Super Rugby Expansion
Author: Peter Slattery
Super Rugby is a fascinating study.
A contact, sport-entertainment product with three similar, yet diverse markets, across three time zones with two levels of market penetration: South Africa and New Zealand, where rugby is the national sport, with no real challengers. And Australia, where it is vies with three other popular football codes.
These differing pieces of this ‘fascinating study’ (surprisingly) provide much commonality of interests, but (unsurprisingly) also present opposing interests, which manifest into significant challenges at decision making time.
None more so than when negotiations surround expansion.
Earlier this year SANZAR announced Asia as their destination of choice for Super Rugby’s 18th licence and expansion from 2016, with two bids from Japan and Singapore selected to fight it out. The 16th and 17th licenses are to go to a sixth club from South Africa and a franchise from Argentina.
Expansion makes sense
SANZAR’s desire for expansion is driven on the demands and benefits of broadcasting and broadcasters. TV provides the single largest income stream for SANZAR, and is the single most productive tool to promote the code and get its leading and most valuable product, Super Rugby, into the marketplace.
With market penetration (internal expansion) in each of the three SANZAR markets not commercially or structurally practical or preferable, the most favourable market opportunity was found in diversification; expansion with a new team (product) into a new market.
Near-north makes sense
The decision to go near-north (or far-north-east for the South Africans, and far-north-west for the Argentines) makes sense. It is ‘The Asian (21st) Century’, after all.
Consortiums from Japan and Singapore vie for the 18th licence into Super Rugby
Asia holds 61% of the world’s population, with Japan and Singapore bringing large economies with strong middle-classes (with money and time for rugby), robust media and sporting sectors, and (relatively) stable political and social environments.
Eddie Jones, former Wallaby and current Japanese national coach, has rightfully said that Japan is home-base for many rugby-friendly multinational corporations, and a central hub for others in their Asian activities. Japan is also a top three trading partner of each SANZAR nation.
There’s also strong rugby history and infrastructure to be found there too.
Rugby history and infrastructure
Asia is home to 5.4 percent of rugby’s playing population, with both Japan and Singapore having rugby histories dating back to the 19th century.
Japan is currently rated 10th in world rugby rankings, buttressed by a very strong professional league, The Top League, featuring many current and former Super Rugby players and coaches, together with Japan’s best.
7′s rugby has been popular in Singapore, with it playing host to a leg of the IRB 7′s Series in 2005 and 2006, and the Singapore Cricket Club Rugby 7′s, which sees teams travel from around the world to participate, hosted annually since 1947.
And let’s not forget, there’s the Asian 5 Nations, the globally-popular Hong Kong 7′s, as well as Tokyo hosting a leg of the annual IRB Sevens Series, and the 2020 Rugby World Cup will be held there, too.
Furthermore, reflecting the importance of the region to rugby’s global interests, SANZAR (and Asian rugby, of course) has the added benefit of the IRB directing significant resources to the region, driving primary rugby demand.
Demand (activities and resources) SANZAR can leverage.
Challenges for Asian expansion
There are some potential challenges in Asian growth. It is feared that expansion (of any sort, for that matter) will dilute or cannibalise Super Rugby’s current player, coach, and strength & conditioning (S&C) talent. And there is the ever-present ‘tyranny of distance’ felt by all teams, but more so by the South Africans.
I believe there is more than enough available talent waiting for their Super Rugby opportunity. And whilst the travel factor will never ever go away, the benefits of Asian growth to SANZAR and each individual nation far outweighs the challenge of jet-lag.
SANZAR have made a prudent decision to look to Asia, whether it be Japan or Singapore, for the next evolution of Super Rugby.
Both commercially and from a pure rugby perspective, there is a strong foundation for the successful growth of Super Rugby into the region.
Any issues with player, coach or S&C ‘drain’ and ‘tyranny of distance’ are far outweighed by the positives of entering the Asian market.