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.