Rugby: Super franchises must change - Highlanders chief

Roger Clark
Roger Clark
These days it appears a good accountant is as important to a team as a first five-eighth - even one as good as Dan Carter.

That appears to be the finding of a New Zealand Rugby Union review which has recommended New Zealand's five Super franchises move towards private ownership models.

It would be a "massive change" to the way rugby has been organised in this country and would have far-reaching implications.

Regardless, Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark believes the franchises must change if they are going to remain viable.

"It is far too early to surmise what it might mean for the Highlanders or any other franchise because, at this stage, it is still a proposal and the NZRU board still have not made any decisions whether this is the track they want to go down," Clark said.

"But if the Highlanders want to be sustainable on a long-term basis then I think there have to be some changes.

"It is no secret that the franchise has been under threat for a number of years. And it is not just the Highlanders. All five franchises lost money this year. You can't keep doing that. The franchise model isn't working."

Clark said the five franchises had returned about $23 million to stakeholders during the past 12 years. While that represents a good return, business has not been as rosy recently.

"Like every business you have to keep ahead of the game. If we keep doing what we've been doing for the last 12 years, well, it is not the way to keep ahead and keep up with the Australians and the South Africans."

How far will the NZRU go to stay ahead of the game? That probably depends on how much control it is prepared to relinquish.

"I'm sure the NZRU will want to keep control of some key things, especially the players and the coaches. They are going to want to keep a majority shareholding, I would have thought. I know that is what the report suggests.

"This is not something that I see happening overnight. It is probably going to be a reasonably complicated process ... but it is something they are keen to work on."

Of course, if the Highlanders do fall into private ownership the multimillion-dollar question is: where will the money come from?Is the commercial sector in the region robust enough to support a Super rugby franchise? And what will the Highlanders have to give up to secure an injection of capital?University of Otago senior sociology lecturer Dr Mark Falcous believes privatisation will open up a can of worms.

"I'd have to look at the specific model they are proposing," he said.

"But it would certainly have the potential to create imbalances between regions in terms of their ability to generate capital. I would suggest there would be a big imbalance between what the Blues franchise could generate in comparison to the Highlanders franchise."

The Highlanders find recruiting tricky at the best of times and it would likely only get harder if they had to compete in the open market without the NZRU stepping in and providing some recruitment leverage.

"One of the major questions it opens the door to is around player contracts and who controls player movements," Falcous said.

"Obviously, the NZRU have centralised control and have had eligibility criteria where you won't be selected for the All Blacks if you play abroad. If these new privately run franchises contract the players and essentially earn control of those players' destiny, so to speak, then it certainly does raise questions around player movement."

The increasingly infiltration of business philosophies might seem inevitable. But it also exposes a central hypocrisy within sport, he said.

"A lot of the marketing around sport tends to obscure this idea of it being a profit-making exercise and plays a lot on loyalty, history and tradition.

"For a lot of people rugby isn't a brand, in the sense it is not like buying a tub of margarine. It is a little bit more complicated."


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