Europe - maximizing returns
21 November, 2011
The first weekend of the Heineken Cup in Europe saw the Celtic nations, Wales, Ireland and Scotland come out top with 8 wins from 10 matches. By comparison the English and French clubs struggled to record four victories between them, three of those coming against the lowest ranked teams in the competition, and the other in a cross-channel clash.
All the money that private investors have put in the direction of the Top 14 and Premership outfits certainly did not pay dividends last weekend. There were some late calls with eight of the 12 pool games going to the wire, including Munster's '42 phase' drop-goal winner from Ronan O'Gara in the 80th minute. Such entertainment could only have put a smile on the faces of the sponsors and the television companies who bought the rights to cover the games.
The second round of matches offered up some equally close encounters, not least the 11 try, 48-47, thriller between Edinburgh and Racing-Metro and O'Gara's killer at Castres. The Celtic clubs were again in the fore, if not quite as much as the first weekend. This leaves the chance of five 'Pro 12' teams qualifying for the quarter-finals with the last three places disputed between Toulouse, Harlequins, Clermont, Leicester and Saracens. The next round of matches on the second and third weekends of December will be decisive, as the competing teams meet home and away.
So much for the the action on the field of play. There has been an equal amount of activity off the pitch involving both clubs and the organisers of the competition, the European Rugby Cup (ERC), each out to maximise their return in terms of profit and "brand image" to the increasingly receptive global market that is Rugby. The Saracens proposed 'home' game against Biarritz, in Cape Town, South Africa in January was rescheduled back to London last week, because the Cape authorities could not agree on the venue. The London club, current Premership champions, still hope to arrange an 'away-day' in the future.
Meanwhile ERC head, Derek McGrath, was promoting the idea of an Irish provincial team exploiting the potential market in the U.S.A. following the success of the national team in N.Z. and their following supporters. Munster and its 'Red Army' and Leinster both have a high 'brand' profile that sponsors would be happy to underwrite. The former have already played and beaten an Eagles team, in Chicago, in a pre-season game. English and French clubs, successful or not, wish to increase their revenue. Few are currently profitable. Selling television rights to high profile games is attractive. Remember that South Africa is, in terms of flight time, nearer to London and Paris than it is to Australia or New Zealand. It is also in the same time zone, thus televised matches can be sold to a potential audience of 10 million plus. Compare this with the 1 to 2 million that the Super 15 has to offer. Not surprisingly, the South African rugby authorities feel they are are propping up SANZAR.
In a few years time do Toulouse want to be playing away to Connaught, or Clermont at home to Aironi, (this weekend), when they could be doubling their revenue in a Super league? Owners and organisers are both aware of this and have seen how soccer has developed over the last decade; thus the wish of each to push on and open new markets.
To the detriment of whom? Lesser clubs in Europe, and the Southern Hemisphere in general, at both club and national level. For a nation like Fiji, with limited resources, it will be necessary to ensure they have the best club/provincal system possible, to have a chance of producing a national team able to perform against the tier one nations. This will attract the sponsors who will otherwise put their money in the direction of the likes of Clermont and the Saracens who get weekly exposure to a wide market-place.
To leave you something to think about. In 10 years time, would you prefer to watch a match between Toulouse v Fiji, or Fiji v Romania? Currently the Stadistes would probablely beat both nations. And certainly the television companies would pay more to cover for the former. Just a thought.
Marc Thompson @ Rugbymarc.