South Africa: Rugby history is about to change
The United Rugby Championship and its partner Roc Nation Sports promise to give players a voice, grow the fan base and bring rugby into the 21st century of sports entertainment.
The renowned United Rugby Championship (URC) not only heralds a new dawn for South African rugby, but is destined to take the whole sport away from its amateur roots.
Gray-haired men in stuffy boardrooms have long dictated the way the game is administered, played, officiated and, indeed, experienced. As a result, the disconnect with those who are supposed to consume what is on offer has been all too obvious.
Even after rugby officially turned professional in late 1995, it was accused of ignoring the needs of its most precious commodity – the players. For too long, they have drifted helplessly into the maelstrom of incompetence created higher in the game’s food chain.
There have, of course, been instances where players have denounced nearsighted officials, perhaps most notably when former England captain Will Carling called esteemed members of his rugby union “57 old farts”. At the time, Carling expressed his displeasure with those still invested in the game’s amateur roots, when professionalism was not so much on the doorstep as the elephant in the room.
Even after the game turned professional, the sport had a foothold in the past. The players have mostly remained silent partners and it has taken some time to convince them to take their places at the various decision tables of rugby.
Yet they remained stifled, whether it was raising concerns about their own well-being and safety, or the carefully choreographed way they should behave with the media. In taking a hand with the RCU, US-based talent agency Roc Nation is determined not only to give players a voice, but to let it resonate in the popularity of the sport.
“Be big and bold and break through boundaries. Roc Nation (Sports) is a company that represents all of that,” said co-CEO Michael Yormark of the company’s sports management division, now part of music and rapper Jay-Z. entertainment empire in 2013.
Undoubtedly, the company’s focus is on celebrating and elevating black talent, and over the past few years it has quickly spread its tentacles into rugby with Springboks Siya Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi, as well as the Englishman Maro Itoje. Cricketers Lungi Ngidi and Temba Bavuma have also joined an impressive portfolio which includes luminaries from several top sports.
The importance of Kolisi’s association with Roc Nation is not lost on former Springboks captain Bob Skinstad. “Siya is a friend of mine. I met him when he was an 11 year old kid who wanted to play for the Springboks when I was playing at the time. He accomplished more than anyone can imagine,” said he declared.
“Maro Itoje is emblematic in the [United Kingdom]. Roc Nation has selected players to cross generational barriers, all barriers. I think that’s what rugby has always been good at. Now rugby can lead the way and with time, effort and commitment [that] Roc Nation is investing in it, we will see very good things in the future. “
Roc Nation may only have nascent rugby ties, but Yormark points out that he “learned the sport through the players” and wanted to understand “where it needs to go and how it needs to be modernized” – and that he is eager to help achieve it.
For Skinstad, rugby’s full adherence to professional ideals is long overdue. “The modernization of rugby is necessary. We have seen the influence of American sport, the American professionalism in world sport. We have waited for it in rugby. There have been attempts. We have seen some fantastic tournaments at sept. take place in the United States.
“We’ve seen Major League rugby grow from childhood, go into its third or fourth year and get stronger and stronger. I can see partnerships between these startup environments.”
The way Roc Nation found its way to the RCU is hardly surprising. CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm that was not associated with the sport until a few years ago, now ranks among its potential brokers. It acquired a stake in Six Nations Rugby, the English Rugby Premiership and the Fall Nations Cup with a total investment in the sport of £ 700million (around Rand 14.25 billion).
“I had the opportunity, through CVC, to meet the Director General of the RCU and I was really impressed with his vision,” said Yormark of Martin Anayi. “His vision is to do things differently and to create a league committed to diversity, entertainment and giving players a voice.”
Yormark is clear in his desire for players to increasingly lead the narrative in their respective sports. They will help shape the way sport is viewed, which in turn impacts its business value. “It was a natural opportunity for us,” said Yormark. “While helping our players, we are also helping to develop the game and take it to the next level.
“We are very excited about this. The RCU is so well positioned to move forward. It can also lead to the modernization of the sport.”
A sad affair
While the game has made huge strides in creating and sustaining its elite fighters, the same can’t be said for the way it is administered. Modernization is certainly necessary in the South African context, where the provincial unions are made up of an association of clubs. Although they have a professional arm, it is the union that is run by the clubs that often wields power and holds the wheels of progress at ransom.
In the case of bulls, lions and sharks, this influence has been greatly diminished due to the transfer of their professional ranks to private property. However, this is not the case with the country’s most revered provincial union, the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU), which is still 100% owned by its clubs. One is tempted to conclude that this is why the union is on the brink of collapse.
The intransigence and inability of his guardians to grasp the basics of the economy has brought him to this point. They seem to believe that having 100% stake in nothing trumps 49% of a potentially successful, well-equipped, future-oriented business. Their stubbornness can cause them to lose their dear properties.
It wasn’t that long ago that the province was the destination of choice for restless gamers ready for action, but now the migration model is largely outgoing. Already, he has lost renowned players like Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. Others will follow.
Last year, the WPRFU was lukewarm in the face of interest from MVM Holdings in participating in its business. The deal fell through and MVM accepted his offer of $ 6 million (R100 million at the time) and Kolisi, through his association with Roc Nation, in Durban.
While the bosses of the Western Province are still wondering what their professional arm is worth, the union’s situation is becoming more and more dramatic. He had to guarantee SA Rugby that he will be able to pay the bills for the Stormers’ European trips to the URC. For now, it is kept afloat by advances and loans.
And now for the big league
Elsewhere however, the spectacle must continue.
“The RCU is committed to improving the sport and growing the fan base,” said Yormark. “It will be an important catalyst in giving players a voice and giving them a platform, not only to develop their brand, but to develop the brand of their clubs and the league.”
Rugby players, argued Yormark, should not only make their voices heard, but tell their unique stories from their perspective. “If you look at successful leagues around the world, and I’m from America, storytelling has to be part of the marketing behind the clubs, behind the leagues and behind the players.
“You have so many big stars in this league,” he said of the RCU. “Great players who come from different backgrounds, who have taken different trips to where they are, who are inspiring and motivating and can help attract the next generation of fans.
“Creating player profiles is of crucial importance for the future of the sport, but will also help clubs and the league to grow their businesses. “
Lions mainstay Sti Sithole is excited about the prospect of seeing the voices of the players resonate. “I think it’s a great initiative from Roc Nation and the RCU to allow players to express their views, not only on the pitch but also off the pitch, building their personal brand. At the same time, this allows great growth for the tournament and rugby as a whole, ”said Sithole.
Skinstad isn’t the only retired gamer who thinks sports heroes need to clear their throats.
“I was a player who was probably a little different from your stereotypical rugby player,” said former Scotland goalkeeper Jim Hamilton. “I got key messages before a game to go out and deliver. I’ve tried to get my head above the parapet for the past four years to be in this role of narrator. Having been that rugby player and watching the NFL [National Football League] and NBA [National Basketball Association] and watched football and now the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship].
“Rugby, while being the ultimate team sport, needs heroes,” said Hamilton. “We need the casual fans to buy in to the heroes. We need to get the kids to buy in to the heroes. We need the media to buy in to the characters. We see that now in the Premiership and the teams understand it.
“We have to make rugby cool, we have to make it accessible. It doesn’t all have to be about the game but about the experiences, the stories, the athletes. If that doesn’t happen now, we’re going to be left over. far behind.”