Sunday 23 October 2016

Why Alex White should not interfere with what is best for the future of Irish rugby

Fintan Drury

Published 11/04/2015 | 02:30

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien (left) and Jonathan Sexton with the Six Nations trophy at Murrayfield, Scotland. Photo: Brendan Moran/ Sportsfile
Ireland’s Sean O’Brien (left) and Jonathan Sexton with the Six Nations trophy at Murrayfield, Scotland. Photo: Brendan Moran/ Sportsfile

A much loved elderly family member, who played club rugby throughout his youth and gained provincial honours, used to row with me about how the onset of professionalism was ruining Irish rugby. Invariably at the end of a weekend meal and the obligatory bottle of wine we would argue - sometimes too strenuously - about the rights and wrongs of players being paid to play for their province and, perish the thought, their country.

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I would painstakingly argue the financial dynamics involved both for the IRFU and the player and how it would all evolve into something that could grow and further popularise his sport. The very idea that he would need to have a satellite dish or to pay a subscription to watch the Five, sorry Six Nations on television would have been complete anathema but, of course, once a sport moves from amateur to professional status the broadcast transition must follow.

The decision by Communications Minister Alex White to take a memo to Cabinet would appear to represent more than just a Labour minister rattling a safe and appealing publicity can because British Labour and Conservative MPs in Wales were equally quick out of the blocks in their opposition to the CEO of Six Nations, John Feehan, referencing the potential to take the product to pay TV.

Professional sport is dependent on a range of funding sources but there are three that are critical to building a sustainable financial model - broadcast income, live attendances and sponsorship (including internet) rights have a particular significance.

The problem with what is being proposed therefore is that, at a time when Rugby Union is experiencing growing popularity in the Northern Hemisphere, politicians want to intervene directly in the market and limit the right of the Six Nations to determine its own business model. This is wrong. It is also based on a purely populist notion that the general public would be greatly disadvantaged by any move of the Six Nations from terrestrial TV to pay-for TV channels. Politics a year out from an election (or in the case of the Welsh, five weeks) may warrant engaging in a pseudo sentimental presentation of the issue as something that sports fans would become agitated about but the evidence is to the contrary.

Rugby Union is a professional sport. In select geographies across the globe it is played at an elite level throughout the year by thousands of athletes for whom it is much more than a sport. It is their work. It is, for a period of their lives, their professional pursuit of choice which they commit to and for which they are paid according to their skills and to the market conditions that apply in the place where they choose to work. We all know that elite players in France are paid more than in Ireland but, on average, the best players contracted in Ireland are paid more than their counterparts in Australia or Wales.

The vagaries involved in determining the different pay levels players earn in different markets relate directly to the number and depth of the sources of income rugby enjoys in each market and the treatment of broadcasting is a significant consideration in this regard. When the Leinster faithful rejoice at Jonathan Sexton's decision to return rather than extend his stay in France, they need to understand that the Union's capacity to compete as an employer of professional players depends entirely on the strength of its finances, and increasingly broadcast income is a major contributor.

There is no middle ground with professional sport - whether it is The Masters in Augusta this weekend, or the horse racing at Aintree.

Once a sport is professional, the commercial dynamic is central to all decision making. The IRFU has learned that lesson and adapted to it better than most of its peers. In general terms, it has quite skilfully manoeuvred its way through the different and often competing interests that are vying for a percentage of its spend and it has built provincial franchises and a national side that have brought Ireland greater success in rugby since the game turned professional than it had enjoyed during the amateur era.

The possibility that the Six Nations would be sold to global broadcasters who would pay significant rights fees represents an obvious and entirely sensible next step for the main rugby unions of the Northern Hemisphere. The Six Nations - despite the generally poor fare served up this year apart from its final course - has evolved in the last decade into one of the most important assets of Rugby Union globally.

The idea being spun by our political masters that selling the rights for a better commercial return would somehow short change the average rugby fan and could, over time, represent an erosion of public support for the game is not borne out by any evidence.

In Britain, soccer, the world's most popular sport, migrated from terrestrial to pay-for TV and the quality of its presentation (allowing for the often cringe-worthy hype) and the consistently exceptional production values means that the popularity of the domestic leagues in Britain has increased exponentially since.

Today the FA Premier League is the most watched sports league in the world. The evidence too is that the financial benefits of all of this filter through to most levels of football.

The revenues earned by the Six Nations would allow it to invest in the sport that Mr White and the Cabinet appear so concerned to protect.

In his previous role in Government, Mr White initiated a move to ban drink sponsorship of sporting events. It ran aground without Government showing any real willingness to take on the vested interests. That issue is, quite correctly, one where Government should be involved because the link should not be acceptable in a society where excessive drinking is having such a detrimental effect on our youth. In his current role, Mr White should revert to this subject and enforce a ban - as France did in 1991 - on broadcasters showing events that are sponsored by alcohol brands.

However hard that might hit the finances of the rugby fraternity, such an intervention would be entirely defensible as it is for the public good as opposed to his recent effort, which represents nothing more than unwarranted interference.

Fintan Drury was chairman of the RTÉ Authority and had a long-term commercial contract with Ryder Cup Ltd. He resigned from the RTÉ Authority after then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said the government should move to try and get the 2006 staging of the event at the K Club broadcast free to air.

Irish Independent

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