Max Johns - armchair administrator, Dunedin

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Keeping things in the (All) Black
[Because it's not a sports story without a bad pun or two]

The Tri-Nations kicks off (ha!) tomorrow. Don't expect trophies to change hands. In fact, bet on last year's placings (Australia second, the Springboks third) being repeated. You'll be glad you did. Less certain, though, is whether global TV audiences will mirror previous performances. SANZAR hasn't attracted the viewers to Super 12 and Tri-Nations that it was expected to. There's a lack of new supporters in South Africa, SANZAR’s biggest nation, and in Australia, which is sports-mad and should be fertile ground. Meanwhile rugby isn't the growing, international game it should be. The bold Fox/NewsCorp-sponsored plans of the mid-ninties were expected to create a boom in countries where rugby is a curiosity, but they haven't achieved that. Fox's interest is waning, too, as evidenced by its role in the last-minute scramble that kept the ridiculously talented Andrew Johns in the NRL, another big money Fox tournament, when the Warratahs had him all but signed to play Super 12 rugby (the NRL's version of events omits the media job offer that Johns accepted, but the Sydney Morning Herald slipped it in). The current SANZAR/Fox agreement is up at the end of next year and SANZAR isn't going to be as lucky next time around, whether or not Fox re-signs. In short, the pot of gold's going to either be downsized, or repossessed and put back under the rainbow.
Talk about expanding things won't help. Super 16! Quad-Nations! Et cetera! The argument is that more teams from more places will make the rugby more exciting, and so more people will watch TV. As a fan, I like the idea of adding the PI team to the Tri-Nations and the Islands' national teams to the Super 12. I like that a lot, but I can't see any expansion happening. Try convincing a media accountant to see the benefits of such untried adjustments.

The NZRU has a problem, and not just at the top levels of rugby. Crowds are generally down, the NPC is predictable (except for last year's remarkably close, All Black-free version), the "big five" Super 12 provincial unions are getting too big for their boots, and the other 22 are fading fast. Thankfully, the sport is in good hands. From 2006, change awaits. Our five Super 12 teams will still produce the All Blacks, but the NPC won't be so familiar: the Third Division will go and the Second Division will be renamed First Division. To avoid confusion, today's First Division also gets a new name: Premier Division. There will be up to twelve Premier teams. These unions will remain professional. The next fifteen (the remainder, if all the Premier spots are filled) will be in the newly-amateur "First" Division. It’s a necessary change with the way rugby money’s going to stack up in the future. The All Blacks, meanwhile, can expect an increased money-spinning international schedule that will cut them out of the NPC. So far, so logical, even if we're re-amateurising most of our provincial unions. There are no easy ways to cope with budget constraints.

That's the money-saving ball rolling. The next step is to increase interest in the NPC by ensuring that all twelve pro unions have a decent chance in the competition. The proposed mechanism is a salary cap - an arbtrary dollar figure that no union may exceed in total player payments. The theory is simple - if you limit buying power, no-one can afford all the top players. This is new to NZ sport. The Warriors, as part of Australia's NRL, are the only local example we've got.

This sounds simple but it's very, very messy. For a start, the NZRU has to battle serious overseas player-poaching. Internationally speaking, low salaries are already handled by NZ rugby players with good grace. A salary cap won't help anyone resisting juicy contract offers from elsewhere. Secondly, New Zealand rugby isn't as straight-forward as Australian league. Club league earns the money and the clubs pay the players. The NRL controls the clubs. Clubs that could become powerful big-spenders are prevented by the cap. Compare rugby, where the international game (i.e. about 25 players) creates the cash and where the NZRU contracts players directly - not just All Blacks, but every Super 12 and NPC player. Provinces then pay players for the Super 12 and NPC. The set-up isn't a simple one. With professional rugby being played and payed on four different levels (Tri-Nations, other tests, Super 12, NPC) things are much more complex than the NRL. The principle of a salary cap is already causing friction before we've seen any specifics like a dollar figure: the big five don't like it, the smaller unions do.

With the NZRU in control of the money rugby earns and the contracts players sign, this isn't the best solution to the problem of some NPC teams being very superior to others. The obvious cause is Super 12 players staying put for the NPC. Many Blues playing for Auckland, many Cheifs for Waikato, and so on. It's  the easier thing to do, and it keeps team-mates together. Money comes into it, but when you're already earning Super 12 dollars, NPC cash isn't the big deal it could be. The NZRU wants to spread the talent out over the twelve premier teams, and there's an easier way. We have 150 Super 12 players (five squads of thirty players). These guys are New Zealand's best. If 24 All Blacks are out of NPC contention, we're down to 126 Super 12ers playing NPC. With twelve premier teams to choose from, all that is required is a rule disallowing NPC unions from selecting any more than eleven Super 12 players. It's a simpler solution than a salary cap, and will achieve the NZRU's aims. 
Faced with a financial downturn when SANZAR renegotiates its future, the NZRU has a difficult few years ahead. Initial steps to cut costs and increase audiences with a new NPC have been encouraging. With provincial unions already fighting over details, the salary cap should be dropped and replaced with a simpler selection restriction on Super 12 players. If the NZRU can get this done and prove itself to be the skillful administrative body NZ rugby should have, SANZAR's future may yet be handled more successfully than most of us are anticipating.