The PM copped more than she bar­gained for when she vis­ited the All Blacks’ dress­ing room.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Paul Thomas

The Prime Min­is­ter copped more than she bar­gained for when she vis­ited the All Blacks’ dress­ing room.

There was a pre­dictable range of re­ac­tions to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s “sis­ter, can you spare a few mil­lion bucks?” pitch to Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern af­ter the Bledis­loe Cup test at Eden Park. Some rolled their eyes and gave Hansen marks for cheek, if noth­ing else. Oth­ers saw it as yet an­other ex­am­ple of rugby’s in­suf­fer­able sense of en­ti­tle­ment. And the odd con­trar­ian urged the Gov­ern­ment to give these na­tional trea­sures what­ever they claim they need.

Much of the re­ac­tion sug­gested that, more than 20 years af­ter the ad­vent of pro­fes­sional rugby, New Zealan­ders still haven’t got their heads around the re­al­ity that the na­tional sport is now a busi­ness and needs to not only break even but also make a profit to thrive.

The ten­dency to as­sume money is no ob­ject when dis­cussing rugby starts at the top. Last year, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Peters in­sisted New Zealan­ders have a “cul­tural right” to watch All Blacks tests on a free-to-air broad­caster, while Min­is­ter of Sport and Re­cre­ation Grant Robertson said he was look­ing for­ward to talk­ing to New Zealand Rugby “about how they will achieve the Gov­ern­ment’s goal of pay eq­uity”. A short, hon­est an­swer would be “with great dif­fi­culty”. If both these sup­posed im­per­a­tives came to pass, the gap be­tween NZ Rugby’s in­come and ex­pen­di­ture would be a lot more than the cur­rent, and un­sus­tain­able, $5 mil­lion-$7 mil­lion a year.

Hansen’s point, shared by NZ Rugby chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Tew, is that, if noth­ing changes, our abil­ity to re­tain top play­ers will de­cline and, with it, the All Blacks’ suc­cess rate. Some will say “who cares?”, but don’t bother an­swer­ing that ques­tion: en­light­en­ment is the last thing they want.

If NZ Rugby does seek tax­payer sup­port for player re­ten­tion, one imag­ines the Gov­ern­ment’s first ques­tion will be, “How come this didn’t come up dur­ing the eight years that John Key was prime min­is­ter and ex­hibit­ing an at­tach­ment to the team bor­der­ing on what rogu­ish for­mer All Black Andy Haden termed ‘jock­strap sniff­ing?’”

Fol­low-up ques­tions could in­clude: If the All Blacks brand is as

It’s been sug­gested that NZ Rugby con­sider mak­ing All Blacks tests pay-per-view.

pow­er­ful and global as you say, surely op­por­tu­ni­ties to mon­e­tise it are plen­ti­ful?

Why don’t you work with World Rugby and other coun­tries on mea­sures to take the heat out of the player mar­ket, and make over­seas clubs pay a trans­fer fee when they poach our tal­ent? Why don’t you ne­go­ti­ate rev­enue-shar­ing ar­range­ments when the All Blacks fill those mas­sive Euro­pean sta­di­ums?

In World Cup years, why not sus­pend the pol­icy that over­seas-based play­ers won’t be con­sid­ered for the All Blacks?

Have you ex­plored all other av­enues?

NZ Rugby would prob­a­bly re­spond that search­ing for the pot of gold at the end of the rain­bow would be a marginally less pro­duc­tive use of its time and resources than chas­ing so­lu­tions that re­quire the sup­port and good­will of World Rugby, the North­ern Hemi­sphere na­tions – al­most one and the same thing – and the Euro­pean club own­ers whose am­bi­tions, egos and ap­par­ently bot­tom­less pits of money drive the player mar­ket.

You’d as­sume that lead spon­sors adi­das and US in­sur­ance gi­ant AIG ex­pect to have to dig deeper to stop NZ Rugby go­ing to the mar­ket when the cur­rent ar­range­ments come up for rene­go­ti­a­tion. NZ Rugby cur­rently makes broad­cast­ing deals with its San­zaar part­ners, but with more ways to de­liver con­tent and new ac­tors en­ter­ing the sports broad­cast­ing mar­ket, it may be time to ex­plore other op­tions. For in­stance, it has been sug­gested that NZ Rugby should con­sider mak­ing

All Blacks tests pay-per-view, like heavy­weight boxer Joseph Parker’s fights. Pay-per-view has changed the re­wards on of­fer in com­bat sports out of all recog­ni­tion, with boxer Floyd May­weather re­port­edly earn­ing more than $300 mil­lion for his en­counter (to call it a “fight” would be an over­state­ment) with cage fighter Conor McGre­gor.

For its part, NZ Rugby could ask the Gov­ern­ment to con­sider tax breaks for our lead­ing play­ers, point­ing to the model that has en­abled Ire­land to keep its top play­ers at home, thereby as­sist­ing the Ir­ish team’s rise to sec­ond in the world rank­ings.

Per­haps the best ar­gu­ment against hit­ting up the tax­payer is that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is work­ing pretty well: the All Blacks are win­ning, the ex­o­dus isn’t un­duly alarm­ing – ei­ther in terms of num­bers or the qual­ity of those de­part­ing – and the out­flow cre­ates op­por­tu­ni­ties in what might other­wise be a closed shop.

Fur­ther­more, the prospect of be­ing able, at some point, to pick up a lu­cra­tive gig in Europe or Ja­pan must en­hance the ap­peal of a ca­reer in pro­fes­sional rugby.

The All Blacks aren’t Air New Zealand, a strate­gic as­set vi­tal to the na­tion’s eco­nomic health. But they do con­trib­ute to the na­tion’s gen­eral well­be­ing. I sus­pect a so­cial ac­count­ing au­dit would con­clude that a sen­si­ble gov­ern­ment would keep a close watch­ing brief.

In the mean­time, Hansen may like to as­sure the Prime Min­is­ter that he has moth­balled the beg­ging bowl so it’s safe to go back into the All Blacks dress­ing room.

The All Blacks may be dom­i­nant but New Zealand Rugby is strapped for cash.

High tackle: All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen, far left, and, be­low, NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew.

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