For Australian Rugby to survive, our governing body and professional competition must split

By Sam Ryan

The best quote I’ve heard of late comes from investment guru Warren Buffet. 

He said “only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked” and tragically it seems as though this is about to become a reality. 

Businesses and organisations in practically every industry around the world are likely to find themselves on sand soon, with their hands covering their private parts. 

And sports – pretty much all of them – will be some of the hardest hit. 

The safest bet to make right now is that in the years to come, very few organisations will look or operate in the same way that they did prior to the COVID-19 crisis and when it comes to Australian rugby, that might just be a good thing. 

Our friends at the NRL and AFL are relatively new to all of this. 

Their games have never been perfect and their players off field behaviour is a great example of that. 

But neither codes have ever seriously had to consider a future where they weren’t the dominant sport in at least half the country. 

They’ve never had their relevance questioned, their seat at the table removed, or their coverage on TV or in newspapers disappear. 

The NRL and AFL will still both likely sign billion dollar broadcast deals in the next decade. 

So if those organisations are seriously considering massive structural changes to their businesses, then what the hell are we going to do with rugby in Australia!

It might finally be time to tear it all apart and rebuild from scratch. 

And the good news is, it may not be as complicated or difficult to create that new model as it might seem. 

I think the first point to remember is that rugby didn’t turn professional by choice. Super Rugby and the professionalism of the game was a direct response and reaction to the Super League war in the 1990’s. 

We’ve had some good times over the years, some great ones even, but the structure of our game has never been perfect.

We’re also extremely young. 

As one of the brighter and more experienced rugby minds that I chat to from time to time pointed out to me recently, Football or Soccer has been a professional game since 1888, and we’ve never really thought to look at what has worked for them. 

Rugby is a global game and the NRL and AFL, despite what they claim, are not. 

So should rugby in Australia be structured like a global sport or a domestic sport? 

The latter clearly isn’t working, so maybe it’s time to look at global sports like Football and Basketball to see what is working for them. 

The most obvious difference to me, seems to be that most professional leagues and governing bodies are run as two seperate organisations. 

Competitions like the English Premier League are private companies, owned by private individuals or consortiums who are responsible for the performance of their respective clubs, on and off the field. 

The governing bodies are responsible for national teams, development teams and grassroots competitions. 

The reality is, the majority of professional sports clubs lose money every year and at the moment, Australia’s Super Rugby sides are weighing down Australian rugby significantly. 

Rugby Australia is far too big and they’re spread far too thin trying to manage and fund their national teams, their professional teams and their grassroots competitions. 

And that’s only going to get worse as broadcast revenue follows Super Rugby ratings down the drain. 

So maybe it’s time to follow Football’s lead and seperate our professional competition from our governing body? 

Let’s say hypothetically, that there’s a West Australian mining magnate with an interest in rugby and a couple spare billion dollars lying around. 

What if he funded a privately owned competition featuring teams from Australia, New Zealand and Asia and took all the related expenses off Rugby Australia’s books. 

It’s worked for Basketball in Australia, look up Larry Kestelman when you get a chance!

Sure, broadcast revenue (currently at $60 million a year) would decrease but Rugby Australia wouldn’t need to spend close to the $40 million dollars a year they spend on funding Australia’s Super Rugby sides either. 

They wouldn’t need to spend more than $15 million dollars a year on “corporate” costs and wages because while Rugby Australia’s offices might shrink, the game’s footprint in Australia won’t. 

Most importantly, the stakeholders or member unions that vote and elect the Rugby Australia board, wouldn’t be influenced by the failing business models of their professional sides. 

The responsibilities of Rugby Australia would be simplified and the board that drives the strategic direction of rugby in Australia would finally have a connection and a responsibility to the majority of people who actually play or are involved with rugby in Australia. 

Maybe we’ve all just got too much time on our hands at the moment and maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. 

But if they are, and the NRL and AFL are changing directions dramatically, then surely rugby in Australia has to do the same.