The recent announcement by SARU president Mark Alexander that the federation is considering selling up to 75% of the shares of its commercial entities to private capital, took many by surprise.
You see, up to now SARU has jealously guarded against a complete takeover by big business. In fact, the dominant view for a long time has been that rugby should be governed and controlled by “rugby people” and that “business people” should not be allowed to take over the game. This latest decision reflects a complete about turn by the federation since the professionalisation of the game started in the mid-nineties. What is evident though is that the money boxes are running empty and the federation have been pushed into a corner - it needs to act swiftly or continue on a downward spiral towards its inevitable demise.
But what gave rise to the situation rugby finds itself in today?
For starters, the unsustainable 14-province “professional structure” has been in place since unification, almost 25 years ago. During this period (up to the present) the rugby leadership did not have the political will and courage to make the hard decisions that would have affected the required changes for a more commercially viable model. There were a few half-hearted attempts which were readily compromised when the position of current and aspiring board members came under threat at forthcoming SARU elections (at the time). The cycle of proposals, workshops, resolutions and new strategies stayed relevant only for a certain period between elections after which a new president and board members got elected and the “talk show” started all over again. The continued dominance of the “smaller” provinces over the “big” provinces (in terms of voting numbers) meant that it became almost impossible to change the status quo. Notwithstanding this, I am still surprised that the very same people that for decades argued that control of the game should remain with “rugby people” and not “business people”, are now advocating the ceding of control to private capital.
Why then is this the case? Is it because of the inevitable financial hole that both SARU and its franchises dug themselves into over the years? Is it bad management, poor governance and poor decision-making that lie at the root of the game’s present tribulations? Then again, it can also be because of the rapidly declining interest of the public - attendance at Super Rugby, Currie Cup and even Test matches has been declining for some time. Or is it simply because the leadership of rugby has been and still is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges (read: Globalisation of Rugby) that are now hitting home? Does the present leadership fully comprehend the ramifications of handing up to 75% of our rugby heritage to the private sector? Have they considered who the potential owners/investors are that is envisaged to take over the rugby economy? These are just some of the questions that SARU will have to consider and answer in detail before the federation takes the proverbial “giant leap” into the commercial unknown.
In order to understand the potential impact of how this will play out, SARU will have to carefully assess the market place to identify potential partners for rugby. It will be incumbent on SARU to ensure that a diverse range of business interests are attracted to invest in rugby, not only for the sake of the national federation but across the provincial franchises as well. It should at all costs avoid a scenario where rugby is controlled by a specific interest group or business sector. Further to this, the organisation must continue on its transformational trajectory in that potential business partners should reflect the new transformed South African economy and not re-introduce the domination in and of rugby by one particular business grouping or interest group.
The federation should also ensure that the sale of the controlling shares in rugby should not happen in isolation, but that it be integrated with the development of new and innovative funding formulas for rugby development, club support, infrastructure development and transformation. There are many aspects of the game which have been neglected by the rugby system and which require urgent review from the senior decision-makers at SARU. Take for example club rugby: while much is made of the Community Cup as a showcase for Club Rugby, the truth is that hundreds of community-based rugby clubs have closed down over the past twenty years. Similarly, many schools that used to have rugby as a sport code have been forced to phase it out due to a shortage of coaches, financial and physical resources.
The other day I received an impassionate plea from a high school rugby coach who highlighted the plundering of community-based schools by Model C schools by offering lucrative bursaries and scholarships to their best players. While this present better opportunities for the individual player, it simultaneously undermines the efforts of dedicated educators and coaches to sustain rugby at these underprivileged schools. Although it seems more efficient and cost effective (for SARU) to channel talented black players to schools with coaching resources and facilities, there rests a bigger responsibility on the federation to ensure that the game remains strong and keeps on growing in the under-resourced, poor, rugby playing schools and communities of this country.
Over the two decades since unity we have seen the decline and even disappearance of rugby as a sport in many of these once proud rugby playing schools. These schools were the feeders and breeding grounds of club, provincial and national players for many years. The rugby system has neglected this category of our rugby landscape and it is important that SARU take stock of the whole rugby system when a decision is made on who will control the business of rugby.
If the present SARU leadership succumb to the
temptation to sell the controlling shares in professional rugby to the highest
bidder they will be party to the creation of a new exclusivity, a new divide between
the haves and the have-nots.
Nevertheless, I am not naïve to believe that the rugby system can survive without significant and sustainable investment from the private sector, but what I plea for is that this investment and partnership between SARU and private business incorporates an integrated rugby funding model that address the needs of all components of the rugby system and not only that of the commercial/professional entity.
If the rest of the rugby system is left to fend for itself, it will be a travesty of the worst kind and spell the end of rugby as we know it: a game that evolved in and through all the communities of South Africa.
Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player (1984-1986)
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