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How to fix Australian rugby, Part 10: Skin in the game

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Roar Rookie
19th July, 2020
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One of the few remaining things that rugby has going for it is that the remaining support it does have is in the best places it could be — rugby maintains a significantly wealthier fan-base than any of the other codes.

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This is true for the average fan and for the very wealthy, and anyone who doubts either probably hasn’t ever been to a rugby lunch.

Unfortunately, other than buying gold-class tickets and paying for over-priced Foxtel subscriptions, these wealthy would-be benefactors/investors are largely locked out of the game. Instead, at every level, the game is dominated by bureaucratic not-for-profit entities. This is a stark contrast to basically every successful sports league around the world, in which private ownership is standard operating practice.

And as happens pretty much whenever privatisation occurs, innovation follows. The most popular leagues are almost exclusively the ones that have private ownership, while those that don’t have been left behind. The English Premier League is by no means the best football league in the world in terms of quality but it is by far the most popular, putting superior competitions like La Liga and the Bundesliga in the shade.

There’s definitely a clear appetite among the rich and powerful to be involved. A number already quietly pay the salaries of elite players through the Australian Rugby Foundation and Twiggy Forrest is so keen to invest in rugby his response to the Force being shut out of Super Rugby has been ploughing money into Global Rapid Rugby even though it about as an implausible a commercial model as you could conjure up.

Twiggy Forrest

(Photo by Daniel Carson/Getty Images)

It’s time to open the floodgates and finally — a full 25 years after the game embraced professionalism — to embrace private ownership.

There are three ways that private investment in Australian rugby makes sense.

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1. Private ownership of the clubs
Rather than being wholly owned by their members, why not enable a blanket rule whereby some percentage of all of the clubs are open for private ownership. Give these rich dudes (and it is overwhelmingly men) a place to put their money, a place to go and feel important on a Saturday afternoon and something fun to chat about when they are playing golf.

2. Private ownership of the competitions
In the same way that the Six Nations and the English Premiership have sold stakes to private equity funds, there is the potential to either do this with the Lomu Cup or the Ella Plate. The Lomu Cup in particular, with participation from the US, Japan and Canada and the prestige of the All Blacks and Springboks, could and should be worth a lot of money if executed effectively.

3. Public ownership of Rugby Australia itself
Along similar lines to the Green Bay Packers, why aren’t fans allowed to own part of Rugby Australia. It is notionally a game for the fans and every man and his dog has an opinion, so why not let them put their money where their mouths are.

As with the Packers or the various European football clubs that have similar models, there are of course professional organisational and governance structures put in place but in terms of ultimately who owns it, why should it be the states and not the public? And of course, it wouldn’t hurt that going down this road would raise some much needed capital in the short term.

This feels like another area where there isn’t a great deal to lose. If it works, fantastic. If not and RA can’t find buyers on the terms they want then it’s back to the status quo. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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This post was originally published on Medium.

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