Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lessons from other sports: Union on the brink

Rugby union in Australia consolidated and then expanded. Mining money from Western Australia, reputed to be backed by South African expats, formed the Western Force. In doing so, stripped some of the best players and the young up-and-comers from the other 3 Australian teams. Result, Australian club teams are not competitive in the Super 14 and there is barely life in the domestic (local teams only) competition.

John O'Neill switched back from the A-League to union in an attempt to unify the fragmented and, occasionally, warring state bodies. And to negotiate the next round of TV deals. Interestingly, under O'Neill exclusivity to Foxtel was, like for football, seen as the answer. Ooops. While Foxtel may have seen its audience grow, like football, the overall audience has declined and this has hit home gatetakings. And the long term future of the sport via dropping interest from kids who can no longer recognise heroes. A big thank you from the free-to-air prime time guys at AFL and, the beleaguered rugby league.

The once powerful Queensland Reds have been hard hit. For years they have struggled to win games and keep coaches. All but die-hard fans can watch their team smashed every week. The financial crisis is right on their door-stop with one of their major sponsors, a sports clothing company, reported in today's Sunday Mail as running out of money. This compounds the problems the club has had from its commitment to Ballymore. Like the Roar, the Reds play at Suncorp and train at Ballymore (their traditional home). The Reds $100m plan for Ballymore was struck a blow by the change in Federal government which reversed a funding pledge - you could say that between the State and Commonwealth this money has now gone to the Gold Coast for a new AFL ground. Anyway, now the proceeding Ballymore upgrade is weighing Queensland rugby union down. What happens next is a real question.

Meanwhile, the cause of the Reds playing demise, the Force is also reported to be in dire straights (Offsiders ABC TV Sunday). One plan, said to be reasonably advanced, is to switch them from WA to Victoria and to get them to share the proposed new football stadium. This stadium would house - say - in summer Melbourne Victory and a new A-League team from 2012, and in winter, probably, a re-badged Western Force. This would keep games at the new ground week in week out.

Plus, South Africa is continuing to talk big about leaving the Super 14 and moving into a European competition. This would open up more sponsorship dollars, link expat Brits and others with their Europeans origins, open mass markets, and, perhaps most importantly, allow more South African teams into the top flight - a major problem with Super 14 where Australia is claiming any new spots (although they want them to go to Asian teams - particularly Japan).

Hmmm. What this space.

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