Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 April 2019

Neil Francis: 'Money men will attempt to change game as we know it'

The Six Nations is the pinnacle
The Six Nations is the pinnacle
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It is God's crowning gift to mankind that he bequeathed them intelligence. He did not, however, dish it out in equal measure. Some of us, believe it or not, are smarter than others. Some of us are so smart that we can see the future, shape it even.

How will we watch our chosen sports in 25 years? It's all about to change. The really smart ones, and the greedy ones, are about to turn it on its head.

When CVC Capital Partners took 27 per cent of the Premiership for £230m, I thought, is this Bitcoin? I felt it was an extravagant valuation. It wasn't a case of divide and conquer, but from the perspective of the venture capitalists it was probably best to get the English on board first because they will think they are in charge.

The ink wasn't even dry on that contract when CVC went looking for further equity acquisitions - or maybe they were already taking place. Talks for a minority holding in the Pro14 are at an advanced stage, which probably means they began negotiations months ago. If a deal is agreed, and the Premiership valuation is a guide, then it's Mardi Gras time for the Pro14. I am not sure how the divvy-up goes but if the valuation comes in at around €200m, the IRFU would have a pay day out of nowhere that would be beyond their wildest dreams.

All of which pales into insignificance if the Six Nations negotiations go to plan. If the Premiership is valued at £230m then what is our multiplier for its international equivalent? Could we say four or five times higher? If it is the jewel in the crown, then it is easily worth that. There are 15 games in the Guinness Six Nations and all six of those nations want to bundle the November series in with them, which is another 24 games.

Unquestionably heretofore the rights have been under-sold, and you wonder whether the steepling figures being paid for premium sports product has plateaued or whether there is scope for further increases.

NBC have the rights to broadcast the summer Olympics in America until 2032. That cost them $7.75bn, or six children's hospitals. Seemingly the bid was just about enough to keep the chasing pack at bay; NBC obviously feel they can add a margin to that outlay.

The way I see it is that CVC's gambit is a global play. I don't see them just being happy with the European segment of the market and in time I think they will have to make a play for Sanzaar countries as well as going for the World Cup.

The vision in time may not be to sell the rights to a broadcaster but to sell the product directly to the consumer. This will change your viewing habits and how you watch your television.

The game, though, will have to be sexed up. CVC turned a huge profit on their investment in Formula 1. The conventional view was that they added value to the product, although I can't see that and I struggle to watch it anymore. To me, Formula 1 has really lost its edge and is less entertaining than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

If rugby union is to become a real global player and in the end be sold on to the highest bidder (not an outcome I am entirely comfortable with) the aesthetic of the game will have to change. There are too many stoppages, too many re-sets, too much scrummaging time and too many meaningless collisions through too many phases.

These people will try to put some pep into the game. They will unquestionably change the game, something World Rugby has singularly failed to do.

These types of deals happen quickly - greed is good - and it is conceivable that it could all be in place by the time the European season is over. The Dom Perignon '67 will be quaffed in Yokohama by the neck by the blazers if this is all put to bed when the World Cup comes around.

* * * * *

Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the Super Bowl winning New England Patriots, has been charged with a misdemeanour on two counts of soliciting another to commit prostitution. The alleged activity took place in The Orchids of Asia massage parlour in Jupiter, Florida. One allegedly on the day of the AFC championship against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The premises, based in a suburban retail mall, is a low-key and innocuous looking venue. It is alleged that hundreds of men visited during the sting operation. Quite why Kraft would venture into a place like this has been the subject of speculation across America - most of it gleefully and flagrantly taking aim against the owner of the Patriots.

The downfall of a powerful man rarely if ever elicits a response of sympathy from any constituency. Quite how he ended up in such a grubby episode heightens the fascination and fans the flames of prurience in what is pretty much a stock story.

When Wayne Rooney was caught having sex with prostitutes in Toxteth, who were grandmothers, the whole of England parked any opprobrium or moral sensitivities and laughed - possibly because they expected nothing less from him.

Kraft's fall from grace is elevated because we expect a lot more from such a man of substance. We do, however, realise that to amass a vast empire, as Kraft has done, you at times have to be commercially ruthless. There is very little virtue in the stratosphere he inhabits, and yet he is known as a man of integrity.

I am an admirer of Kraft's success with the Patriots because he fostered a culture there. Not every man with a huge bank account can recognise that the coach you hire is the greatest of all time. Giving that man time and your confidence is key. Talent recognition is a serious element in the whole equation. There are plenty of numpties with plenty of money who pick the wrong people all of the time and treat them badly and then diss them when they don't win the Super Bowl. This, of course, is more a reflection of the owner than the coach.

Kraft has always struck me as a mild-mannered, civilised and humble 77-year-old who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. The most notable cause he advocates is the fight against the gun lobby. After the Parkland School atrocity in Florida, Kraft sent the Patriots jet to fly survivors and families of the victims to Washington DC for a protest against the gun control laws. The whole exercise cost over $1m. Kraft also made sizeable donations to support groups after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre.

Kraft lost Myra, his wife of 48 years, to ovarian cancer in 2011. Kraft now has a partner, an actress called Ricki Lander, who he has been with for several years.

There is no immunity from the public glare when you are caught in a tricky situation like this. The suspicion persists that one of the reasons there is such schadenfreude about the revelations in Florida is that Kraft is Jewish; every barb is prefaced with a disclaimer, but I can't but wonder if there is an anti-Semitic theme running through the whole episode.

Some critics suggest that Kraft should be forced to sell the Patriots, or to pay huge fines, or even be suspended for the entire season, ridiculously over-the-top punishments which make you wonder about the motivation for those suggestions.

In my view, there is very little chance that Kraft will receive any sanction.

The manager of the spa, Lei Wang (45), and employee, Shen Mingbi (58), are alleged to have attended to Kraft on the days in question. Both women are Florida residents and are licensed masseuses. It remains to be seen what proof there is that Kraft solicited anything from either woman, despite money changing hands.

Human trafficking, which is alleged here, and the coercion of women into sexual servitude is a heinous act and should be dealt with severely.

As an aside, I can't understand why these women who were brought in from Asia and forced to work as sex slaves were allowed to stay working in these conditions so that they could entrap some sad customers. Surely the welfare of these women is paramount here?

It's as if the shame and embarrassment to 100 or so men is more worthy, and because one of them is a big fish, the operation is deemed a wild success. What about the traffickers and the people behind the brothels? Have they been targeted? You would think that the state would nail the traffickers, take the women out of the situation that they were in and then punish if they can all the clients - in that order.

Kraft is not known as a vindictive man. He is very popular within the NFL owners' commune, and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg seemed to crow a little too much about just who it was that they had managed to nab.

Coming Soon: Independent.ie's new GAA newsletter. Sign up here

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: The James Lowe dilemma, Munster's tough task and Croke Park classic revisited

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport