Champions Cup looking at Rejig

Next month in Newcastle they are promising to host the best weekend that club rugby union has ever known. A convivial city, an iconic stadium, two ding-dong finals and a vibrant late-night social scene: anyone heading to Tyneside is in for a treat. Assuming the weather plays along, it will make Twickenham feel like Madame Tussauds.
It might come as a surprise to many, therefore, that the future of Europe’s elite club competition is not yet entirely guaranteed beyond 2022. The entire road map of domestic and international rugby is in the process of being reassessed and no one currently knows where the Champions Cup and its smaller cousin, the Challenge Cup, will fit in.
It has emerged the private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, are looking for a stake in the Pro14, having already invested in the Premiership. There has been talk of aligning the two leagues by instigating a winners-take-all play-off between the respective winners. If those sides were, say, Leinster and Saracens, what would be Europe’s point of difference?
The international game remains on another level, a fact underlined by the meagre attendance at the Ricoh Arena for Saturday’s supposed showpiece between Saracens and Munster. The half-empty stadium may have been an unfortunate consequence of Easter, rail disruption and assorted other factors but it has prompted concern even among true European believers. Have we reached the point where, outside the big Irish provinces and Clermont Auvergne, there are not enough travelling fans to justify neutral stadia for future semi-finals?
In short, it is crunch time for Europe. How many Premiership clubs, for example, regarded it as their absolute priority this season? Saracens and Exeter both did but not many others. Survival on the domestic front has been the primary objective for most. Wales, meanwhile, have had just one semi-finalist in the past decade; Italy were not even represented this year.
Small wonder discussions behind the scenes have been intensifying. On top of everything else there is also player welfare pressure. The top players will inevitably play fewer games per season in the future. That means something has to give – but probably not the Top 14 or the newly flush Premiership. Nor will it be the Six Nations, still the northern hemisphere’s biggest selling point and its main economic driver.
Some insist CVC’s arrival is great news: the more competitions touched by their investment, the more chance there is of an integrated global fixture calendar. They also relish the extra money and insist CVC’s influence will only really be felt in commercial areas. Maybe, but if so, why is Mark McCafferty looking to retain his seat on English rugby’s powerful Professional Game Board after he steps aside as Premiership Rugby’s chief executive this summer to join CVC as a consultant? Anyone who imagines rugby will meander along as before without a great deal changing does not fully understand how private equity firms operate.
All of which means that Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby, is an increasingly busy man. Talking to Leinster and Toulouse officials at their semi-final, he was reassured to find there is still a lot of love for Europe’s existing major club tournament. He said: “You’re not going to throw that away, are you? What would replace it? It’s in the DNA of a lot of these clubs and I don’t think they’ll want to see it devalued.”
Still, Halliday accepts some tweaks could be necessary, not least to current semi-final arrangements: “Having taken a lot of feedback in the last 48 hours, I think we do need to change something.” This could involve abandoning neutral venues or copying the Top 14 model and staging both semis in the same place, though the latter idea carries an obvious risk. “If we stick them in, say, the Aviva and no Irish team gets there, what happens?” Halliday asked.
Around various other committee room tables, meanwhile, all kinds of opinions are being floated. Some argue Premiership Rugby should trim its play-offs to free up a weekend or two. Nor does everyone think the idea of a season-ending Pro 14 v Premiership play-off is a brilliant idea. “Who would give a shit?” one senior administrator told the Guardian. “Everyone will have had enough by then. If they end up playing a meaningless fixture simply to suit a TV audience, isn’t that a case of the tail wagging the dog?”
Even the most epic of Newcastle weekends, therefore, cannot entirely guarantee the future of European club rugby beyond 2022. EPCR, for its part, can only hope the party mood sways a few influential hearts and minds. “There are debates going on from World Rugby downwards and we have been very clear we expect to be consulted,” Halliday said. “It’s in everyone’s interests. We’re not a separate organisation, we’re made up of the clubs, leagues and unions. No one can look at their own competition in a bubble anymore.”
For all those who believe Europe is worth fighting for, these are crucial days.

It’s all about the Money

It’s all about the Money
It is the last bastion of rugby’s good old days in many, many ways. And now it seems that it may be snapped up by the highest bidder to those with the deepest pockets, wrenched away from us mere mortals who have no interest in furnishing ourselves with an unsightly satellite dish and an extra gazillion reality TV show repeats.
The Six Nations place on free-to-air TV is under heavy threat from the ‘equity companies’ sniffing around the tournament as a source of revenue. The unions appear ready to sell the air time for a hatful of millions, millions which presumably will go into… something… we’re not really sure, but we are sure there won’t be as much of a trickle-down effect as they make out.
What we are sure of is that rugby will suffer. Even the organisation which would potentially hold the rights to World Rugby’s Nations League, Swiss company Infront, has warned against the dangers of putting a tournament on pay TV, with VP Dr. Christian Müller saying directly: “…if you put a sport or event exclusively on pay TV, you will kill it.”
Given the amounts of money being bandied about, it is little wonder the unions’ heads have been turned despite this warning, although it has also unleashed the usual squabbles between the English and French and the rest, with the former two insisting they should have a bigger share. Hopefully they’ll fall out so much that nothing will happen.
But Saturdays on the Beeb – or ITV – with the usual pundits will be gone. In their place would be glib promos, faddish concepts, glossy, money-spinning (for non-rugby people) ads and dollars aplenty for the industry. And for the rest of us, a sad vacuum where the Six Nations used to be in February.
Rugby is not soccer. There are not enough people willing to part with a ton of money for the sake of five weekends in spring. And that means there will not be enough children of those people able to stare at the screen in wonder at Cardiff’s full house or benefit from the direct analysis of Brian Moore. Rugby is big, but there’s a limit. It needs its free-to-air outlet. Take it away, and you take away the connection to the next generation too, never mind the current one. And there’s not enough of either to just arrogantly brave the losses.
The final weekend of the Six Nations drew 9m viewers, an extraordinary number for a sport that is more mainstream than many but is still a tiny niche to soccer’s behemoth. Take away its one credible mass media visual outlet and it will simply fade from view – as happened to cricket and Formula One. The RFU reckons England’s November internationals drew a cool million viewers (remember they were playing the All Blacks). That’s eight million fewer than Wales v England this year: how many of those extra who heard the singing and saw the spills in Cardiff were sporty kids who now have a tangible dream?
Cricket especially has suffered since it went to Sky in 2004. Formula One was acquired by CVC (one of the companies sniffing round the Six Nations by the way) and also went to Sky. It made CVC a bomb from advertising revenues and such, but as a sport and viewing pastime it was left by the wayside, with one of the teams describing it as having been ‘raped’ by CVC. Cricket’s finances swelled initially after its move to Sky, but then deflated, while participation, engagement and consciousness of the game all dropped. Ten years after cricket’s paywall defection, a peak Ashes audience of over 8m had dropped to barely 500,000.
Infront’s contribution is by some distance the most sensible: strike a balance. Take the paywall money for some of the games but leave the top bills to the wider audience. It’s all very well swelling the coffers of a union, but if nobody sees the game, nobody will want to play it. And where would the unions get their money from then?