OPINION: For rugby fans the creation of a consortium featuring some of Wellington's most prominent businesspeople to manage the Hurricanes will change little. The team will still play at Westpac Stadium, still be coached by Mark Hammett and, hopefully, still entertain.
But, behind the scenes, the injection of new capital and expertise into the franchise is an exciting development.
First and foremost, it ensures the Hurricanes will remain based in the capital. The consortium, whose members include economist Gareth Morgan, former Brierley boss Paul Collins and sports marketer Liz Dawson, has secured the licence to manage the team for the next three years with a right of renewal for a further five years.
Second, the deal will lead to an injection of capital. The New Zealand Rugby Union will continue to pay player wages, but the consortium has undertaken to put $2 million to $3m into the team annually.
Third, it will add more commercial expertise to the board.
Fourth, it creates the opportunity for greater synergies between sporting codes. Dr Morgan, who will represent Welnix – the owners of the Wellington Phoenix – on the new Hurricanes board has already talked of the possibility of his group taking an interest in the Wellington Firebirds and the Central Pulse. That opens up not just the possibility of joint promotions, but of backroom co-operation between the capital's rugby, football, cricket and netball franchises and perhaps, even, a hi-tech purpose-built training facility. The capital's population is too small to provide four professional teams with all the resources they need, but together the possibilities are greater. There is no reason teams could not share back office costs, train together on occasion, and take advantage of the expertise developed in other codes.
Finally, from the point of the New Zealand union, the involvement of the private sector spreads the financial risk.
Like it or not, rugby is now big business. Gone are the days when top players and coaches gave their time for the love of the game. Today's players sacrifice the opportunity of careers in other fields to pursue their dreams on the rugby field. They have a limited shelf life. A rugby player, if he is lucky, might manage 10 years at the top. If he is unlucky, his career could be ended the next time he steps on to a field. In those circumstances, he can hardly be blamed for seeking to maximise his earnings.
If the All Blacks are to continue to set the standard internationally, the New Zealand union has to be able to offer competitive salaries to sportsmen the rest of the sporting world covets. As the mid-season departure of Sonny Bill Williams for richer pastures shows, the lure of the All Black jersey goes only so far.
The new arrangements, being road-tested in Wellington and Canterbury, reduce the likelihood of the union having to bail out an ailing franchise.
That can only be good for the sport, so long as rugby continues to take precedence over sponsorship and marketing demands.
- The Dominion Post