Danny Kazandjian: Taking International Rugby League forward – Part 2

Danny Kazandjian became the Secretary-General of International Rugby League on 1st December.
This is the second part of an interview with League Express editor Martyn Sadler. Part 1 was published on TotalRL.com on 6th Jan 2021.

MS: Does the IRL have any control over the international programme?

DK: Yes, we are the international federation, constituted by our members, who cede to us some rights to manage the development of the sport internationally. These rights, amongst other things, include awarding sanctions to games, creating and awarding competitions and deploying match officials. Of course, all of our actions need to be progressed consensually with our members aligned to meet a common goal, but that’s no different to any members-based organisation.

MS: Can you explain the importance of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) and the IRL’s position in relation to it?

DK: GAISF is the umbrella organisation for all international sports federations as well as organisers of multi-sports games and sport-related international associations. It is the clearing house for Olympic and non-Olympic sports and in that sense it is incredibly important for Rugby League. All major international sporting bodies are members of it.
In relation to the GAISF, we currently have observer status, which we achieved in January 2018.
The threshold for full membership is to have at least 40 countries playing your sport and recognised by their own National Sports Authority. We currently have 24 countries that are full members, affiliated members or observer members of the IRL that are recognised within their own countries with their national sports authorities (NSAs), although GAISF doesn’t recognise the four home nations as distinct entities which is inconvenient for us.
So to qualify for full membership we need another 16 countries playing Rugby League who become members of the IRL, and we do have a plan to get to 40, but ultimately it is up to a Rugby League-playing nation to comply with their own national legislation and achieve recognition.
We lobby with the NSAs as much as we can and they have different recognition criteria from country to country. For example, in Germany you need 10,000 playing members, whereas in Cyprus you would only need three clubs to be playing the game.
Because of these varied criteria there is probably a clearer path through smaller countries or non-European nations.
I suspect we won’t be there within two years, but I’m confident we’ll achieve full membership status eventually.
And it’s incredibly important for Rugby League to become an established member. We are in the unique position of having another code of rugby being played. Us being recognised would give our members cut-through with their national bodies.
If you look at a national sports authorities throughout the world, rugby is not popular in most of them, so when a new body representing Rugby League comes along and says we want recognition too, that doesn’t necessarily go down well, as it might mean more demands for support, for facilities, for money, so the easier option for them is to classify ‘rugby’ together as one sport.
The Russian sports ministry has used that argument with us in writing, for example. Some of the people in the Ministry were associated with Russian Rugby Union, so perhaps that wasn’t surprising. Our Member, ARLK, is actively seeking to overturn that 2010 decision that stripped Rugby League of its official status on the state register of sports.

MS: Can you tell us about the membership structure of the IRL?

DK: All membership categories give a nation legal membership of the IRL, although the rights and obligations differ among those categories.
We currently have 18 full members of the IRL, not including Tonga, after that country’s governing body was expelled in 2020.
Observer members can’t enter official competitions. We made an exception in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) 2019 as we put it on one year ahead. Ghana and Nigeria were approved by our general assembly in November and Cameroon was approved by our board on 10 December, while Morocco looks set to get approval next year.
The Philippines are our first Asian member and they are observers.

MS: No announcements have been made about the World Cup in 2025, which was originally going to be played in the United States. What steps can you take to secure a host nation for the World Cup that year?

DK: We originally announced that we would reveal the host of 2025 before the first ball was kicked in the 2021 RLWC. While that is still our intention, the exigencies of 2020 have consumed so much of our time and resource.
The rhythm of our business has been affected by the pandemic and the effect it has had on our members. The multi-year calendar includes the various World Cups. We’ve investigated different options for the flagship tournaments and are now focused on getting a saleable package out to the market for the 2025 World Cup.
All options are on the table. The World Cup is the crown jewel of Rugby League. We have considered various options, including multi-host models and we have considered a report about maximising revenue.

MS: Are we going to see the so-called minor nations having less reliance on the NRL and Super League competitions when naming their squads for World Cups.

DK: That is starting to happen. For example, the President of Italian Rugby League has said publicly that Italy will have eight local players for this year’s World Cup.
Greece is already doing it and Lebanon will have a quota of about six local players.

MS: Can you confirm that IRL will not be awarding a Golden Boot for the 2020 season?

DK: I can. We felt that the Golden Boot should only be awarded through a genuine contest among a series of candidates’ performances. Given that there was only one sanctioned international match this year, between Germany and the Netherlands, we felt that there was no genuine contest. I do want to pay tribute to both NRLB and NRLD for coping with a series of pandemic-induced changes that could have dissuaded less dedicated people from proceeding. I can also confirm that we’ll be focussing some media attention on that game as its players deserve the limelight.

MS: You were at one time involved with the Lebanese Rugby League. How do you see the state of the game in that country today?

DK: Lebanon as a country has been ravaged. It’s been subject to years and years of political upheaval that has left it really on the brink. The banking system is crippled, the political system seems to be a perpetual stalemate, inflation is ever present, poverty is on the rise and then, tragically, the capital suffered that enormous explosion that ruined Beirut.
Through it all, the spirit of the Lebanese remains stoically impressive. They are, regrettably, used to coping with serious blows and they are forced to cope with these current crises.
The LRLF has itself come through something of a crisis. It was, in 2018, accused of improprieties surrounding its finances and governance that IRL investigated. Counsel found that there was no substance to the allegations and that the LRLF’s practices are robust. Obviously, due to my history, I was not involved in that process but I am aware of the strict legal framework all federations in Lebanon must adhere to, including the LRLF, so was not at all concerned with their governance.
I spoke to the LRLF CEO recently and he was pretty encouraged by their outlook. One of the two clubs that had raised some concerns seems to be satisfied with how LRLF is progressing and is getting back involved, while another new club is close to completing its membership application. The LRLF is also attempting to secure some land to develop as an asset, to deepen the roots the sport has locally.
Of course, the recent announcement of former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika as Lebanon’s coach for the World Cup is a sign of the LRLF’s intent and the opportunities Mr Cheika’s involvement represents are vast. So I expect some optimistic developments in Lebanon, but of course progress is mitigated by the fairly dire state of the country itself.

MS: What are the IRL’s sources of finance?

DK: The international game, namely the rights fees we get from tournaments and then levies on gate takings. It’s incumbent upon us to increase both the number of revenue sources and the size of revenue and we’re taking measures to do both. Firstly, through the production of a coherent international calendar that we can exploit commercially and that will ensure cohesion, and secondly, the development of our own internal commercial assets to monetise areas such as our digital programmes.
The international levy that comes to us is 10 per cent of the gate money from each international.
After a difficult 2020 with no income, we do have sufficient reserves, but we have had to make be prudent and we need to ensure the World Cup is a success.
It’s great to see the progress being made with the World Cup but we need to break the cycle of just having a World Cup that is a revenue generator. We need to generate more money from other long-term international events.

MS: What do you see as the pattern of International Rugby League in the future?

DK: We need to go to the hundreds of cities in the world that want to stage international events, and we need to plan those events on more regular cycles.
The European Championship has been going since 1935, for example, but there is no rhythm at all. It is infrequently played and different nations take part. And, historically, it always gets put to one side if it is deemed to be inconvenient.
We need to set a certain rhythm for regional competitions in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The MEA and Americas region should also have their own qualifying berth for the World Cup, and now they do, which is a signal of our intent.
South Africa has been on the periphery until recently, but the SARL is now playing the role it must play as a regional leader, adopting a leadership role in Africa. They can now play the role they always intended to play and they are going to flourish as a result of he MEA project.
That region has an exciting future. Lebanon, before a couple of years ago, would have been in prime position, but now they have challengers. Nigeria and Ghana, for example, also have the ability to call on expatriate players from the NRL and Europe, but the prime objective is to secure local development and the entrenchment of the game in those countries.

MS: Do you see a significant future for Nines as an international version of Rugby League?

DK: Nines are an important part of our thinking as part of an integrated calendar programme that needs to have more frequency.
One of our objectives is to grow the number of geographical locations that want to host events. At the moment we are stuck in England and Australia.
I think that it would be more palatable for a new country to take a smaller event to dip its toe in the water.
In that sense Nines is not such a big commitment and it is an attractive vehicle to broadcasters.
We have held Nines tournaments as warm-up competitions for the last two Commonwealth Games, and in that sense our lobbying continues. We were part of an audit they did of sports in and on the periphery of the Commonwealth Games.
We met with Louise Martin, the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, last summer. We want to know what their plans are in relation to Rugby League, although at this stage there is no Nines tournament planned as a warm-up for the 2022 Commonwealth Games to be held in Birmingham.

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