Chris Keall: Super League fiasco should give NZ Rugby pause

OPINION:

Has Manchester City benefited from Silver Lake’s US$500 million ($693.9m) investment?

The eve-of-the-pandemic deal bought the giant US private investment fund a 10 per cent stake in the club’s parent company, City Football Group, which is majority-owned by Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

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  • Former NZ Rugby boss David Moffett: Why football’s Super League is a warning about Silver Lake

Last month, it all looked pretty sunny.

Man City back on its familiar spot on the top of the Premier League table. The club had booked a spot in the EFL Cup final against Tottenham (which will be played this Sunday), and it was coasting to the Champions League semifinal. The club’s battery of lawyers had seen a Fifa ruling of a Financial Fair Play breach overturned by a European court.

Telegraph football writer James Drucker summed up, “The sale of a 10 per cent stake to Silver Lake always looked a shrewd piece of business but, coming four months before the pandemic hit, it also ended up being – inadvertently – one of the most opportunely timed.

“While rivals struggle for visibility over finances, City can press ahead in the transfer market knowing not only that Champions League football and the riches that come with it are effectively secured for another season but that the Silver Lake cash will allow them to plug the holes left by lost matchday income and still leave plenty of money to invest in the squad.”

For New Zealand Rugby – said to be mulling a Silver Lake offer to buy 15 per cent of the union’s commercial rights for $465m (implying the All Blacks’ brand is worth some $3.1 billion) – Silver Lake’s injection of cash into Man City must have looked like a model deal.

And more so because NZR was – and is – in talks with Sky TV, which wants to claw back some of its current contract because of the way Covid has diminished Super Rugby and the All Blacks’ schedule. When times are tough, it helps to have a new, rich friend – not to mention one with some helpful skills in areas from social media to streaming to star management to ticketing (Silver Lake’s US$79b portfolio includes Ticketek’s parent company).

But the picture has shifted somewhat over the past week, with a rapid-fire series of developments seeing Man City and the five other clubs in the English “Big Six” announce they would join the breakaway Super League – only to back out again barely 72 hours later following ferocious protest from punters, pundits and politicians.

With expected revenues of €4b ($6.6b) for the Super League competition through media and sponsorship sales, clubs would receive a fixed payment of €264m a year.

“The money being proposed for the new competition – upfront as well – is far more than is being offered in Uefa competitions. Especially given the monetary hit of the pandemic, the numbers presented to shareholders including US private equity firm Silver Lake, made for a pretty straightforward business decision,” Manchester Evening News sports reporter Simon Bajkowski wrote on April 19, in the middle of the firestorm.

“The problem that City and the other clubs have is that football is not just a business but a sport built on the emotional and literal investment from fans.”

In the view of critics like Bajkowski – joined by hundreds of other commentators, plus many players and coaches – the Super League was an attempt to Americanise European sport by introducing an ethos where franchises matter more than on-the-field success,and teams play with maximum possible frequency to increase returns, and lower tiers of any given code are neglected. Ticket prices are hiked. Emerging teams aren’t nurtured; they’re ignored unless backed by a rich owner who can buy into a franchise.

Man City coach Pep Guardiola and one of its star strikers, Raheem Sterling, openly rebelled. Thousands of fans staged a boisterous protest outside the club’s stadium. Chelsea fans marched, too. Prince William and Kate joined them,if on social media. Season ticket holders cancelled.

In the end, the grassroots “fans, not customers” movement easily carried the day, with each of the Big Six clubs issuing apologies to fans, and Manchester United chairman Ed Woodward – strongly associated with that club’s US shareholders – walking the plank. Others are expected to follow.

But if a new investor in NZ Rugby tried to Americanise the All Blacks, would we see players, ex-players and coaches speak out as searingly as the likes of Gary Neville, Jürgen Klopp, Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp?

I’m not sure. Our sporting culture is far more muted. So with the Silver Lake controversy, ex-captain David Kirk and All Blacks have restricted themselves to politely worded letters behind the scenes.

But regardless, the Super League episode is one that should give NZR pause for thought as it decides on any new outside investor – a decision which could come as soon as its annual meeting on April 29.

Who is Silver Lake?

Silver Lake began as a technology fund in 1999, later branching out into sport in 2016 when it paidUS$4b to buy the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts franchise. The following year saw Silver Lake take a stake in The Madison Square Garden Company – the operator of the famed New York arena of the same name, and owner of the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers.

Silver Lake co-CEO Egon Durban thinks streaming services and social media have given high-profile sports teams new global reach and brand appeal, and he thinks his tech-savvy firm is well-placed to match them with new media and technology partners to exploit new digital channels. Durban is not a passive investor. He joined Man City’s board as his fund bought into its parent company. He’s photographed at games. His confidants in the tech world are said to include Michael Dell and Elon Musk.

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