The CEO of Global Rapid Rugby reflects on how the coronavirus crisis will change rugby

Mark Evans: “We are about to witness a total reset of the global game”

The impact of the global pandemic on the rugby world can hardly be overemphasised; it will bring about as much, if not more, change and disruption as the events of 1995 when the game went professional overnight.

The effect of massively reduced broadcast, gate and sponsorship revenues means there will be a premium placed on strong balance sheets and large cash reserves. With a handful of notable exceptions, there are very few governing bodies with either whilst the situation at club/provincial level is even more acute.

Meanwhile, private equity companies circle the game offering much-needed cash in return for a stake and influence in competitions and leagues. Many private owners of English and French clubs are being hit hard in their core busInesses and so will look at their loss-making rugby businesses in a new light.

There will be individual casualties; USA Rugby are only the first of several rugby organisations that will have to opt for administration. A number of clubs and Rugby Australia look vulnerable. But it will not simply be the case of a few going to the wall; it will be far more systemic. In short, we are about to witness a total reset of the global game.

Mark Evans: “We are about to witness a total reset of the global game”

Euro stars: Heineken Champions Cup action between Leinster and Lyon (Getty Images)

This may not be a bad thing. In France and England there will never be a better time to get some linkage between revenues and cost. Players taking 25% cuts will just be the first step. Player wages are only heading in one direction – it will be a buyers’ market and the two most resilient markets (France and Japan) have a quota system for overseas players, so there are limited places.

Some will jump ship but numbers will be low, particularly if governing bodies can continue to hold out the carrot of international rugby only being available to those in their domestic leagues. The days of English clubs spending £9m on players are gone and may never return.

This will be accompanied by a reduction in the salaries and numbers of coaches, administrators and support staff. In turn, there will be fewer lucrative contracts dangled in front of southern hemisphere coaches and players, which will stabilise their competitions. Ideally some other equalisation measures, such as a collective bargaining agreement, will emerge in the European game, along with closed leagues and fewer games.

The dog’s breakfast of scheduling that the UK rugby fan has to put up with will be fundamentally changed. It currently runs – league, Europe, Tests, league, Europe, Six Nations, league, Europe, league, Tests. This will be rationalised and made to make far more sense. Ideas like shifting the Six Nations will return to the agenda.

Mark Evans: “We are about to witness a total reset of the global game”

Time for change? Anthony Watson scores against Wales in the Six Nations (Getty Images)

Whole competitions, such as Super Rugby, will undergo an overhaul and look totally different going forward. The long-awaited move to competitions in the same time zones will gather strength. There will be more emphasis on domestic rugby, putting EPCR under pressure, as well as renewed efforts to better coordinate the hemispheres and move towards a global season. Nothing will be off the table.

Meanwhile, there is the question of the supply chain. Like all professional sports, rugby has relied on broadcast revenues to fund operations. All other revenues are relatively small in comparison. It’s hard to see how this can continue uninterrupted.

Already some of the Australasian broadcasters are making ominous noises and they will not be alone. If there are casualties amongst the major broadcasters, or simply a fundamental revaluation of sports rights, rugby will not be immune.

Some observers seem to feel it is a question of hanging on until normal service and revenues are resumed. That looks highly unlikely and wildly optimistic. This is not a temporary blip – it’s an earthquake that will transform the sports landscape in terms of structures, remuneration and ownership.

This article appears in the June 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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