With recent calls for changes to Test selections in both Australia and New Zealand, some hard decisions need to be made if things are to stay as they are.
It’s fine to say that Super Rugby Pacific can be run on the same principles as it was 20 years ago, but they are two different financial realities. If Super Rugby Pacific can’t keep up with the Pro D2 it won’t just be Test players that will be gone overseas.
I specifically have not included European Cup games or playoffs as not all teams make them. But I do touch on them. I just want to show how each league stacks up from 2005 to now.
The average Super Rugby attendance in 2005 was 26,174 per game. With about 6 games per season this meant that teams had 157,044 attendances for 6 home games. Leinster with 9 home games is the only URC team so surpass that figure this year.
In the 2005/06 season the average Top 14 team had 10,391 per game and 135,083 per season. The Premiership had 10,992 per game and 120,912 per season. The Celtic league was nowhere with 5,194 per game and 51,940 over the season. Super Rugby worked as the average team still got 20,000 more fans in than any other league.
At 13,000 per game (estimate), Super Rugby Pacific would be getting 91,000 per regular season, a drop of about 66,000 even with an extra game. This year the Premiership is sitting at 12,908 per game and 129,080 per season, up 8,000 fans. Top 14 was sitting at 14,065 after round 18 a (new record), 182,845 per season, up nearly 50,000 per season. The URC is still that smallest of all the leagues but with 9,304 average per game, 83,736 per season, up 31,796 even with one less home game.
With European games even the URC teams on average will be getting over 100,000. Leinster have the highest European cup attendance with 184,552 from 5 home games. Leinster currently have sold 349,797 tickets for their 14 home games this season.
Attendances are not going back up to 25,000 per game so there needs to be a 22 round league. If only 10,000 per game was achieved, there would still be 19,000 more tickets sold.
Pro D2 currently has 4,500 fans per game with 15 home games, 67,500 per season. I would guess attendances have improved by 100 per game or 1,500 over the season.
2. TV Deals
We don’t know what any share of any TV deal is apportioned to Super Rugby, something that is a recurring issue. I will estimate it at 20% so I have a figure to work with.
In 1995 SANZAR signed a $550m deal for 10 years from 1996 – 2005 This would be $55m per year, Super Rugby is $11m which had 12 teams. This works out at $0.92m per team per season. Today the New Zealand and Australian deal is about €125m, but is for more than just SANZAAR. 20% works out as $25m or $2.1m per team.
Premiership Rugby in 2006 had a $23.4m deal or $1.95m per team. Today they have the smallest in Europe with $52.56m after the CVC cut which is now $4.38m per team.
The French deal in 2006 was around the same as the premiership, 25% went to ProD2. Top 14 had $1.25m per team and the Pro D2 $0.37m per team. From next season French Rugby is $188m, $47m goes to the Pro D2 ($2.94m per team) there is $141m left over or $10.1m per team. This is a 17% increase on the current deal in place.
We don’t know what the URC deal was. We know prior to the 2017 season it was $11.3m or $0.94m per team, what Super Rugby was getting 15 years earlier. Today it is $103m or which CVC get $29m. The remaining $74m over 16 teams is $4.62m. This is partly why the Irish and Scottish diaspora, are heading home suddenly.
3. The difference in real terms
Basing ticket income as $20 per ticket we see the following changes.
Super Rugby = $0.14m less per team
Premiership = $2.59m more per team
Pro D2 = $2.60m more per team
URC = $4.31m per team
Top 14 = $9.80m per team.
We can see why Super Rugby and the Premiership are losing players to the URC and French Rugby. Are the Top 14 or URC profitable, maybe not but it is much closer now than ever before.
The Leinster v Ulster last 16 Champions Cup clash brought in over $2m when 51,700 paid $40 starting price for a ticket. The IRFU let Leinster keep $1m and will then distribute the other $1m between the 4 teams.
Recently the Champions Cup semi finals took place with 88,027 attending across both games. A big criticism was the ticket were $120 starting price so they didn’t get 93,815 sell-outs, but the EPCR banked $10.5m. This in part is why holding a semi-final in South Africa is not being allowed currently.
4. Part-time season for part-time money.
A Super Rugby player is paid to play up to 17 games, a URC player is paid to play up to 29 games (includes European games). If a Super Rugby player is paid $10,000 per game, he would get $170,000 per season. If the URC player is only paid $7,500 per game, he will get 28% more per season. If you need 30 players in Super Rugby it would cost $300,000 per round for the squad, for the same money the URC can have 40 players.
Super Rugby squad would cost $5.1m and the URC squad would cost $8.7m but employ 33% more players.
Top 14 figure at $7,500 per game would be $277,500 per season and wage bill would be $11.1m. The Top 14 wage cap is about $17m, while the Super Rugby wage cap is about the $5m.
Is it good value then to pay so much money to run the NPC or the fabled NRC, or give the money to Super Rugby to have a longer season? South Africa are doing this in part with the Currie Cup as it runs along side the URC from January to June. The Bulls have their 60 player squad of which 46 get to play most of those weekends.
Is it better to have an extra 50 Super Rugby players (mainly u23s) playing in Australia or New Zealand with 9 months professional training or have 200 semi-pro players, who can only play for 10 games? Imagine if your boss sent you to work with the interns for half the year and had an intern as a boss. This is effectively what is happening with the NPC.
Until New Zealand stop pretending the NPC is just as good as Super Rugby they will lose out on money. Be like South Africa and let the professional league fund the professional teams and just pay for 4-5 semi-pro teams to take part in the level below Super Rugby.
5. The bigger jump to professionalism
The best and brightest in South Africa are now in a professional training environment for 10 months a year, and can be easily moved from Currie Cup to URC. Best example of this is Canan Moodie, Currie Cup debut 19/01/2022, URC debut 29/01/2022, test debut 03/09/2022 v Australia. When he made his Test debut he had played 15 URC matches, this is how Currie Cup and NPC use to work in 1995.
Jake White had no fear of picking Canan for the URC because he trained with and against the URC players. Fringe URC squad players are now being sent to the Currie Cup for a few week to work on skill, but don’t have to wait 6 months to come back to URC.
Leinster for the last 3 years have used over fifty players on the field over the season. These are their 40 odd professional players plus the 10-15 academy lads who they want to see in professional rugby. Ireland u20 Sam Prendergast player 160 minutes at 10 away in South Africa in the URC, how many NPC/NRC games is that worth.
Leinster are likely to play all 29 games giving them 667 (29×23) squad places, even if they just gave the best 3 in each position game time each would get 15 games each. If Zebre did the same thing, they would get 11 games. If the Force miss the playoffs and play the same 23 in every single game, they will get 14 games each. Not a lot of space for developing youngsters.
The simple truth is that the gap between semi-professional rugby and professional rugby is now bigger than NPC was to test rugby in 1995. It is important to keep the links with the level below open, as they do serve a purpose like the Currie Cup is doing.
In the Summer the European and South African teams will send under 20s with professional experience in the top European leagues. Jauneau Baptiste who will be scrumhalf for France has 29 games for Clermont with nearly 1000 minutes this season.
Crusaders have 3 players born in 2003 that have played Super Rugby, Clermont have 5. The problem is not the pathway, it’s the destination. A young Australian at the under 20s will struggle to keep up over the next few year with their French counterpart as they will have less professional rugby and training.
6. Live together or die apart.
The URC is 5 Unions joined together to make professionalism work. While New Zealand and Australia may think they can go it alone, in reality together they can just about pull off professionalism.
If people think that Super Rugby Pacific isn’t the thing that will make professional rugby work in the South Pacific, then I don’t know where they think the money will come from. It isn’t going to be Test rugby as that has failed for the last 20 years of trying.
As I showed earlier the IRFU are getting over $17m more now than they did in 2005 which allows them to have 170 players earning 100k more than 20 years ago. Rugby Asutralia on the other hand is down $0.7m or $4,000 less for each of the 170 professional players.
It would be great if an NRC and NPC could operate a professional 8-team league each, but it would be like the MLR. Yes, they can empower smaller unions like South Africa has with the Currie Cup but until Super Rugby Pacific becomes the bread and butter professional rugby is doomed in the South Pacific. As long as the NRC or NPC is the most expensive butter, players will not develop like those overseas.
Treat the league like 12 individual teams and make them grow their income. Let players and coaches be signed to whatever team can afford them. Its better that the financial muscle of Queensland, Sydney, Twiggy, Auckland and wherever else have all the Test players and see them twice a season, than have no Test players in the league.