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Thursday, February 24, 2005

NFL Football: State of the (Rugby) Union Address

Before I start, if you are a New Zealander (with an interest in sport): how many times has Otago won the NPC? (Answer below).

The Super 12 (FYI, this is the crap “official” website) will be starting soon and every year when the “professional” rugby season starts I start thinking how amateur the organisation is. We should learn now the lesson of the National Hockey League in the US and Canada (Canada was hit the hardest because ice hockey is their national sport). The owners of the franchises had to shut down the league because they were haemorrhaging money, many through player salaries. NHL clubs claim to have lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season. They are now discussing rule changes in order to get TV viewership back up.

And that’s the kicker. If say the Super 12 was a competition where the same one or two teams win every year then people are going to stop watching it. Why would you bother watching if you knew your team never had a chance of winning? The same goes for the NPC (FYI, this is the crap “official” website), outside the Super 12 cities (removing “Auckland” and “Canterbury” etc from the names doesn’t fool anyone) nobody has a real chance. It was only in last year’s NPC season did we get an exciting competition when all of the top players were removed with All Black duties, injuries or fatigue (Canterbury keeping their hand in through a dubious bonus points system).

It seems as though SANZAR’s idea is to head towards the English Premier League plan. This means, unless you are a Cantab or Aucklander give up all hopes of an NPC or Super 12 title. So what should they do? Follow the most successful sports league in America: the National Football League.

In England the main sport is soccer followed by cricket and rugby. In New Zealand it’s rugby followed distantly by cricket and netball. In the US you have baseball, basketball, football and hockey (there are also large market shares for women’s basketball, soccer, and arena (inside) football [note: arena football had higher TV ratings than hockey last year]). And yet with all of these sports, whose seasons often run simultaneously, the NFL comes out on top. Here’s why.

  • The NFL shares its revenue equally amongst all of its teams.
  • The NFL has a strict salary cap.
  • There is a minimum player salary.
  • The NFL releases all player information for complete transparency.
  • The contract rules are clear (i.e. no contract disputes: “I thought he was playing for us?”).
  • Despite there being 32 teams, the regular season is 17 weeks long and each team plays 16 games (if each team played each other just once they would have to play 496 games in a season).
  • The games are decided after the previous season and are determined by each teams division and ranking in the previous season (i.e. the team that came last should have an easier draw next year than the team that won the Superbowl, in theory).
  • Players are allowed to play for different teams (more on this later).
  • There are some benefits to coming last in the league.

Revenue sharing is a big one. All of the money made (with certain exceptions) is dumped into a big bag and doled out equally to all of the teams. Of course there are people who complain about these rules and regulations. Usually they are fans, or owners, of teams who are making heaps of money or win a lot. For example, when the cap was introduced into the NFL the biggest opponents were Dallas fans (surprise!) similarly when the idea was introduced for the NPC the biggest opponents were Canterbury (surprise!). In the NFL in the last ten seasons there have been 7 different Superbowl winners (this includes the Patriots three victories and Denver’s double), in the NPC’s last ten seasons there have been 4 different winners (this includes Auckland winning 5 times, and Canterbury 3 times, which means two teams can account for eight of the last ten years). In fact in the NPC the only non-Super 12 teams to have won are Bay of Plenty (1976), Counties (1979), and Manawatu (1980) [I added the dates to show you how long ago this was]. Waikato’s one and only victory was in 1992, Otago has only won twice (the last in 1998) and Wellington has won it four times but only once in the “professional” era (1978, 81, 86, and 2000).

A sharing of revenue and capping players’ salaries will not only even the playing field (so to speak) but also stop any financial collapse of the league later on. We do not have the billions of dollars that the Premier League does, and we never will.

In the NFL players move to different teams regularly. Each off-season sees a raft of players changing teams or being dropped and sitting in free agency limbo until they are picked up. This leads invariably to one of the large downsides to the NFL: player-centricity.

We Kiwis are a very regional people. Anyone who claims him or herself to be the greatest whatever, often gets a slap upside the head and told to “siddown”. The team is what is great not the players (greater then the sum of its parts, so to speak). The sight of a team slavering over a player they might be able to trade for will probably not go down too well with many rugby fans.

However, rugby is a “professional” game now. If George Gregan comes off contract with the Brumbies and the Bulls want him, why shouldn’t they offer him a contract? Regional pride maybe? I think that went out the window (officially) when the regional names were dropped from the franchises. When Brian O’Driscoll of Ireland said “I would love to play Super 12 or NPC rugby”, where were the franchises with contracts in their hands? When Lomu moved to Wellington there were grumbles from some but most got over it. I think we could probably handle the change.

We either want a top-flight professional competition or a grass-roots level game where the players all still have day-jobs, we can’t have both.

Expect more ranting later in the season.


Anonymous said...

You know of all those sports, you forgot to mention golf which probably swallows up for time than football and hockey combined.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of people who study economics for too long. They forget the notion of "telos" or the good. What good is there in maximizing GDP if you produce more homeless and destitute? What purpose is rugby supposed to serve. In the NZ context, it is our national glue/identity, which helps us define who we are. We may not be as well funded or arrogant as Australia or South AFrica, but when we put our minds to it, we can compete and beat them. A lot of us put in, creating local competitions that keep our kids healthy, and provide places for old people to tell their stories. These local competitions lead on to provincial comps, where anyone can win the shield (ask Taranaki), and you may (if you're lucky) win the first division. That at least was the theory until the advent of Professionalism. Now we have a product we can sit and watch every Friday Saturday and Sunday. We have faced up to commercial reality. Now we have H's peice about adopting more (dare we call them) reforms to resolve the problems with rugby. Is there another pill to take (rather than swallowing the one that makes you ill)? Or maybe I've missed the point. I'm from Mangere. In the park behind where we used to live, every weekend a bunch of people came out to play footy. I didn't even know what they were doing, as they didn't have lineouts, and their jerseys had Vs on the necks. I didn't know what I was watching because poor people play league. And rich people get on TV. So maybe it is just that union has turned into (or will soon be) a boring elitist sport which noone wants to watch. Maybe we've only just realised that how rugby used to be was kinda like race relations. A collective day dream.

liz said...

Unfortunately I know very little about rugby so I cannot comment there. Interesting situation though.

Totally agree, the NFL is successful for all of those reasons, and other sports franchises need to learn from them. I mourn the end of the NFL season, but after the break I really look forward to its return, as opposed to...

Hockey, which has reached a point where there are so many teams, playing so many games, and the season goes on for so long that I find myself bored by it. The Stanley Cup Finals are held in June. In Canada in June, I hope to be outside cooking a steak, not inside watching a game on ice. We've been through this media yo-yo of "last minute talks" for months leading up to the cancellation of the season, where they were still professing an opportunity to hold less than half of the regularly scheduled games and then the playoffs... ummm, doesn't that imply that most of the regular season doesn't matter? How about a season that actually matters by the end of it?

Will it lose as many viewers as baseball did during their strike? Too soon to tell. I don't get the sense that the hockey fans I know will stop watching next season. But quit your whining, players. You make more money in a couple of games than I, and a good portion of your fans, make in a year.

Sorry if I hijacked your issue with rantings of hockey :)

btw, hockey is technically not our national sport (lacrosse is), but is so popular here that most people think it is.