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.
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.