PRIVATE EQUITY WILL WRECK THE GAME
While the ‘literati’ and certain supporters have spent most of the last week thinking fallout from the failed Toronto re-application to Super League, I have been more concerned at the sinister news that Robert Elstone and colleagues are being seduced by the perceived fruits of private equity finance.
As a keen follower of business financial developments and a former teacher and lecturer in Economics, I fear that – given the effects on the national and international economy of that type of finance – the self-serving elite among Rugby League administrators may be on the ‘road to hell paved with good intentions’.
Many critics argue that investment pools make money the wrong way, buying target companies, slashing jobs (could be clubs as well), piling on debt and then selling the ‘prettied up’ remnants, which by then are doomed to fail. Private Equity deals are short-termism ‘par excellence’, but they have one appetising advantage. They get tax breaks on leveraged funds.
A sports blogger called Meehall Wood points out that, culturally, Rugby League and private equity seem an unlikely combination.
We are of different worlds.
Rugby Union seems to fit with the sort of person who ends up working in private equity. It has received huge amounts of backing in recent years from the equity fund CVC, which has been gaining stakes in domestic competitions in the UK and Ireland, and in the Six Nations internationals. A sport based on wealthy people who played it at school, gaining investment from wealthy people who played it at school makes sense, with no cultural hang ups to get over.
But Rugby League is quite different.
Before this Covid pandemic began, the combined turnover of UK Super League and the Australian NRL was about $500 million. Rupert Murdoch paid £87 million in 1995 to control both the RFL and the subsequent breakaway Super League clubs. His idea? If they failed with one sport they would move on to the next, and the next. His controlling interest in Sky was sold to Comcast, who will be responsible for the next television deal if there are no other bidders, probably with a much reduced offer for the next few years.
There have been winners and losers, but Sky has not secured the long-term future of Rugby League as forecast by Maurice Lindsay. Most of the small number of successful clubs (measured in silverware) are heavily dependent on private benefactors, and any ‘profits’ would disappear if benevolent directors decided to reclaim the full amount of their invested funds.
Private equity would continue that cycle but probably with more ruthlessness, and the soul of the game (already trashed by Sky ‘s involvement) would no longer be discernible.
With most of the Sky money not earmarked for grass roots investment it was spent without any thought being given to long term planning. The commercial world is dominated by short termism.
For Rugby League to choose bedfellows who adopt a ‘Sue Grabbit and Run’ policy would further harm what, even post Murdoch, makes Rugby League different from other sports. Its unique selling point has always been a certain honesty when compared to more prosperous, possibly more cynical and ‘corrupt’ sports.
Much of the game’s appeal may be seen by some as quaint and anachronistic, but the sense of identity it gives to thousands of people should not be decried. The supporters, stakeholders who matter to the future of the game, will be given no say in Elstone’s machinations with private equity, but when he has moved on we will stand by its traditions despite the wreckage bequeathed to us by a succession of self-serving elite administrators.
Gerry Wright, Bradford
BEWARE THE ‘POT OF GOLD’ TRAP
Although not an expert in financial markets, as a lifelong Rugby League supporter my instincts tell me our game ought to think long and hard before giving a 51% stake in the game to a private equity company.
Our openly divided ranks seem ripe for corporate picking, with the dual leadership striking out on an almost weekly basis in markedly different directions. Making contact with Eddie Hearn, with a view to him taking over the Challenge Cup, gave the impression that our sport is athletically on a par with darts and snooker.
I am not aware of any detailed feedback on that dialogue, but according to an interview in the Financial Times, 31st October, Hearn’s view was, “rugby league is “f****d”.
From the moment we were first to go, (flat) cap in hand, to the Government for a Covid loan, it has seemed to me (alongside the Hearn dialogue) that we are displaying worrying fragility rather than strength and purpose.
I have not had to deal with the extremely difficult financial implications of the pandemic but, at a time when negotiations for a new TV deal are about to commence, a public display of the game’s financial weakness does not seem the best tactic in seeking increased market bids. The nominal amount being asked for seemed, to many observers, to underline their perception of Rugby League as, very much, a minority sport.
The other wing of the game, having apparently won the battle over Toronto, is now set to get into bed with private equity. I hope the potential consequences are being fully thought through.
Some of us remember only too well the implications of the Murdoch takeover when, with no consultation whatsoever with supporters of the game, the season was moved to summer.
My team, Wakefield Trinity, was to merge with Featherstone and Castleford under the ludicrous name ‘Calder’, but that was blocked by a fans’ uprising. The same could occur again if their interests are betrayed; I am one of many still awaiting the ‘new dawn’ since 1996.
Since then, the other code went openly professional, and I have a vivid recollection of a key Super League figure telling me he would have no qualms whatsoever about moving his club to Rugby Union if his gates fell below a certain level. It made business sense.
If a future private equity company with 51% ownership of Super League were to determine that their commercial interests were better served by moving the clubs to Rugby Union, I would be interested to see what the clubs could do to stop it.
Such a scenario would have just one obvious advantage; that of returning our sport to being led again by just one governing body.
I sincerely hope that sequence of events will not occur, but I fear that carrying on without a clear and common direction under one organisation and leadership, is a recipe for continuing decline.
David Hinchliffe, Holmfirth
OPPORTUNITIES KNOCK BUT WE MISS THEM
In sixty years I have seen many ‘new dawns’ announced for the game of Rugby League, most recently the inclusion of Toronto into Super League.
Who made that decision? In whose hands is the survival of the game? Here’s a challenge; could they describe in simple terms their long-term vision for, say five, ten and 20 years ahead?
Could they explain how excluding Toronto supports delivery of that vision? Each person at the top should be asked to describe it, as they clearly do not have a common (if any) view of where the sport is heading.
A third challenge? Explain how their vision is to be realised.
A fourth? Explain tactical decisions to be taken in response to unforeseen events such as Covid 19, in the context of their long-term objectives. These might mean delaying, amending or rethinking things to ensure that the long-term impact of short-term decisions is acknowledged, and plans adjusted accordingly.
You see where I am heading? (They) the UKRL (I refer to UK Rugby League as an entity not a set of divergent organisations) clearly haven’t a clue how to start putting a plan together, never mind executing one.
If one aim is to grow the sport at local, regional, national and international levels, you would expect some visible and demonstrably integrated approach to achieving that. If another aim were to increase exposure of the game to a wider audience, you would expect to see positive stories about it in the national media.
If another aim was to bring increased revenue into the game and distribute it to the benefit of the game as a whole, you would expect to see a concerted effort to spread the game beyond its traditional heartland, giving it ‘go to’ and ‘must see’ appeal.
All these and many other aims are interdependent. A high-profile, vibrant international programme each year might be a catalyst to improving exposure, attendance, participation and revenue, which brings me back to Toronto.
A strong international presence has benefited many sports. Domestic rugby union was re-energised by World Cup success and its consequent development of international competition, which created increased media exposure that increased revenue flows, particularly at the top level.
An opportunity for us to use the successful 2013 Rugby League World Cup as a springboard was missed.
Rugby League has consistently struggled to develop a meaningful international programme because, by and large, international competition has played second fiddle to the domestic calendar. Until recently the strength and depth of international competition has been limited to a very few dominant nations, with games infrequent. Yet there is no doubt that strong international competition is vital to development of the domestic game (and vice versa).
The inclusion of Toronto into Super League could have been seen as an early step into the development of the international game. North America and Canada offer the exposure and financial potential of one of the largest global sporting markets. The Ottawa and New York teams, if they happen, could have developed that further.
It could still happen. It would take upwards of ten, maybe fifteen years to achieve and must be seen in that context. But the question is, does UK Rugby League want to tap into the potential offered by developing the northern hemisphere international game with its potential from broadcasting rights in future negotiations?
The answer looks to be no. It’s a classic case of shooting themselves in the foot, unless they have no interest in developing the game in North America and Canada.
I imagine rugby union must be delighted. This Elstone-led decision has simultaneously prejudiced the development of our game in a major untapped market, reduced its global and domestic exposure, and reduced the potential for income from future television and broadcasting rights.
Not a bad day’s work, eh?
Len Johnstone, Bingley
SUPER LEAGUE WILL REGRET ITS FOLLY
I was totally gutted at Toronto being kicked out of Super League; what have they done to deserve that?
My son and a few other ex-pats from across the world got Rugby League going in Ontario, where so far as I know there was none at all being played.
Having just got married over here, he went round clubs asking for kit and good response, especially from my club, Saints, but also from Salford, Leigh and a couple more. The Wolfpack fans are passionate about the game and they absolutely love it. I have been to three or four matches there and have experienced a better atmosphere there than at most Super League clubs. The effort being put in by those lads and the people running the club is second to none.
They got four teams formed and held a Grand Final, then came the Canada team with games against Jamaica and America. Not a great but a good standard. Was all this for nothing? Rugby League in Canada was going into schools and being promoted well. It was the best expansion I have seen since I started watching the game in the early sixties.
Toronto Wolfpack had no funding from Super League or the RFL and they are the only club to have been sponsored by an airline. I am glad my club, Saints, can see further than the blinkered eight who voted Toronto out.
Elstone should go. He moved Magic Weekend to Liverpool – a failure. He’s a football fan and got his football chums to review Toronto. Brian McDermott was devastated.
Super League will regret this, I am sure. Sky has now moved to North America; it will be very interesting to see what happens next.
Billy Diamond, St Helens
I regret Toronto’s having been voted out of Super League; it seems the majority of our clubs do not want to expand the game.
The sad point is that unless you expand you contract, which is exactly what Rugby League has been doing in the UK for the last few decades. Whether you were for or against Toronto, they attracted good crowds and would have expanded into the greater population, generating greater awareness. That would have helped the Ottawa bid, leading to even greater awareness, sponsorship and TV coverage. So let’s play devil’s advocate and replace Toronto with:
Leigh – backed by a wealthy benefactor who has tasted promotion and relegation, walked away from the club, come back, and threatened to bankrupt the club if player contracts were not torn up.
Bradford – has gone bust more times than I want to count.
Featherstone – a small-town club that could add nothing to widen the game’s UK audience, but could replace Castleford with a far superior ground.
York – slightly outside the M62 corridor but are they ready? If promoted, they would need the security of two to three guaranteed years in Super League.
My proposal is promote Toulouse to give French Rugby XIII a boost, which would help in securing a French TV deal.
Some say we need more local derbies. No we don’t. With the same few teams meeting each other in the Challenge Cup, a possible three times in the league and potentially in the play-offs as well, derbies have lost their magic.
I fear for Rugby League. It always seems to back the short term. It cannot look past paying this season’s bills. If Super League sells off a 51% stake for only £50 million, that will be the death of it as a professional sport. What have Robert Elstone and the new Super League board brought to the sport?
As an outsider looking in, I cannot see any benefits at all.
Phillip Hill, Pudsey
The Super League board? No expansion, no vision, no future.
Deny Toronto their share of Super League funds, yet pay a £400,000 salary to a man whose value to the game is questionable, and £750,000 to a private equity company to control our sport. It’s nothing but madness.
“Toronto was a non-sustainable business model,” said Elstone on Sky TV, or words to that effect. Of course it wasn’t sustainable, when it was denied any of the Sky Sports money.
Reject Toronto and the vast resources of North America in favour of a small town somewhere along the M62? That is crazy. But agreeing to pay a private equity broker £750,000, regardless of outcome, while Canadians are willing to invest in our game? Selling a controlling stake in the game to people here who have only one business objective, which is making money?
If enacted, these decisions will be regretted for years to come.
What are you doing? Stop paying vast sums of money to people who will wreck the future of our game. If money is tight, spend less, not more. Reduce the salary caps.
You are merely a steward. This game is not yours to destroy.
Peter Sephton, Sheffield
FIRST KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING
Allowing Catalans, Toulouse and Toronto into our leagues has been a big mistake.
I am no financial expert, but I can see that foreign clubs do not bring many supporters to away games in England, which deprives home teams of revenue.
Catalans, the most successful foreign team, bring only 20-30 supporters, as opposed to the 100+ English teams bring. Not many English fans travel outside the UK, and those that do may be forfeiting away games in England to afford it.
The RFL seems keener to line the pockets of travel agents, airlines and hotels than expand the game within the UK.
Expansion outside the UK is a potential recipe for disaster. At least one team in this country has come close to insolvency virtually every year this century. We can’t afford to expand in Europe, let alone to other continents.
Expansion I am in favour of, but not at any cost, and while we have to rely on the RFL and Super League to find a way to expand that is financially viable, we are doomed.
John Clark, Ingleby
BEST OF A BAD JOB
I read with interest the range of views regarding the demise of Toronto Woolpack and the options for their replacement in a twelve team Super League.
I was reminded of one of my dad’s favourite sayings, it was around the idea of ‘making the best of a bad job’.
As the fall-out continues surrounding the vote to expel Toronto from Super League we are facing the old chestnut of the need (or not) of expansion of the Super League beyond the M62 corridor.
Our game is desperately in need of a re-boot. The game is standing still and has been for years. We need an outward looking plan to reinvigorate the sport if we are to survive in the long term.
So I’m suggesting that we don’t promote one team but three. What the advantages?
1) A 14 team league with 26 fixtures
2) Dispense with Millennium Magic (MM) weekend
3) Promote 2 teams each year
4) More opportunities for the wealth of our young talented home-grown players, many of whom we have witnessed in the last few weeks
This means we can dispense with the ’loop’ fixtures and free up a weekend to enable a break or plan a Challenge Cup round in there.
The thought of promoting say Toulouse, London and York, excites me. It would be the end of loop fixtures, meaning an even playing field. Could we really play the same team five times in one season?
The rationale for Millennium Magic weekend was lost long ago in my option. I did enjoy trips to Cardiff and Newcastle, but we’ve moved on from the reason for its inception.
This rogue fixture only serves to skew the league table and doesn’t ensure a level playing field at the end of the season.
The choice of three teams also provides greater strategic scope to the panel over who replaces Toronto. Time to think outside the box and to really make the best of a bad job.
Dick Steel, Beverley
WOLFPACK’S LOSS IS ARROWS GAIN
What a ridiculous decision by small-minded people in some Super League clubs returning a ‘no entry’ vote on Toronto Wolfpack.
Including the Wolfpack in Super League was the best thing to happen in our game since the Catalans Dragons came in.
Anyone with half a brain could see the position Elstone was taking, but now we have missed the boat. Rugby Union’s Toronto Arrows started last year, even though they weren’t getting attendances anything like the Wolfpack’s. I feel sad for their brilliant fans, who were always happy and always fair.
What now for Rugby League? Expanding the game here has already been tried and, due to lack of publicity, half the country still doesn’t know our game exists. In losing the Wolfpack we have missed a great opportunity to expand our game abroad.
They will be missed, but hopefully this is not the end. The team to replace them has to be Toulouse.
P Carroll, Ashton-in-Makerfield.
GROWN IN LOCAL SOIL IS BEST
Toronto Wolfpack is no great loss to Super League.
If there is an appetite for the game in that part of the world, let them facilitate a league of their own, with homegrown players.
In time, that could lead to a national team able to compete in a World Cup and to participate in a World Club Championship with clubs from Australia, France, New Zealand and England.
It might take ten years or more, but there would be a solid base to work from and some history to be proud of. I have asked myself a hundred times why the likes of Cardiff, Carlisle, Mansfield and Nottingham never made any kind of impact here.
The only logical reason is that it takes a lot of time to create an image that people want to connect with. I feel for Danny Ward and London. It seems that whatever they do it is impossible for them to draw crowds of more than two thousand.
We must hope that with many homegrown players now being brought through there, success on the field and at the gates is not far away.
Tony Kelvin, Leeds
TIME TO TAKE STOCK
The demise of Toronto Wolfpack has prompted a mini-licensing process
Who is going to be the twelfth club in Super League? The key word for me, mentioned in Robert Elstone’s independent report, is strategy. What move is going to strategically develop the international game?
Down Under, we saw the Auckland Warriors enter the NRL in 1995, since when there has been a steady increase in the number of New Zealand born players scattered around the NRL. With around 20% of all players now New Zealanders, the New Zealand national side is more competitive.
Similarly, Catalan Dragons entered Super League in 2007 with a subsequent steady rise in French players dotted around the UK leagues. A second French side can only add to that number.
Based on that, the new Super League club should be Toulouse Olympique for the sake of developing the international game. We are to have a World Cup in 2021 with only three out of sixteen nations possible winners. So let us look towards having four possible winners in later World Cups.
Nick Robinson, Beverley
I was shocked when Ian Watson left the Salford Red Devils after we saw him say he would be staying on in The Super League Show.
After what the Red Devils have achieved over the past few years, I hope thy now pick a coach with Super League experience.
Joe Vince, Colchester, Essex.
HAUNTED BY THE PAST?
Yet again, the clubs are choosing which team to have in Super League.
Twenty-odd years ago we were choosing which teams to have in our elite league and we made ourselves look stupid on more than one occasion.
All team games in the history of British sport reward success with promotion, and punish failure with relegation. That is the basis of all team sports. Why the hell don’t we just stick with eleven clubs for 2021 and promote one team to start in 2022?
I do hope the reason has nothing to do with the Magic Weekend, which would obviously need one team not to take part. The solution is to scrap the Magic Weekend or make it four or eight Cup-ties.
Geoffrey Bagley, Leeds
STRICTLY FOR THE PROFESSIONALS
In recent years there have been many complaints about the lack of skills Rugby League players have now compared to years gone by.
One skill that has never been better, however, is the ability of wingers now to score in tight positions at the corner. Granted, the rule change that allows players to touch the flag while scoring has facilitated this, but there is no doubt some of the tries scored by the likes of Regan Grace, Tommy Makinson and Tom Johnstone are true athletic art-forms.
However, despite the initial amazement at a spectacular try scored this week by Xavier Coates for Queensland, it brought home to me a serious safety concern.
Coates’ dive required him to do a forward roll in order to land safely, while at the same time the covering defender was attempting to tackle him. If that cover tackle had knocked him just a little further, he might not have been able to complete the forward roll and could quite feasibly have broken his neck.
It is one thing to applaud great play, but this went beyond great play into rash behaviour that could have been dangerous or even fatal.
We have seen players end up in wheelchairs over the years due to neck or spinal injuries, when any is too many. A huge concern of mine is that, if not a professional, a youngster trying to emulate Coates’ play could end up with such a fate.
Such tries are absolutely NOT something kids should be trying to emulate.
David Concannon, Newton-le-Willows
COVID 19 SEASON WRECKER
How can Wigan claim to have won the League Leaders’ Shield when the Super League clubs have not all played the same number of matches?
Likewise, Leeds Rhinos cannot say they are true winners of the Challenge Cup, when they were given a bye into the quarter-finals while Hull FC and Catalan Dragons had to win a rearranged match to get into the same quarter-finals.
What a farce! And still to come are the farcical play-offs and Grand Final, all three of which wins will be meaningless as victories, due to the way Covid 19 has messed up the fixtures.
Let’s hope next season will be a better one.
Graham Dawson, Castleford
CHAMPS OR NOT?
Many congratulations to Hull FC on their fine win against my team Warrington, who seemed lacklustre and spent after the half-hour or so.
That the season has almost reached some sort of conclusion is due to administrators and the clubs, who are due great credit after having jumped through hoops to help attain this.
Yet it somehow seems inappropriate that the Super League title will be at stake when the final is played. It has not been a complete season, so the winners will not really be overall champions.
Perhaps it would be more fitting for the finalists to play for a one-off trophy that could be named in honour of one of the games great icons. Clive Sullivan springs to mind, particularly given the venue of this year’s final.
That we have reached this stage, given the season we have experienced, is nothing less than remarkable. Let’s hope for a much more positive 2021.
John D Hodgkinson, Brighton-le-Sands, Liverpool