“If one good thing has come out of the European Super League (ESL) shambles, it is the realisation that when fans come together with a common goal they can still influence the direction of the game. The next challenge is building on this victory”
When Saturday Comes, June 2021
The above quote comes from an editorial from the football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’ and relates to the recent fan protests about the proposed European Super League, which forced the so called ‘Big Six’ clubs into a humiliating climbdown. The strength of feeling from fan groups sunk this idea less than twenty four hours after it had launched. Many of those groups involved have long recognised that the sport is moving away from the supporter in the stands and towards billionaire owners whose main driver is to maximise income at all costs. The ESL concept was just the latest step in a process that minimises the value of those who turn up week in week out in a race to gather the biggest pile of cash possible.
Now, rugby is a completely different sport with a different financial structure that is dwarfed by the eye watering amounts that are thrown around at the top level of football, but can we afford to be complacent as fans that this would never happen in our sport?
Well, the type of private investment that is lurking in the shadows behind the ESL is already present in rugby with CVC’s investment in the various leagues, including the Pro14/16 and the Six Nations. The investment has been widely welcomed to stabilise the game, even if in Wales it is primarily stabilising the WRU balance sheet at the moment. Alongside this has been the potential to drive greater commercial opportunities and the hope of reaching that mystical land of a British and Irish League. This is all potentially true and rugby at the top level desperately needs investment, but as supporters maybe we should be really clear eyed about CVCs intentions.
Their investment is intended to make money; that much is obvious. They are a private equity company and their strategy is to invest in “fundamentally sound, well-managed and cash-generative businesses ” in Europe. They are not some benevolent investor that has a lifelong passion for rugby to ensure the game can be enjoyed for many years to come. So, if their motive is profit, what consideration will they give to the average fan on the terraces? This opinion piece by Giles Richards on the Formula One experience is pretty damning, concluding:
“There was pursuit of profit at every possible level but with apparently little interest in making the experience better or more popular. It was a distasteful, cynical process that left F1 tarnished.”
This is a sobering view on the influence of CVC on a sport and it is pretty obvious in rugby this will mean maximising the media rights to the Pro16 and Six Nations. The importance of the television deal to the professional game in Wales cannot be understated, not just financially but also the difference having a quality, invested broadcaster can make to how attractive the product is. Sky Sports made the Premier League the juggernaut that it now is, paving the way for the ESL concept, through marketing it with all the awkward early 90’s gaudy enthusiasm it could. However, there comes a tipping point with television contracts where they start to become so important that the original purpose of sport, to be a live experience, gets lost in the pursuit of bigger contracts and the concessions to media companies that come with those deals. This is most apparent in kick off times, with games being sliced and diced across a weekend or a week. We have seen the start of this in rugby with the ever changing Pro14 kick off times, including the loathed 5pm Sunday kick off, and Six Nations games being moved to a Friday night or Sunday afternoon. CVC’s investment may well drive a better, more lucrative television deal, but it could be at the expense of those of us who believe rugby is best experienced in grounds, helping to create the atmosphere that is such an important component of the sport. We cannot leave it until the moment the game goes away from us to express our views.
Admittedly this scenario is full of ifs, buts and maybes, but it is one we need to be aware of given the experience of other sports. CVC does not have the controlling share in the Pro14/16 or the Six Nations, the control overall remains with the Unions. CVC have bought 14.3% of the Six Nations for £365m over 5 years and 28% of Pro14/16 for £125m over 3 years. Reading the CVC investment news story on their website I was struck by the tone of relief from the Chair and CEO of the Pro14/16 that CVC had decided to continue to honour their investment despite the pandemic. It does not suggest a strong starting position over any negotiations. It makes the WRU’s attitude towards the professional rugby clubs in Wales all the more worrying. The Unions are there to act in the best interest of all the sport as the governing bodies and attracting investment is an important part of this although not necessarily the primary one. Do we have the confidence that rather than chasing the biggest financial returns at the expense of fans and the match-day experience, the WRU will seek to temper CVC’s drive for profit maximisation? I’ll leave that question for you to answer.
There is no easy solution to private investment into professional sport, there are usually compromises to be made and risks to be weighed up. Professional sport outgrew the financial models based on turnstiles clicking, programmes bought and pints poured a long time ago. These are important contributory factors to the bottom line, but the sponsorship and media deals are now the key drivers of financial performance in many sports. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that without the passion and engagement of supporters, rugby is a greatly diminished product. Those football fans that raised their voices against their own clubs actions sent a clear message, they are the moral guardians of their clubs’ history and future and they will not allow the pursuit of greater financial rewards to take this away from them.
So what can we do about this? I have consistently felt that in Welsh rugby we have to be as interested and invested in what goes on behind the closed doors of boardrooms as we are in the performance on the pitch. Apathy to issues surrounding governance and investment will be an enabler in a race for profit over passion. As fans we have to take a collective stand, demanding representation on the boards of our clubs and ensuring those with power and influence hear and respond to our voices. Joining a supporters’ trust (or setting one up if your side does not have one) is an excellent first step (you can join CF10 Trust for just £1) and get involved as well, lending them your ideas, skills and passion. The recent Joint Support Group meeting with the WRU demonstrated that there is an opportunity and strength in ensuring those in positions of influence hear directly from those of us who support the professional sides in Wales.
Whilst it could be argued we do not face the same crisis moment that football has in recent weeks, all the ingredients are present and there are plenty of decisions being made that should be taking into account the views of supporters better than they are currently. Progress does not happen overnight, but I know myself and my colleagues on the board of CF10 will continue to ensure the voice of the terraces reverb through the boardroom of the Arms Park and the Principality Stadium. Join us.