Time may be right for Sanzar to expand Super Rugby
Super Rugby looks ready to take the next step and extend into new territories beyond New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
The potential riches that come with the markets in America and Asia may at last prove irresistible.
It's not a new concept, but the timing may finally be right. A new broadcasting deal must be struck for 2016 and that coincides with rugby's introduction to the Olympics in Brazil.
There is also the lure created by Japan's need to push its game up another level as it readies to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
And importantly, unlike in the past, Super Rugby now has a format to accommodate extra teams because of its conference system.
Internal expansion doesn't seem likely. Despite South African pleas for a sixth team, there is a general feeling that the playing depth in New Zealand and Australia has been exhausted.
It's the money that might be too good to ignore, though. Tough economic circumstances have stretched local markets. Fresh fields represent new gold, especially on either side of the Pacific.
"From broadcast revenue and commercial revenue perspectives there are some very big markets out there that are potential markets that Sanzar might want to explore on the back of the growing impact of sevens and the Olympics," Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters said.
"There are absolutely possibilities within the States and Japan for increased television revenue and a lot of that has to do with sevens being in the 2016 Olympics.
"I don't think anything is off the table at all post-2015 and, particularly with the conference format, you can add other conferences or you could add teams to the current conferences. There are lots of different things that can be done with the format that we have now got. It's one of the attractions of this format.
"But I don't think anyone, particularly in New Zealand or South Africa, would want to see more weeks of rugby.
"So it's how you structure what you have got into those weeks. We always have to remember that we do this for what's in the best interests of rugby and commercial revenue for the three Sanzar countries," Peters said.
There is also the appealing opportunity to place at-risk or surplus players in offshore teams in a Sanzar competition rather than have them nabbed by rich European clubs.
"That could well have some legs," Peters admitted. "But the key for it to be successful, as you see in Japan, is it has to have the majority of local players.
"That's where the States becomes more attractive because they have the athletes – NFL guys that don't make it – we just need to make sure they have the skills that rugby needs."
Soccer has taken a long road to establish itself in the US but Major League Soccer is now a respected competition. Peters felt the long-term potential of rugby there was similar and believed sevens could start that push.
"You know what the attraction of an Olympic gold medal does for those big countries, they get right behind it," he said.
There is also the question of where Sanzar's blossoming relationship with legitimate rugby power Argentina goes next. The Pumas join the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies in the Rugby Championship this year and clearly Argentina have potential to operate at the level below internationals.
"I'm sure they will have aspirations for greater involvement in Sanzar competitions from 2016 onwards," Peters said.
Sunday Star Times