby that is presented in a fresh way to audiences who are not jaded and cynical, or worn down by wider issues in the game.
SANZAAR is already looking at ways to improve the match-day fan experience, and indications are that we will see improvements rolled out in 2020, particularly in Australia, which may or may not be reflective of an improved working relationship between Rugby Australia and Andrew Forrest’s Global Rapid Rugby.
The quid pro quo for a successful Rugby Championship and Super Rugby high-performance pathway into Test rugby is in how this compromises the Super Rugby competition itself – for example, frustrating fans through scheduled resting of top players, inhibiting the competition being promoted to its potential.
This is SANZAAR’S Achilles heel: failing to understand how its stated vision for Super Rugby to be “the best global club competition in the world” requires more than having the world’s best players playing the best brand of rugby, for the best international teams.
If it were that simple, quality restaurants would serve more people than fast food chains, and TV ratings for The Wire would exceed those of Real Housewives of Hoppers Crossing.
A popular solution, one pushed by Mark Ella in Saturday’s The Australian, is to let Super Rugby off the leash and allow the franchises operate their own competition under an independent commission.
Imagine, though, the squealing from fans when single-minded, privately-owned Super Rugby franchises clash with national bodies about scheduling, coaching and player conditioning and availability, and future World Cup semi-finals are filled with northern hemisphere sides.
The financial risk too, would be acute. The professional rugby clubs of the UK and France are overwhelmingly loss-making, even given the size of their market. The reason for this is that no matter where a notional spending cap happens to be set, clubs will simply continue to spend up to that and above, in a race to buy better players than their competitors.
Rugby Australia is already today underwriting the losses of all of the Australian franchises, and will continue to do so. They have no appetite – and nor should they – to let private owners drive the quantum of those losses higher, and in doing so, hasten the financial ruin of the game.
Another consideration is that the complexity around the fast-changing broadcasting and digital environment requires someone with sharpness of mind and keen strategic and negotiating skills to be able to dispassionately extract the optimal, aggregated outcome at a particular point in time.
This is not the skill set of cobbled-together rugby franchises.
Interestingly, the Football Federation of Australia last week made the historic decision to allow the A-League clubs to form an independent federation to administer and operation their competition via a new, independent body. In doing so, the FFA will revert to overseeing grassroots football, national team programs and FIFA-related matters.
For clubs freed from the shackles of their national body, this decision must feel like a gift from heaven – an opportunity for ambitious, starry-eyed administrators to transform their clubs into the Real Madrid or Manchester United of the south.
A more sober assessment of the size of the commercial market and Australian sport’s penchant for self-interest and in-fighting might suggest that it will only take three or four years before the whole thing is rendered a financial mess requiring the FFA to step back in.
For all of these reasons, there is no prospect of SANZAAR taking such a risk. However there is still a way to for SANZAAR to act prudently and make Super Rugby better than it already is – and it is already identified in SANZAAR’s own strategic document!
The review identifies poor performance with respect to branding, marketing and communication. Further, it highlights “inconsistency of content across geographies” and “lack of consistent content and storytelling”.
Absolutely true, but no wonder while each member country is individually responsible for the marketing of the whole competition within their own nation. How would it make sense, for example, for a cash-strapped Rugby Australia to spend precious resources promoting the Sunwolves, or heralding Ardie Savea or Pablo Matera as the star players of this year’s competition?
Rugby Australia does in fact promote Super Rugby via its rugby.com.au website, but only in so far as it relates to its own players and teams. In terms of promoting the value of the competition itself, the star quality contained within, and engaging fans with the game as a whole, the context and motivation is all wrong.
Frustratingly, SANZAAR recognises this when it talks about the potential for commercialisation of a new media hub, and the need to make better use of their clip and archive rights through this hub, “thereby making content more accessible and readily available.”
SANZAAR already knows that their Rumba is doing no more than taking them around in small circles.
It is time instead to Tango – a far more invigorating, forward-moving, dance.
SANZAAR doesn’t need to bet the house – just be bold enough to carve off their marketing to an independent partner, and provide them with sufficient funding to present the competition to fans in a way that is contemporary, consistent, logical and engaging.
And watch Super Rugby flourish once again.