As the Six Nations contemplate an autumn international campaign without New Zealand and South Africa, who are likely to remain at home because of travel restrictions, the attraction of a deal with CVC becomes greater.
A £300m bounty at a time when the pandemic has forced the game to make its deepest cuts in the professional era could be the difference between floating and going under.
A deal, though, does not appear to be imminent. The lockdown paused negotiations at a time when even private equity companies are having to take stock. But a sticking point remains unresolved: should the tournament move to a lucrative pay television platform or retain a free-to-air presence which may mean CVC reducing its offer?
The instinctive reaction is to take the money: the Welsh Rugby Union fears it could face a shortfall of £50m this year with matches at the Principality Stadium unlikely to resume until 2021, and it is considering hiring Twickenham in the autumn. The Rugby Football Union has hit on a similar figure while the Irish union has warned it could run out of money in a matter of months.
The measured response is to consider the longer-term impact of taking the most popular tournament in the European game off terrestrial TV and exchanging audiences of several million for viewers who would be numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Six Nations is the entry point to rugby union for many and the cost of forfeiting a large swathe of interest is not easily, or quickly, quantified.
As players worldwide accept pay cuts of at least 25%, recognising the economic tempest buffeting unions and clubs, if not the flimsy foundation salaries had been built on with too many spending beyond their means, CVC’s money would provide an instant fix, although not necessarily a lasting one.
A year ago the Premiership clubs each banked £12.5m after signing an agreement with CVC. The money was timely, with the 13 having generated precious little income in the last three months, but it is also costly.
The clubs gave up 27% of their central funds each year to CVC, at an average of £1.5m each. The aim was to claw that back through increased TV and sponsorship deals generated by the company. But the commercial and corporate markets look as if they will be depressed for at least a few years and more money will be generated from TV only if the likes of Amazon become interested.
The Six Nations agreed before starting talks with CVC to aggregate their rights, selling the championship and autumn internationals together to enhance their value. They had hoped that the international schedule for later this year would be finalised at a meeting this week. But it has been postponed until the middle of the month because more time is needed to sort out a global calendar. Clubs are unhappy at the prospect of a long Test window in October and November replacing the two held in the European summer and autumn.
Time is pressing. Rugby Australia on Wednesday announced it had agreed 30% pay cuts with players, and the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association pointed out that while its members appreciated “the precarious position the game faces globally”, it considered it was inappropriate to compare players to administrators given the relative shortness of a playing career.
On the same day, the very different ways East Midlands rivals Leicester and Northampton deal with their players became evident. Northampton, who from the start of the lockdown adopted a collaborative approach with their leading players, have settled their squad for next season, retaining Courtney Lawes, Dan Biggar, Piers Francis, Teimana Harrison, George Furbank and Alex Waller. All have accepted a pay cut until next summer.
Leicester’s tactics were played out in the media with the England internationals George Ford, Ellis Genge and Manu Tuilagi among the rebels who tried to hold the club into honouring its pledge to reimburse players for the pay cuts they had agreed between April and August before agreeing to sign a contract on reduced terms.
The Tigers’ approach from the start was to dictate to players rather than to negotiate and new coach Steve Borthwick’s first task will be to rebuild morale. Ford and Genge, two players whose participation in the next World Cup will come down to form rather than age, pulled back from the brink and it would be surprising if the England coach, Eddie Jones, had not had a word with them.
Tuilagi stood firm, the 2023 World Cup not his priority, although he will be only 32 when the tournament in France starts. He re-signed for Leicester despite interest from Racing 92 and if he is to have a final pay day, it will be in France or Japan: Genge teased his Twitter followers on Wednesday by posting emojis of a croissant and sushi on his page as speculation about his future raged.
Pay cuts are more costly for players closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. They will have little chance of making up the shortfall, but if everyone is in this together no one should be exploiting strife, even if Leicester have not helped themselves. It is not, for the moment, a players’ market with employers reducing debt rather than living off it. Tuilagi’s value will be enhanced only if his international career is in the past.
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