Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rugby players with day jobs? Unthinkable.

Thought for the day

The woeful plight of the Otago Rugby Football Union seems to provide further evidence that the capitalist model, which works so well in other settings, isn’t necessarily suited to sport.

The union’s insolvency has been attributed to several causes. A key factor was the debt attached to the old Carisbrook stadium, but it’s clear there were other contributors. These included declining revenue from attendance at matches – a problem not confined to Otago – and excessive player salaries.

Both of these flow from the advent of professional rugby and the rampant commercialisation of the game that followed. It’s hardly surprising that attendances have declined when fans can stay home or go to the local pub and watch the match in warmth and comfort on Sky. Combine the Sky factor with increased admission prices and the move from afternoon to evening fixtures (only the most hardened Southern Man would have fancied shivering in the stand at Carisbrook on a freezing Dunedin night) and it seems a perfect squeeze. And that’s not taking into account the fact that even hard-core fans must feel rugbied out by the unrelenting intensity of a season that starts in February and runs until October – a schedule that seems largely driven (as was the move to night matches) by the demands of the game’s corporate backers.

Add to these factors the cost of contracting players ($1.1 million last year in the case of the already heavily indebted ORFU) and the only surprise is that the union didn’t collapse earlier.

Inevitably, there’s now talk about a partial winding-back of professionalism. Former All Black Chris Laidlaw believes provincial rugby should revert to amateur status and the NZRU’s Steve Tew seems to be thinking along similar lines, suggesting that provincial players could be paid during the ITM competition but not year-round. That would help reconnect rugby with its grassroots traditions, when players held down regular day jobs and lived as part of the community rather than in a highly paid, tightly managed professional bubble, isolated from the game’s followers.

If one outcome of the ORFU’s failure is a thorough reassessment of the state of New Zealand rugby, and if one outcome of that reassessment is a transfer of power from the shiny-faced men in suits back to the people who value the game for itself rather than for its value as a “brand”, then the upheaval in Dunedin might not be entirely in vain.


Rab McDowell said...

Oh, but capitalism is working here and working as it should do. The equilibrium price is one that matches supply and demand. The ORFU tried to defy this fundamental economic principle by setting a price for its players, and probably other services, that was higher than that justified by the demand from the paying public. When a company/organisation gets this wrong it will go broke and the ORFU has.

Karl du Fresne said...

I'm sure this is correct from a technical point of view, if you regard sport as just another business. I don't. It seems to me that the problems have arisen largely because a business model has been imposed on an activity the purpose of which is quite distinct from that of a business.

Kiwiwit said...

The opposite of capitalism is communism, not amateurism. Surely, what you really mean is professionalism is the problem?

Karl du Fresne said...

I think you're splitting hairs, but yes.

Karl du Fresne said...

Further to my last comment: professionalism is certainly part of the problem. But professionalism brought with it all the trappings of big business (capitalism, if you wish) which I believe are incompatible with the classical ideals of sport. And if that makes me a dewy-eyed sentimentalist, so be it.

Rab McDowell said...

Karl, your classical ideals of sport are honourable but past. The past is a foreign country we can no longer visit. Some of the sports clubs in the world playing “classical” sports such as football and baseball are big businesses and must be run as such.
The problem, as I have now found out, with the ORFU and probably other unions is that professionalism has not “brought with it all the trappings of big business (capitalism, if you wish)”. It did not bring the disciplines that capitalism imposes because it was an incorporated society that protected the directors from the consequences of their actions over a long period of time. If anything ORFU needed more capitalism, not less. It may have then run a tighter ship and addressed these problems when they still had time.
Read this from Rob Hamlin in the ODT.