Ed Warner: Rugby union could learn from the NFL model on Super Bowl LVII weekend
For all the relentless commercial growth of the Premier League, IPL and F1, the NFL remains the sporting brand to beat. Super Bowl LVII will be watched by more than 200m people worldwide on Sunday.
The matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles has its stories, but in truth the identity of these finalists is unimportant. This irrelevance is the brand’s ultimate collective success, a testament to the strength of American football’s closed shop. English rugby, look and learn.
US sport’s franchise model is often considered slightly distasteful to British observers reared on relegation jeopardy and dreams of promotion.
Heads are shaken at tales of team owners content to let a season slide to improve subsequent draft picks, or simply coasting year after year, content to enjoy the riches that come with being part of the gang. And that’s before the “outrage” of franchises transplanted to different cities or states.
It’s hard to quibble, though, at the value created by and for the franchise owners from their collective action within ring-fenced structures – especially their processes to level the competitive playing field.
Forbes last year calculated the average NFL team to be worth $4.7bn. The Cincinnati Bengals was lowest ranked at a cool $3bn.
And it’s not just football. Forbes ascribes a $2.9bn value to the average NBA basketball team and $2.1bn to MLB baseball franchises. Just one, baseball’s Miami Marlins, comes in at under $1bn.
Forget the excitement about leading English football clubs changing hands for billions – the majority of Premier League teams could probably still be bought for hundreds of millions of pounds. After all, the economic catastrophe of relegation is a realistic possibility for most before a ball is kicked each season.
Just ask Randy Lerner about his 2016 fire-sale of Aston Villa after their first relegation in 29 years. He is said to have got a Villa tattoo during his near decade of ownership. An indelible reminder of his very expensive foray.
English football is struggling with the financial strain generated by the movement of teams into and out of its top division. Owners with more ambition than financial means or sense have saddled clubs with business models that require repeated injections of capital.
But at least there is already some wealth redistribution within the game, and a continuing dialogue which seems destined to see more cash flowing down the ladder from the Premier League. The only (big) questions are how much and on what terms.
This is possible because there is wealth at the top of football to redistribute. Not so in rugby union, rugby league or a string of other sports which cling to the ambition of viable professional team-based competition structures.
Rugby league is working with agency IMG to overhaul the sport. One of IMG’s key proposals is to end automatic promotion to the Super League. Instead, second tier clubs will be evaluated on a variety of on- and off-field criteria. The best may, or may not, achieve promotion each season.
Leaving the door ajar like this risks controversy. A fully closed league would be cleaner and more successful, so long as clubs’ contributions to the overall quality of the sporting product is properly policed.
Rugby union in England is already suffering from the fog engulfing promotion criteria. Ealing Trailfinders top the Championship but are deemed to have a ground that is too small for the Premiership. Ealing’s last home game drew just 987 to its 5,000 capacity stadium.
Two clubs have gone bust and been ejected from rugby’s Premiership this season. The remaining 11 are heavily in debt. Private equity firm CVC committed a reported £200m for a 27 per cent stake in the Premiership back in 2018.
It’s not clear what the financiers have got for their money, quite what the recipient clubs have done with it, or what CVC has brought to the party apart from hard cash. It might do well to hire one or two IMG staffers to get under the bonnet of the agency’s plans for rugby league, which bear the hallmarks of joined-up thinking at least.
As the first-class cricket counties survive in their current form due to the commercial success of the England men’s cricket team, so the allure of international rugby is vital to the continued health of the club game around the world.
The RFU doubtless frequently asks itself just how many vibrant top-flight professional teams it needs to nurture the pool of current and potential talent for England’s national squad. I bet it’s no more than a dozen. Ten? Eight even?
Ring-fencing that cadre of clubs and closing the doors to others would be a bold first step towards the stabilisation and subsequent financial reinvigoration of the Premiership. Americans have a growing habit of investing across sports and geographies.
I can’t see NFL owners pitching up wholesale in rugby yet, but just think what a small slice of their wealth could achieve in this different oval ball game. A shift in rugby’s model could prove a first lure.
ChatGPT does the Super Bowl (badly)
Intrigued by schools dropping homework essays given the march of ChatGPT, I thought I’d give artificial intelligence a whirl with this week’s Sport inc. (no jokes please).
I got the “ChatGPT is at capacity right now” message that is currently frustrating newbies like me the world over. So I turned to competitor ChatSonic instead and asked it to tell me who would win Sunday’s Super Bowl in 100 words.
Here’s a big chunk of the bot’s 180-word essay (demerits for its wordage overrun):
“The two teams that will vie for the Lombardi Trophy will be the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“The Rams have been a powerhouse since the start of the season, with an explosive offense featuring Jared Goff under center and a stout defense led by Aaron Donald. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have been one of the best teams in the league for the past several seasons.
“In the end, the Los Angeles Rams will be the winners of Super Bowl 2023. Their combination of experience and talent will be too much for the Chiefs to handle, as the Rams will take home their first championship in over a decade.”
It would be good if my new virtual friend knew which team was actually facing the Chiefs on Sunday. Exam failed. Schoolkids beware!
Only one winner
Last week I argued that World Athletics’ proposed regulations to encompass trans athletes competing in female events may not secure the support of its member federations.
Now UK Athletics is suggesting it needs a change in British law if it is to be able to adopt the rules it would like – and which would indeed be out of step with the global governing body.
Money, and specifically fear of legal costs, is reported to be the issue for UKA, whose financial reserves have dwindled in recent years. It would rather trans athletes competed in an open category alongside men.
As British sporting bodies all face the same issue, and most have skinny resources which could be wiped out by lawyers’ invoices to defend legal challenges, it is time for government to step in as their financial guarantor in the matter.
After all, former Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan was said last month that women’s sport “must be reserved for people born of the female sex”. Donelan was shuffled into a new role by the Prime Minister on Tuesday. We await the views of her successor Lucy Frazer.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com