Thursday, 1 March 2012

Taranaki as a Super Rugby host

As I mused on Monday about the fate of the Highlanders Super Rugby franchise, The Taranaki Daily News reports that the Taranaki union has yesterday reiterated its interest in becoming a Super Rugby franchise. But it is no ordinary one-for-one bid. Firstly, this:
Taranaki's bid involves a radical expansion to the Super Rugby competition at the end of its existing broadcast deal in 2015. The union wants up to eight New Zealand sides involved, and the current national provincial championship acting as a feeder competition. 
I have no problems with the national provincial problem being a feeder competition. In many ways, it mirrors the present relationship between the Heartland Competition's relationship with the NPC. But eight teams? How will that work? The chairman of the Taranaki Rugby Union (TRU) suggests the following:
"What we are saying is maybe in New Zealand rugby there is the potential for eight professional teams and the rest go back to not being even semi-professional but almost reimbursement type teams where the maximum you can pay a player is $25,000." 
Let's evaluate this proposal objectively.

Before I do so, I should confess to having a Taranaki link - my family lives on the Taranaki side of the South Taranaki/Wanganui border, and I went to secondary school under Mt Taranaki in New Plymouth once upon a time and went to several Taranaki games in my time.

I have very serious reservations with an eight team NZ conference. While the present five team conference has been the status quo since Super Rugby debuted in 1996, Australia has expanded from its original three teams (NSW, Queensland and ACT) to five with the addition of the Force (Perth) and the Rebels (Melbourne). South Africa has gone about things a different way, expanding their four original teams - Sharks (Durban), Bulls (Pretoria), Cats/Lions (Johannesburg) and Stormers (Cape Town) - with the expansion Cheetahs (Free State), and they plan to add the Port Elizabeth Kings franchise from 2013, but it is unclear as of yet whether there will be an expanded competition or whether the Kings franchise will replace one of the existing South African franchises.

In any case, I believe the status quo represents the best arrangement for New Zealand teams. Any expansion would involve an increase in player costs, which will not only put pressure on the bottom lines of existing franchises but also those of new franchises. While I acknowledge that New Zealand has an exceptional talent base, it is a small one relative to other countries due to our small population, and the addition of franchises will potentially stretch the already limited talent base further, raising potential question marks over the overall quality of players, particularly at the lower end of the scale. The talent dilution question is often raised in North America, where competition for expansion teams is fierce, and opinions there differ markedly.

If we look at the host cities of the Super franchises in this country, the they are based in the five of the seven largest urban areas in the country - Auckland (1), Wellington, (2), Christchurch (3), Hamilton (4), and Dunedin (7). At number 5: Napier/Hastings. The Hawkes Bay union has also indicated interest in a Super franchise. New Plymouth ranks as number 11, behind Tauranga (6), Palmerston North (8), Nelson (9) and Rotorua (10). It would appear New Plymouth would struggle to have the support base of the existing franchises and even some of its potential competitors for the eight franchises it envisions. Lets not forget that expansion of the present conference will have impacts on existing franchises - for instance, the Hurricanes franchise would be impacted if two of its participating unions, Taranaki and Hawkes Bay, were to become new franchises, drawing support away from the Wellington-based franchise. While some may argue that the existing franchises are largely supported by the fans in the host cities and not so much by those in their partnering unions, I fear that the smaller unions are being drawn into Rugby World Cup-type hype - that the attendances they received in the RWC would be similar to what they would command on a regular basis with a new Super franchise. Longer term, teams need a sizeable and stable fan base. I would suggest that there would be a stronger correlation between average attendance and local area population than with RWC attendances.

I am particularly interested in the suggestion of a revamp of player payments alongside expansion. If there was an eight team professional Super conference, the other six non-Super ITM unions would be involved in a semi-professional feeder or 'minor league' competition. There would be a clear distinction between Super and non-Super players as a result. Non-Super players would basically be on a maximum reimbursement of cost contract, and would basically have to play for the love of the game. While this is admirable, what does this do for the incentive for fringe Super players to play at non-Super level? There is a clear choice if they don't make Super contracts - play for the love of the game, or go overseas. This may result in a dilution of talent in the non-Super level so that a gap in talent between Super and non-Super rugby similar to the talent gap presently existing between the NPC and the Heartland competition. Would this be good for New Zealand rugby? I would argue it isn't. Will it be a case of the rich getting richer, with larger unions getting more of the talent (and revenues) than smaller ones? How will players get into Super franchises if not through the NPC? Talent identification at schools and national age group teams will become crucial and development through academies will see players continue to bypass club and provincial rugby for professional contracts. Rather than propping up the professional game as suggested in this proposal, it may end up eroding the game at the grass roots and harming the very future of the professional game.

A fair question as a result - would contraction be a more feasible option? I don't think so. With fewer Super franchises, I can only see a widening of the talent gap between the Super and NPC levels. Fewer opportunities for Super contracts would result in an exodus of fringe players overseas, where they can command higher salaries than they can in New Zealand.

I remain to be convinced of the merits of expansion of the New Zealand Super conference in the present operating environment. Even though Taranaki is a proud and ambitious rugby province, I find it difficult to imagine a small provincial city making a Super franchise work. The fan base alone is a big question mark.

No comments:

Post a Comment