Unions need to go semi-pro


The column is based on the current situation in New Zealand and recent reports of Otago Rugby Union going belly-up.

Mark Hinton

Three cheers for sorry old Otago rugby. In a perverse sort of way the financial collapse of the ineptly managed union could end up saving the provincial game in New Zealand.

And I guess if something positive does come out of Monday’s self-inflicted implosion of one of New Zealand’s oldest, and proudest, rugby unions, then maybe all this pain might just have been worth it.

Sure, that will be slim consolation for Otago rugby folk who are wondering right now what on earth has been going on under their noses. Various chief executives have clearly been fiddling while the union burned.

And Dunedinites in general will be more than a little concerned over where this whole sorry affair now leaves their flash new indoor stadium that looks like it could be without a major tenant for the back end of the year.

The term “White Elephant’ is already being bandied about regarding a stadium that, predictably, has ended up costing more than was projected, and at some stage will need to be paid off.

But back to the parlous state of the Otago union who are about to declare bankruptcy unless a white knight rides in to save the day. Right now there is no such person on the horizon.

I sincerely believe the whole sorry affair could, paradoxically, be just the low point that New Zealand provincial rugby needed.

Surely now the rest of the country has been put on notice. And if it takes one union crashing and burning to save the other 13, then maybe that’s a fair price to pay.

One thing is for certain: Otago may have been the most financially vulnerable of New Zealand’s 14 major unions, but they are far from a lone ranger in terms of battling to keep their head above water.

Otago is the most extreme example of the problem, but there are a lot of other unions out there spending more than they’re earning, and in effect behaving with fiscal irresponsibility.

That’s why, ultimately, we may look back upon Monday’s decision by Otago to declare itself insolvent as the catalyst for the change that the provincial game needed.

For too long now provincial rugby has tried to operate as the third professional level of the game. It’s now exceedingly obvious that’s been a misguided quest.

The All Blacks pay for themselves – many times over. Super Rugby, on the other hand, barely breaks even as a necessary, but expensive, professional competition that provides fodder for broadcasters and high-level footy for fans on a week-to-week basis.

Provincial rugby, sadly, is just not in the professional equation.

But that hasn’t stopped unions trying to operate like Super Rugby franchises, putting a long list of players on payrolls they can’t afford to meet whilst dreaming of crowds and sponsors that are never going to materialise.

The sad fact of the matter is that the New Zealand provincial game has to cut its cloth. As much as some fans may bleat on about it being the game they enjoy the most, the reality is that it just doesn’t pay for itself.

So unions have to come to a simple conclusion based on Otago’s crumbled model.

You can’t dish out what you don’t have. It’s stupid to attempt otherwise.

The upshot of all this is that provincial level rugby players – the guys not quite good enough for Super Rugby contracts – are going to have to accept lesser money to play a game that at best is now semi-professional.

I’m told Otago had a number of players on deals around the $60,000-70,000 mark. These are journeymen at best, some who have been trying for years to make the breakthrough to Super Rugby level. They simply aren’t worth that outlay based on money available.

Our provincial unions can no longer afford to prop up this third tier of rugby player, even if it means we end up losing them to overseas clubs. That’s just how it is now.

The provincial season goes for around three months. Players are going to have to accept that if that’s their main income stream, they are going to have to find another job.

Maybe $30,000 for a quarter of a year’s work has to be accepted as the going rate.

I can just see the players’ union jumping up and down over such an outrage, but the fact is the players are doing themselves a disservice if they bankrupt the game.

As they say in life: it is what it is. And right now New Zealand’s provincial game has to work out a way to pay for itself.

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  1. If the business model is not going to work then don’t prop it up for love and charity.

    Kevin De Klerk has been talking about paying too much for too many rugby players doing very little for a while now and the Lions started to down size in an aggressive fashion. Smart. Others will have to do the same, or die.

  2. A union/franchise can only afford one professional squad that must play for them at all pro levels (CC and SR in our case). To have a pro VC side is something of the past. The VC can be contested by the teams not playing SR only. The juniors have their own competitions already. I then suggest those with national contracts get paid by SARU to take the load of the unions/franchises. Such national contract players can then be shifted to any franchise in need of a particular players to even the spread.

  3. Three levels:

    1) 100% Pro for those teams that can afford it. No amateur players allowed.
    2) Semi Pro for those teams entering teams. Pro spare parts + amateurs getting paid per play.
    3) 100% Amateur for those teams entering teams.

  4. Reply to Kat @ 11:14 am:

    But SupeRugby in its current format overlaps the Currie Cup calendar (same problem in NZ). That means you need to have almost two full squads of pro players per top union and we are back to square one.

    Remember your top rugby players go from SupeRugby to Springbok rugby immediately, they are never available for Currie Cup rugby almost (bar one or two games).

    Unions (not franchises) contract these players at absurd amounts of money but effectively gets no ROI (games where they represent the union (CC), again not the franchise).

    The Currie Cup simply cannot survive without the best 40 to 50 players in the country on either SupeRugby (where it will be minus 150 players) or test duty.

    The only way this will work if the Currie Cup is contested out of 6 teams only (the 6 franchises) in a shortened version of the current competition not overlapping with SupeRugby or test rugby.

    When you move in that direction, it becomes very grey because does it become a issue again now where the top unions effectively own the franchises or are they separate?

    What do we do with the other 14 ‘unions’ What will happen to the Blue Bulls, WP, etc? Play in an amateur or semi-pro VC, at the same time of SupeRugby?

    How will they get funded?

  5. Sad day for such proud bunch of rugby supporters.

    Super Rugby is killing provincialism in a few cities. You have just added an extra tier of revenue. How many supporters are going to watch a provincial game or a Super game? Super rugby has taken a lot of money out of provincial pockets. You can only assume many more will follow!

    So if provincial rugby dies where are the feeder players going to come from? Clubs??? They could be next. This will mean Super franchises will need bigger player base and eventually be responsible for junior rugby development. Or not depending on how much is invested in the Franchise and ROI

    If a player receives specialist coaching and technical advice, he gets it for free? Can the player go from Franchise to Franchise getting great Intelectual Property. Should a Franchise not be handing over their IP at no cost to the player?

    Where do private schools get money for buying players? Provinces?

    Interesting times lie ahead as politicians and dead wood have less place to hide.

  6. Morné, why I say in #3 that the national players (Boks) must be contracted by SARU and not the unions. The union/franchise can then contract a squad for pro rugby below national level.

    CC to be awarded to winner of separate final between top two teams from our SR conference (conference winner against second placed team).

    “B”-League (semi-pro) and “C”League (amateur) of CC happens in parallel to SR.

  7. If SR were to fall away (Newscorp not interested anymore) then the CC can be contested between the Pro Teams as they would have in SR.

  8. Reply to Kat @ 12:30 pm:

    So Currie Cup is really contested when these teams play in SupeRugby?

    It will lose it’s identity completely (you have conference winners already).

    Can’t see sponsors (or supporters) fall for that much.

  9. I don’t trust anything Newscorp! Never have. A bad stench of gambling even at kick off were encouraged on the Telly to punt by the commentators

    its rugby Amatuers meets soul sucking satanist monster! Guess who wins

  10. The CC has been with us forever and remember that SR will only last as long as there is someone buying the broadcasting rights. We can never kill the CC.

  11. Fans will demand a CC final, so therefore I propose a final between the two top teams in our franchise for the CC. As I then said, if SR were to fall away the CC will continue without it.

  12. Six Pro Teams. 30 Pro players in each squad = 150 players.

    Contracted Boks paid by SARU adds another say 25.

    That totals to 175 professional rugby players in SA.

    I say six pro teams but we can realistic only really afford four; five max.

  13. Reply to Morné @ 1:02 pm: The thing is Morné, we stand before realities that we must deal with. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We have to trim the total number of pro players. We have to get SARU to carry the really expensive players (Boks). We have to do things differently, and time and money is running out.

  14. Reply to Kat @ 1:01 pm:

    SA has over 300 000 registered players, currently about 400 is contracted professionally I believe. We are already losing players by the dozen from the game.

    Cut down contracts on offer, you cut down you base.

    SA needs a professional domestic structure in place. IN Europe you have AVIVA/French top14 (all pro) and then Heineken Cup.

    We need to get a pro domestic competition in place of which the top teams compete in SR.

  15. What I proposing here is to try to make the current setup work. In my mind I actually want to see pro rugby breaking away completely to form a NFL-type system where teams are owned and the owners form a governing body.

  16. Reply to Kat @ 1:05 pm:

    The just cut the Currie Cup. No time or money to be sentimental.

    If SA Rugby made their (financial) bed with SANZAR and SupeRugby, then the Currie Cup has simply run its course.

    There is not a case of best of both worlds, you either have one or the other.

    Playing the Currie Cup as SupeRugby will do the tradition and history of that competition more harm than not playing it at all.

  17. Reply to Morné @ 1:08 pm: SA cannot afford 400 pro players. Smaller unions cannot afford to play along. Let them go semi-pro and pay most players for the games they play.

    What need to get sorted out big time is a proper competition/league for the semi-pro teams. Let them compete for the VC. Let the amateur play for the Craven Cup.

  18. Reply to Morné @ 1:10 pm: Morné, as I said earlier, we cannot cut the CC as SR’s future has no guarantees. It may not go on when the current contract with Newscorp expires. We have to hold onto it to keep the local derbys alive.

  19. Reply to Morné @ 1:25 pm: The SR product fails because it is just too much. I genuinely stopped caring about what the other conference teams are up to. Canes, Highlanders, Chiefs … all the same to me. I don’t care about what makes each NZ and Aus team unique anymore.

  20. Get each conference to play amongst themselves and let the top two teams from each fight it out for the trophy. The team that wins a final between our top two team get the CC.

  21. Reply to Morné @ 1:32 pm: and it will drop some more … and Newscorp will demand answers. People in NZ have lost interest two years ago already and I don’t see the Ausies actually getting more interested in large enough numbers to make up the losses.

  22. Sis pro teams in our conference fight it out over double rounds (home and away). Top two go on to play top two from Aus and NZ. Our top 2 play final for CC.

    That will keep the CC alive and will allow us to field the Kings without losing a team. IF the other conferences want to have less teams then it is up to them as long as they produce two for the SR finals.

    Can work imo.

  23. It will just mean that the four teams that do not qualify for the SR finals will not play AUS and NZ teams. That’s fine with me.

    There can however be “plate finals” between the third and forth placed teams in each conference.

  24. With my proposals the CC can live on (with its identity in tact), the SR rugby finals will be between the strongest teams only which will draw crowds and there will still be tours for the rest playing for the “plate”. We can then accommodate the Kings without a fight.

    Whilst all of this is going on the semi-pro teams play for the VC and the amateurs play for the Craven Cup (my inventions).

  25. We have far more cash to spend on rugby than the Kiwis.

    More likely situation we need is a more even distribution of funds in rugby locally. The likes of Rupert and his Vodacom monsters need to stop taking good care of their Bulls, Stormers and Cheetahs or the like and start spreading the love (cash) to the Valke, Griffons and the like.

    The primary source of initial player loss to overseas was precisely from these unions and that bleeding needs to be stopped and teams placed on a more equal footing. We don’t need to be celebrating an unlikely Griquas win over the Bok depleted Sharks… instead we need a 1997 when a visit to Brakpan to face the Valke was something the Bulls worried about.

  26. Reply to DavidS @ 3:32 pm:

    I don’t think we do.

    Lions situation has received enough airtime, but remember WP also sold of lots of their assets in previous years to ‘cover’ losses so their books ‘balance’.

    If we go on the fact that 80% of a union’s budget is spent on players, and their asking rate increase every single year – the future does not look that rosy at all.

    The Lions did what was necessary (and other unions will be forced to follow in the near future) in cutting dead wood, but they are currently only contracting what? 40 players?

    Unions that are asked to provide squads for Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup and Super Rugby can not survive on 40 contracted players – there is no way in hell.

  27. It’s so bloody obvious and has been for quite some time now…

    The home conference of the S15 is where the money is locally… incorporate the CC/ITM trophy into that… whether one likes it or not they’re lesser comps and clearly unsustainable… and with that the S15 teams should ‘all’ play each other…

    Problem solved… it’s been there for two seasons now…

  28. Reply to Kat @ 1:40 pm:

    “It will just mean that the four teams that do not qualify for the SR finals will not play AUS and NZ teams. That’s fine with me.”

    The only reason SANZAR teams are so strong is that they play ‘each other’ in provincial rugby each year… it would be a total step back in time for RSA rugby if they only played their own brand of rugby and did not test themselves against the best in the world…

  29. Since the world cup final my feelings towards rugby has been mostly apathy.

    Maybe they can shut down the NPC and the CC.
    Maybe the Kings can take the place of the Highlanders in the kiwi conference.
    Maybe the 3N can be the 4N.
    Maybe the Bulls and the Lions have to merge.

    Somehow caring about it all has been ruined a bit for me.

  30. Reply to Timeo @ 1:31 am:

    One almost becomes a bit apathetic to a sport when one’s team is not winning at any level…

    RSA came stone last in the 3N, they could not make even the semi’s in the RWC and they got nowhere near the S15 finals…

    Personally I’m excited for the 4N with the Argies inclusion… it’s going to finally revolutionise their rugby and take it to the next level…

    One final point… why should the Highlanders miss out to anyone… they’re going nowhere in the immediate future… they’re run as a separate entity…

  31. Reply to bryce_in_oz @ 1:44 am:

    I watched almost all the SR games last year. I watched all the 3N games except when the B-Boks played. I watched almost all WC games. Wasn’t very disappointed when the Boks lost. Expected it.

    I was only extremely disappointed after the final. The game left a sour taste in my mouth that is still there.

  32. Chris Rattue, NZ Herald:

    Meanwhile, head office hangs on to power by holding every significant purse string, operating on a jobs-for-the-boys basis, losing $10 million a year, it’s only discernable policy being winning the World Cup – something that would have failed but for the home-crowd pressure on the referee which denied France a deserved victory at Eden Park.

    More collapses will follow. Rugby’s arrogance – even in the face of a humiliating bankruptcy – knows no bounds. All the rest of us can do is ensure that its sense of entitlement does not extend to a hand in the public till any more.

    He is also dead against the NZ Govt bailing out Otago
    to the tune of NZ$2,2 (ZAR R14 million, US$ 1,8 million).