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Opinion

Days of NRL raids on England's stars could be numbered

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Expert
27th December, 2019
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2999 Reads

Despite the advent of this here internet, rugby league news can still take a day or two to spread from the northern to southern hemispheres.

Take the likelihood that England would play a Sonny Bill Williams-powered Samoa in Australia next June.

When it broke in the UK, the focus was understandably on England’s opponents for a mid-season Test. That meant it took a while for Aussie journalists to spot the SBW angle, which eventually carried the story onto Aussie websites.

As an aside, you would think that Wayne Bennett is as short odds to retain his England job if the team is going to travel to Leichhardt or Campbelltown in mid-season, since that is one of the cornerstones of his World Cup planning.

But one story that still hasn’t made it Down Under is the report that Super League has attracted millions of pounds in private equity funding. The reason is the same: no obvious Aussie angle.

Of course, there is a semi-obvious Aussie angle: the days of NRL clubs plundering the British game might be numbered if the salary cap there goes up as a result of this funding.

For those who missed it, on December 16, the Daily Mail – a paper that does not normally cover the sport – reported that “Super League clubs are close to selling a share of the competition to a private equity company to inject money into rugby league”.

Sonny Bill Williams.

Toronto’s key recruit Sonny Bill Williams is the Super League’s star attraction. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

The paper said the Super League board had already approved the sale and that investors would “put tens of millions into the competition in return for a share of future revenues”.

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How, exactly, is this going to work?

My understanding is that the money, firstly, would not go straight to clubs – allowing them to pay off debts – as happened in British rugby union.

Rather, it would follow the AFL model of “disequal” funding. In other words, it all goes into the centre and the Super League administration decides what each club needs to be sustainable.

Salford would be given loans or grants for specific projects, not just a lump sum that would quickly evaporate paying bills.

The private equity investors may even have a desk or office in Super League’s Manchester Northern Quarter headquarters.

In return for the funding, the clubs would have to surrender more power to the competition’s governing body. Playing four or five games at the same time on a Friday night would go straight out the window.

Those sort of freedoms, which Super League clubs have and NRL sides do not, would be early victims of the takeover. Promotion and relegation? I wouldn’t regard that as being safe either.

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A big issue is the next TV deal, due at the end of 2021.

But the way it’s been explained to me is that investment makes this less important. In other projects I’ve been working on recently, it has been made apparent that investment gives you a “runway” to do things.

It’s like a giant financial catapult. You are thrown into the blue sky and it’s up to you to fly or crash to the ground.

So the investors are more worried about the next TV deal, when their funding is running out and they expect the business to return a profit.

In many ways the cash influx compensates for a reduction in the TV money on the next deal – it matters infinitely less than just about everyone in the game thinks it does if this investment comes through.

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But this gets interesting because under an agreement between Super League and the rest of the game in Britain, if the TV funding dips below a certain level on the next deal, they get nothing.

In this way, the looming investment could irrevocably change the balance of power in the British game.

No doubt, SBW’s name has impressed these private equity people.

Yet Toronto were accepted and nurtured by the Rugby Football League and spent three years in its system while Super League waited until the 11th hour to confirm it would accept the Wolfpack for promotion in 2020.

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Now the RFL, looking in from the outside, risks being left behind by this influx of cash into the top tier – thanks in part to the monster they helped create.

In sport, as elsewhere, money talks.