Rugby: New frontier for sports investment firms

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England’s hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie (second right) vies with Italy’s hooker Luca Biga (right) during the Six Nations international rugby union match at Twickenham, west London, on February 13. AFP

Rugby’s crown jewels are in the sights of investors seeking to exploit the untapped potential of the market as struggling governing bodies try to replenish their coffers.

US private equity firm Silver Lake is reported to be offering around $340 million for a 15 per cent share of commercial rights in the All Blacks – the ultimate brand in the sport.

In the northern hemisphere, CVC Capital Partners – which formerly owned a controlling stake in Formula One – is widely expected to acquire 14.5 per cent of the commercial rights for the Six Nations for $514 million.

Phelan Hill, a senior consultant at Nielsen Sports, said the corporate battle for premium rugby rights was “already alive”.

“With rumours of CVC concluding a deal for the Six Nations shortly, the involvement of another big investor may help the goal of expanding the global market for the game, but due to the pull of the All Blacks it won’t be just CVC calling the shots.”

Hill said if the All Blacks deal went through, it could change the dynamics of southern hemisphere rugby.

Silver Lake already has a 10 per cent stake in the City Football Group, owners of Premier League giants Manchester City.

“Super Rugby’s [the southern hemisphere club competition’s] financial model is under huge pressure – both the competition and its individual teams – due to Covid-19 and they need to plug the revenue gap.

“New Zealand are taking things into their own hands now and looking for alternatives outside of the governing body for support, which could ultimately drive conflict between New Zealand and SANZAAR objectives.”

Hill also believes rugby could be a tantalising option for US investors.

He said English Premiership clubs could be an attractive low-cost choice compared with US sports outfits, which are “reaching a tipping point in terms of price, with the average franchise value in the NFL exceeding $3 billion”.

US investors have already piled into English football with high-profile investments in Premier League clubs Liverpool, Manchester United, Leeds United and Fulham.

James Paul, portfolio manager at Blackstar Capital, said if American investors switched their attention to rugby, the nature of the involvement would be different from the football model.

“In rugby, I believe the question is about growing the sport itself to both a wider local and more global audience rather than focusing almost exclusively on individual clubs or brands.”

Paul said rugby could even have an advantage over football in terms of its long-term potential, with more room to expand.

“It makes sense that a company like CVC are getting involved, because these are assets with a lower entry cost and the potential for a significant growth-fuelled return in the future.”

Paraag Marathe, president of 49ers Enterprises, recently became vice-chairman of Leeds United as NFL franchise San Francisco 49ers increased its stake in the English football club.

He agrees with Hill that English Premiership rugby could catch the eye of US investors as a feelgood factor returns with the easing of the coronavirus crisis.

“When we come out of Covid I believe very strongly the excitement and enthusiasm for pro sports is probably going to surpass pre-Covid levels.

“It will be like the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 which was followed by the Roaring Twenties.”