Proposed PRO14 – Short Term Pain for Long Term Gain

Munster v Scarlets - Guinness PRO12 Final
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In the coming days the much publicized restructuring of the Guinness PRO12 league will be announced, and the addition of the South African franchises; the Cheetahs and Southern Kings will be confirmed in a proposed PRO14 structure. What does such a significant alteration means to the teams involved, and their current stakeholders and supporters?

With the league’s financial position not matching the pulling power of the Aviva Premiership, or French Top14, should the PRO12 be looking at expanding the scope of the competition – in an attempt to challenge the status quo. Or the question might well be ‘should the solution be identified a lot closer to home?’

Proposed Pro14 – Short Term Pain for Long Term Gain

Many senior executives within both the National Unions and the clubs themselves confirm that this ongoing financial disparity is of significant concern, influencing player retention, wage inflation, and a growing inability to support these rising costs associated with European Professional Rugby Clubs.

The BBC’s Tom English in a recent article references quotes from both Mark Dobson (CEO Scottish Rugby), and Phillip Browne (Irish Rugby Football Union) regarding these financial concerns. Calling them a “potentially profound” risk to the game, and openly statingto stay as we are is not an option”.

A general view of Rodney Parade prior to the Guinness PRO12 Round 16 match between Newport Gwent Dragons and Leinster at Rodney Parade in Newport, Wales. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It is being widely reported that the initial increase in revenue the South African teams would bring to the League an extra £500,000 (Daily Telegraph – Link) per team. With the added potential of further increases in sponsorship and TV revenues as a direct result.

In terms of starting to address the aforementioned financial imbalance then this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Counter to the PRO14 Benefits

As a counterpoint to these prospective numbers, factors such as the logistical costs associated with such an expansion remain valid concerns for teams and supporters alike. Formalising relationships with Official Travel Partners/Sponsors is one option, in an attempt to potentially offset some of these costs.

Additionally talks continue on the structure and schedule of the league being balanced to mitigate these issues further, but until formal confirmation is provided, this remains speculation. Whilst considering travel, the team’s supporters in many circumstances would prove to be a major consideration to the success, or otherwise, of a proposed revision to a Competition’s format.

However, with the current PRO12 being such a geographically diverse cross-border competition, away travel is unfortunately already reasonably limited, and as such should not be considered as a significant blocker to change.

Increased Income

With speculation rife, the information flow and communication from official sources is therefore crucial towards the short term success of any proposed transition.  Thus far however this would have to be described as unacceptably low in both detail and frequency. The only statement made by the PRO12, (here) confirms discussions with South African Rugby; information that is already freely available.

Harold Verster, the CEO of Free State Rugby Union, stating;

Unfortunately they [Pro12] have opted to make the release themselves once everything is in place” (OFM Radio: South Africa).

This resulting communication void has therefore been filled with weeks of conjecture, and potential unrest at a number of the rumours circulated.  It is clear that there are obvious commercial, logistical and contractual challenges involved in such an ambitious venture.

That considered, in the contemporary connected age of social media, such a large change in offering to the current clients, partners, and the emotionally attached supporters, should be implemented with as much dialogue and transparency as these commercial sensitivities allow.

With such factors considered, it is evident that the potential rewards from this arrangement remain considerable. The aforementioned much needed increase in revenue would be supplemented by the increased international exposure of the league, it’s teams and players, and the improvements in quality in terms of the competition.

Entering South African Teams Can Benefit from Inclusion

While currently under performing within Super Rugby, the two SA teams would be expected to be very competitive in a proposed PRO14 league. Coupled to this would be the fact that all SA players are centrally contracted to the union, and as such the enticement to a Northern Hemisphere competition could be strong for many.

Super Rugby Rd 17 - Kings v Cheetahs
Rudi van Rooyen of the Southern Kings during the Super Rugby match between Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on July 14, 2017 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Photo by Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Plus, the time zone and traveling considerations far more conducive to a player’s ‘work/life balance’ than the current Super Rugby model. Therefore, a medium-term migration of many more marquee African players back to the PRO14, is not beyond the realms of possibility.

PRO14 – Final Conclusion

Therefore, it is evident that in order to have established the complex legal and commercial arrangements, and provision for the ‘PRO14’ structural and logistical needs in such a short window of opportunity, is a considerable undertaking. All parties involved have clearly worked hard to make this work, with the vision and aspiration being the potential long term benefits to the team’s and the League itself.

The greater financial stability for all competing teams is welcome, as is the increased international exposure of the tournament. This could potentially increase player development and retention, and improve the ability to compete in recruitment terms, to grow the ‘reach’ and marketability of the league further.

This does come with a number of short term risks and concerns like any bold decision, some of these include the lack of planning time for existing stakeholders/supporters, potential logistical costs and challenges, and the lack of clarity afforded to supporters only weeks away from the season commencing.

Hindsight will obviously decide on whether this brave move proved to be a catalyst to a large step forward for the competition. But proactively trying to rectify many of the challenges and concerns within the game should be applauded, and the proposed PRO14 intent provide optimism for the team’s involved.

“Main Photo Credit”