NEW YORK, NY – Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose, as the French say. Another week passes and rugby is again at one of its perennial crossroads, with two competing views of the international game, both driven by deep-pocketed actors. World Rugby is touting a new Nations League financed to the tune of $6.6 billion (over 12 years) by a Chinese-backed Swiss company called InFront (whose CEO is Phillipe Blatter, nephew of Sepp of FIFA notoriety, make of that what you will), while the Six Nations have multiple suitors, most notably CVC ($500m for 30%) and IMG ($2.2 billion). Heady figures indeed for the global game.
Meanwhile, back here in the land of the sleeping giant, Major League Rugby continues to solidify its reputation with competitive and exciting matches and a noticeable uptick in the standard of rugby. League officials and owners should be congratulated on the quality of the on-field product. That is helped, of course by a strong foreign influence which permeates the league with only one American-born coach, Mike Tolkin of Rugby United New York (#RUNY), and a raft of overseas talent that the Foreign Legion itself would envy.
It is off the field and in the boardroom, however, where the most interesting story of foreign influence is found, with a recent report by Iain Morrison in The Scotsman confirming an imminent investment by the Scottish Rugby Union in the DC expansion franchise Old Glory. Word on the street has it that the Scots are paying somewhere between $500,000 -$700,000 over several years for a stake just slightly over 20% with final approval predicated on the long-awaited sanction of the professional league by the reliably amateur governing body, USA Rugby. Whether that is an appropriate use of Scottish development funds at a time when they are launching their own domestic club competition, the Super Six, is best left to the denizens of Murrayfield to decide. But it does show that outside interests now place a value on our domestic league and further moves should be expected.
This is not the only foreign ownership in the league with rumored South African money fronting San Diego and rescuing Utah, and on again, off again interest in Austin and New Orleans from French clubs, Racing and Clermont respectively. Austin, of course, have a French GM, Thierry Daupin and a French coach. The French connection is also present at RUNY, with former Stade Francais man Pierre Arnaud taking a stake in James Kennedy’s New York operation. Toronto, as one might expect, is Canadian-owned, headed by the affable Bill Webb, leaving the remaining MLR teams under solidly American ownership… for now.
MLR bylaws require any change in ownership to be approved by fellow owners but it is understood that while this has not been fully enforced as of yet, with most non-original investments grandfathered in, those intended rules may soon be more closely followed. The injection of Scottish cash should be welcomed however, a vote of confidence in the fledgling league by one of the Home Unions not to be sneezed at. It will almost certainly fare better than the Nigel Melville-inspired $2.5 million stakes that the English RFU and Harlequins both took (and lost) in the USA Rugby/RIM debacle.
More foreign investment will come, as it should, as the global value of rugby rises. It may not be long therefore, before one of World Rugby or the Six Nations’ jilted suitors come calling. Current valuations of an MLR franchise range from $5-8 million with the ebullient Kennedy’s New York, the league’s commercial crown jewel commanding an even higher premium, something which no doubt informed his decision to turn down both the Scottish and Irish unions initial entreaties. All this is chickenfeed of course for a CVC or IMG, cash-rich actors looking more at perceived potential value than half-full minor league baseball parks. This Scottish gamble may in fact, be a harbinger of things to come, and prove to be a very canny bet indeed.
Copyright Stephen Lewis 2019
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