Making professional sport pay

Steve Tew.
Steve Tew.
If there is truth in the old Yorkshire saying "Where there's muck there's brass", the inverse often equally applies: where there's brass there's muck. As a number of serious and potentially ruinous disputes attest, this is increasingly the case in the arena of modern professional sport. The business of sport has become like most other businesses: it is immune from neither the quandaries of attracting revenue, nor income distribution, nor the management versus "labour" divide along which opposing forces intermittently meet to arm wrestle over profits, wages, conditions and sponsorship.

Given this weekend's semi-finals, none of these is more pertinent than professional rugby and, in particular, the Rugby World Cup. The RWC is not simply an event: from humble beginnings it has become a "brand" and an institution, but like many institutions it is riven with internal tensions. This week, the Sanzar unions - South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia - won a victory over an issue that threatened its very future.

While fingers have been pointed at NZRU chief executive Steve Tew for precipitous and untimely remarks regarding the commercial arrangements of the four-yearly tournament - to the extent he has been accused of blackmailing the organisation with his suggestion the All Blacks may not participate in the 2015 event - the reality is the NZRU and its Sanzar associates have been trying to get the matters which they say need urgent consideration put on the table for eight years.

Primarily, these relate to the shortfall incurred by New Zealand - forecast to be $13 million in 2015 - South Africa and Australia every time the tournament takes place. Mr Tew was simply pointing out that continuing on this basis was untenable and the matter needed to be addressed. He was backed by Australia and South Africa. Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill reiterated Mr Tew's views that the financial consequences of participating in the RWC had to be addressed. He also said that Wales, Scotland and Ireland shared the concerns of the southern nations, so it was not a case of a North-South schism.

In the event, a meeting about the timing of the 2015 RWC was extended to include consideration of the commercial model; the meeting ended with an agreement to review the way money from World Cups was distributed as well as relaxing restrictions on teams' sponsors. What the International Rugby Board now needs to do is shake up its own internal governance and management structures so as to complete the transition from amateurism to full-blown professionalism that has taken place on the field.

Rugby union is not alone. The Australian National Rugby League is possibly only weeks away from having no clubs or players for the next season. Again money is at the heart of the issue. Control of the game is due to be ceded to an independent commission, but outgoing owners News Ltd and the ARL say that cannot happen until the clubs agree to play in the competition; the clubs want an increase in the annual club grant from $A3.85 million to $A6 million, a 56% increase. News Ltd and the ARL say this is simply unaffordable.

A similar situation exists for the United States National Basketball Association. For only the second time in its history, regular-season games have been lost due to an "industrial dispute". At the end of June the owners of the NBA locked out their players when the two sides could not reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Despite a popular and successful last season, the owners say the economic structure of the league is such that they cannot make a reasonable profit; naturally, the players - the average of whom, incidentally, earned $US5 million last year - see it differently.

As in other industries, the clash between owner and player comes down to income distribution: what share of the cake does the worker get and how much does the boss retain. It seems an age since athletes competed for kudos and fun. Now it's all about the money.

"Filthy lucre" has taken centre stage and while this is the way of the world, and the price sports fans pay to sit in their lounges and view an endless procession of top sporting events, there is at times a distinctly mucky feel about it.


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