The story of rugby is about to change

The United Rugby Championship and partner Roc Nation Sports promise to give players a voice, grow the fanbase and generally bring rugby into the 21st century of sports entertainment.

The rebranded United Rugby Championship (URC) does not only herald a new dawn for South African rugby, but it is destined to drag the entire sport up and away from its amateur roots.

Men with grey hair in stuffy boardrooms have for long dictated the way the game is administered, played, officiated and, indeed, experienced. As a result, the disconnect with those who are supposed to consume what is on offer has been all too apparent.

Even after rugby officially turned professional at the end of 1995, it has stood accused of ignoring the needs of its most precious commodity – the players. For too long they drifted helplessly in the maelstrom of ineptitude created higher up in the game’s food chain.

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There have, of course, been instances where players railed against myopic officialdom, perhaps most notably when former England captain Will Carling referred to the esteemed members of his rugby union as “57 old farts”. At the time, Carling expressed his dissatisfaction with those who were still invested in the game’s amateur roots, when professionalism wasn’t so much on the doorstep as the elephant in the room.

Even after the game turned pro, the sport had one foot in the past. Players very much remained silent partners and it took some convincing to get them a seat at rugby’s different decision-making tables.

Still they have remained stifled, whether in raising concerns about their own wellbeing and safety, or the carefully choreographed way in which they have to conduct themselves with the media. By taking hands with the URC, the United States-based talent agency Roc Nation is determined to not just give players a voice, but let it echo in driving the sport’s popularity.

“Being big and bold and breaking down boundaries. Roc Nation (Sports) is a company that stands for all of that,” said co-chief executive Michael Yormark of the company’s sport management division, which became part of rapper Jay-Z’s music and entertainment empire in 2013.

Collecting talent

Unapologetically, the company’s accent is on celebrating and elevating Black talent, and in the past few years it has rapidly extended its tentacles in rugby with Springboks Siya Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi, as well as England’s Maro Itoje. Cricketers Lungi Ngidi and Temba Bavuma have also joined an impressive portfolio that includes luminaries from across several high-profile sports.

The significance of Kolisi’s association with Roc Nation isn’t lost on former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad. “Siya is a friend of mine. I met him as an 11-year-old kid who wanted to play for the Springboks when I was playing at the time. He has achieved more than anyone can imagine,” he said.

“Maro Itoje is iconic in the [United Kingdom]. Roc Nation has picked players to cross generational barriers, all barriers. I think that is what rugby has always been good at. Now rugby can lead the way and with the time, effort and commitment [that] Roc Nation is putting into it, we are going to see some really good things in the future.”

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Roc Nation may only have fledgling links with rugby, but Yormark points out that it has been “learning about the sport through the players” and wanting to understand “where it needs to go and how it needs to be modernised” – and that it is keen to help in achieving this. 

For Skinstad, rugby’s full embrace of professional ideals is long overdue. “Modernisation in rugby is needed. We’ve seen the influence of American sport, American professionalism in global sport. We have waited for it in rugby. There have been attempts at it. We’ve seen some fantastic seven-a-side tournaments take place in the United States.

“We’ve seen Major League rugby grow from infancy, go into its third or fourth year and get stronger and stronger. I can see partnerships between those start-up environments.”

Powerful partners

The way in which Roc Nation found a path to the URC is hardly surprising. CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm that did not have an association with the sport until a few years ago, now ranks among its power brokers. It has acquired a stake in Six Nations Rugby, the English Rugby Premiership and the Autumn Nations Cup with a total investment in the sport of £700 million (about R14.25 billion).

“I had the opportunity through CVC to meet the chief executive of the URC and I was really taken with his vision,” said Yormark of Martin Anayi. “His vision is to do things differently and to create a league committed to diversity, entertainment and giving players a voice.”

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Yormark is clear in his desire to have players increasingly drive the narrative in their respective sports. They will help shape how the sport is perceived, which in turn has an impact on its commercial value. “It was a natural opportunity for us,” said Yormark. “While helping our players we also help grow the game and take it to the next level.

“We are super excited about it. The URC is so well positioned for greatness moving forward. It can also lead to the modernisation of the sport.”

A sad case

While the game has made huge advances in creating and maintaining its elite combatants, the same cannot be said for the way it is administered. Modernisation is certainly needed in the South African context, where provincial unions are made up of an association of clubs. Although they have a professional arm, it is the union that is run by the clubs that often wields power and holds the wheels of progress to ransom.

In the case of the Bulls, Lions and Sharks, this influence has been largely diminished owing to the transfer of their professional ranks to private ownership. However, it is not the case at the country’s most venerated provincial union, the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU), which is still wholly owned by its clubs. One is tempted to draw the conclusion that it’s the reason the union is teetering on the brink. 

Its custodians’ intransigence and failure to grasp basic economics have brought it to this point. They seem to believe that having 100% share of nothing trumps 49% of a potentially thriving business tooled and geared for the future. Their obstinance may see them lose their much cherished properties.

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Not too long ago, the province was the destination of choice for players who were restive and ready to make a move, but now the migration pattern is largely outbound. Already, it has lost marquee players like Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. More will follow.

Last year, the WPRFU was lukewarm to the interest expressed by MVM Holdings for a share in its business. The deal flopped and MVM took its offer of $6 million (R100 million at the time) and Kolisi, through its association with Roc Nation, to Durban.

While the Western Province bosses still figure out what their professional arm is worth, the union’s situation is growing more and more dire. It has had to make guarantees to SA Rugby that it will be able to foot the bills for the Stormers’ European travels in the URC. For now, it is being kept afloat by advances and loans.

And now for the big league

Elsewhere though, the show must go on.

“The URC is committed to making the sport better and growing the fan base,” said Yormark. “It is going to be an important catalyst in giving the players a voice and giving them a platform, not just to grow their brand but to grow the brand of their clubs and the league.”

Rugby players, Yormark contended, shouldn’t just grow a voice but tell their unique stories from their perspective. “If you look at successful leagues around the world, and I come from America, storytelling has to be part of the marketing behind clubs, behind leagues and behind players. 

“You’ve got so many great stars in this league,” he said about the URC. “Great players who come from different backgrounds, who were on different journeys to where they are, who are inspirational and motivational and can help attract the next generation of fans.

“Building players’ profiles is critically important to the future of the sport, but will also help the clubs and the league expand their business as well.” 

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Lions prop Sti Sithole is enthused by the prospect of having players’ voices echo. “I think it’s a great initiative from Roc Nation and the URC to allow players to voice their perspectives, not just on the field but off it too, in building their personal brand. At the same time, it allows for great growth for the tournament and the game of rugby as a whole,” said Sithole.

Skinstad isn’t the only retired player who believes the sport’s heroes need to clear their throats. 

“I was a player that was probably a little different to your stereotypical rugby player,” said former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton. “I was given key messages before a game to go out there and deliver. I tried to have my head above the parapet the last four years to fill that position of storytelling. Having been that rugby player and having watched NFL [National Football League] and NBA [National Basketball Association] and watched football and now the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship].

“Rugby, although being the ultimate team sport, needs heroes,” said Hamilton. “It needs casual fans to buy into heroes. It needs kids to buy into heroes. We need the media to buy into characters. We see that now in the Premiership and teams are understanding that.

“We need to make rugby cool, we need to make it accessible. It doesn’t all need to be about the game but about experiences, about the stories, the athletes. If it doesn’t happen now, we are going to be left further behind.”

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