Fears for pro sport if borders remain shut

Warriors CEO Cameron George. Photo: Getty Images
Warriors CEO Cameron George. Photo: Getty Images
Leading sports administrators say professional sport will be in huge trouble if the New Zealand government doesn't open borders in a controlled manner and allow international teams into the country.

Blues Chairman Don Mackinnon, Warriors CEO Cameron George and NZ Netball Players Association executive manager Steph Bond told today's The Future Of Auckland Sport that the foundations of professional sports are being shaken by Covid and support is needed to ensure franchises survive.

Mackinnon, also a New Zealand Cricket board member, made it clear that a way must be found to open our borders to international competition.

"I don't think people appreciate that international sport in New Zealand is on a knife-edge," Mackinnon said.

"If rugby, cricket and netball, in particular, can't get international sport played in the final quarter of this year, the impact will flow right into the domestic game. We will be falling off a cliff. It is a nerve-wracking time."

Bond was singing off the same hymn sheet from a netball perspective, underlining the risk that all professional sport is facing without international competition.

"We are lucky that our competition is domestic, we are not relying on international teams turning up for our domestic competition," Bond said.

"But from a national perspective with the Silver Ferns, absolutely we need to get teams to New Zealand. That is pivotal to the finances of Netball New Zealand.

"International markets are worth over one hundred million dollars from a rugby, cricket and netball perspective. That money not coming into New Zealand and the flow-on impact on jobs – not just the player salaries, but the jobs of everyone working in sport - is significant."

If the borders were to remain closed, George underlined that the very future of the Warriors is put at risk.

"We are having to take the long-term view that we will be based in Australia again next year unless something dramatic happens over the next couple of months," George said.

"That translates into commercial challenges. Obviously our fan base is here, and our first priority is to be here and play in front of them. But the circumstances outside of our control may not allow that to happen. That means we lose out on membership and our commercial partners start to review their positions and so on. From a Warriors perspective, if we are not in New Zealand, that will have some major impacts on us for sure."

Mackinnon says Super Rugby Aotearoa was a great competition, but it is a band-aid solution and the revamped domestic model can't last forever.

"Next year will bring more uncertainty and if there are more lockdowns the impact is huge," he said.

"Super Rugby in its Aotearoa bubble will survive for one more year if it is domestic. But it is not sustainable in the long-term; it is not a sustainable model commercially long term.

"Like the NRL we need to be bigger, we need to be broader and appeal to a greater range of sponsors and broadcasters. We can put the band aid on for one more year and deliver something the crowds and fans still love, but beyond that we would be quite nervous."

All on the panel agreed central government has a critical role to play in allowing international sport to take place.

"We have to innovate with Covid and the first step in that for the big sports is getting international teams to New Zealand," Bond said.

"That will set up the financial long term for rugby, cricket and netball. If we can get those teams to New Zealand that will be significant.

"Our sports are based on international contracts. India basically props up cricket, [so] we need to get them here. We really need support from the government to get teams here."

George said the impact of not having an international flavour is massive: "The government needs to get very sensible about what sport does for the country and the impact it can have in the immediate and long-term future, for inspiring generations to come."

George went on to put the ball firmly in the hands of the government to lead the way.

"Anything is possible [from a competition point of view], we all need to be creative but until the government looks at the border situation no-one will bother. They don't have to re-invent anything, just look at the NRL.

"There are 200 players playing every weekend and COVID hasn't hit. It is not that hard to be honest. Create the bubbles, get the international teams here and control those people. And they are willing to be controlled in those environments in order to play international sport. The AFL has just done it, moving 400 people to Queensland, the blueprint is out there, it is not that hard."

The panel and pre-recorded interviews with Karl Budge (ASB Tennis Classic), Iain Laxon (Auckland Cricket) and Regan Wood (Auckland Tuatara) also considered the question of stadiums in New Zealand's largest city and asked for strong leadership and decision making from the politicians and power-brokers in that conversation.

"It is a work in progress," George said. "We have good people leading the conversation and plenty of strategies promoted but like everything, improve it. We all need to be part of it and while I don't have the answers, I just hope we get there sooner rather than later and that there is some accountability with the decision making and we get it done."

Mackinnon acknowledged the conundrum in resolving the stadium debate when rate payer money is involved, but he desperately wants to get powerbrokers together to make informed decisions.

"There is a real sense that other cities around the world are going past us at a great rate of knots, and that is frustrating," Mackinnon said.

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