Rugby: The next frontier for hungry sports investors

Friday, 26 February 2021 00:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Six Nations is the biggest event in northern hemisphere rugby/ Filippo MONTEFORTE - AFP 

London, (AFP): Rugby’s crown jewels are in the sights of investors seeking to exploit the untapped potential of the market as struggling governing bodies try to replenish their coffers.

US private equity firm Silver Lake is reported to be offering around $ 340 million for a 15 percent share of commercial rights in the All Blacks – the ultimate brand in the sport.

In the northern hemisphere, CVC Capital Partners – which formerly owned a controlling stake in Formula One – is widely expected to acquire 14.5% of the commercial rights for the Six Nations for 365 million ($ 514 million).

Phelan Hill, a senior consultant at Nielsen Sports, told AFP that the corporate battle for premium rugby rights was “already alive”.

“Certainly Silver Lake haven’t been the only ones looking to acquire the commercial rights to NZ (New Zealand) Rugby so bidding wars are already there, if a little more behind closed doors.

“With rumours of CVC concluding a deal for the Six Nations shortly, the involvement of another big investor may help the goal of expanding the global market for the game, but due to the pull of the All Blacks it won’t be just CVC calling the shots.” Hill said if the All Blacks deal went through, it could change the dynamics of southern hemisphere rugby.

Silver Lake already has a 10 percent stake in the City Football Group, owners of Premier League giants Manchester City.

“What will be most interesting is how Silver Lake’s investment in NZ Rugby aligns with SANZAAR, the governing body of southern hemisphere rugby,” he said.

“Super Rugby’s (the southern hemisphere club competition’s) financial model is under huge pressure – both the competition and its individual teams – due to COVID-19 and they need to plug the revenue gap.

“New Zealand are taking things into their own hands now and looking for alternatives outside of the governing body for support, which could ultimately drive conflict between New Zealand and SANZAAR objectives.” Hill also believes rugby could be a tantalising option for US investors.

He said English Premiership clubs could be an attractive low-cost choice compared with US sports outfits, which are “reaching a tipping point in terms of price, with the average franchise value in the NFL exceeding $ 3 billion”.

‘Roaring Twenties’ 

US investors have already piled into English football with high-profile investments in Premier League clubs Liverpool, Manchester United, Leeds United and Fulham.

James Paul, portfolio manager at Blackstar Capital, said if American investors switched their attention to rugby, the nature of the involvement would be different from the football model.

“Rugby is far less mature as a brand, so the onus should still be on growing as a collective,” he said.

“An investor acquiring a Premier League club is thinking about merchandising and revenue streams on a more micro level.

“In rugby, I believe the question is about growing the sport itself to both a wider local and more global audience rather than focusing almost exclusively on individual clubs or brands.” Paul said rugby could even have an advantage over football in terms of its long-term potential, with more room to expand.

“Football’s growth will slow at some point, whereas rugby still has the potential for very significant growth over many years,” he said.

“It makes sense that a company like CVC are getting involved, because these are assets with a lower entry cost and the potential for a significant growth-fuelled return in the future.” Paraag Marathe, president of 49ers Enterprises, recently became vice-chairman of Leeds United as NFL franchise San Francisco 49ers increased its stake in the English football club.

He agrees with Hill that English Premiership rugby could catch the eye of US investors as a feelgood factor returns with the easing of the coronavirus crisis.

“Definitely a window of opportunity, especially as some US sports are stagnating a little bit,” he said.

“Also, when we come out of COVID I believe very strongly the excitement and enthusiasm for pro sports is probably going to surpass pre-COVID levels.

“It will be like the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 which was followed by the Roaring Twenties.”