Philip Browne admits funding model for Irish rugby is not sustainable
IRFU boss rules out relegation from Six Nations and Pro 14
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne has ruled out relegation becoming part of the Six Nations or the Pro 14. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
“The jeopardy really is professional sport,” said Browne in an interview on Newstalk. “The money we generate from the Six Nations actually funds professional rugby and the amateur game.
“If Ireland got relegated and went into a second tier competition playing Georgia and Russia and Spain and Germany the reality is we would have to shed two professional teams, immediately, because of the impact it would have on our finances.
“Instead of stabilising the game what you are actually doing is destabilising the game. It becomes existential.”
Browne also conceded the model for funding Irish rugby, which is dependent on filling the Aviva stadium at least five times a year, is not sustainable in the short or long term.
That the coronavirus and social distancing has denied fans access to matches for the foreseeable future, has only served to accelerate the need for new revenue streams, Browne told Keith Wood in an hour-long discussion on Off The Ball.
“We simply can’t continue to operate on the basis of being dependent on the number of people we get through the stadium door and the ticket price we charge. In the case of the Aviva stadium it is 51,000 [capacity] – that’s as big as it gets. You can’t make it any bigger and there is only so much elasticity in ticket prices that the public will bear.
“So, we have to find new and additional sources of revenue. Certainly that whole digital space is where we believe there is a new return.”
However, later in the interview, Browne emphasised the dire financial need of supporters being allowed to return to stadiums.
“Certainly, the rugby economy is dependent on people coming through gates and watching matches. For the big international matches, if we don’t move back to a position where we have full houses pretty soon all major rugby unions are going to be in difficulty.”
Alternative incomes have already been accepted from private equity investment firm CVC – the IRFU just signed a deal worth €33 million over three years to give up 28 per cent of the Pro 14. Another substantial revenue stream, it is hoped, will come by amalgamating international television rights to include the Six Nations, as well as July and November Test match windows.
By ruling out any situation where promotion and relegation will be introduced to the Six Nations, Browne leans towards the multi-billion dollar industries created by the main US sports.
“AFL [Aussie rules], NBA and NFL are all closed leagues and they are the most successful professional sports.
“It is uniquely European, in some respects, this notion that you can have open competition with promotion and relegation and if it is not an open competition with promotion and relegation there really isn’t a competition at all, and it is of no interest to anyone,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is the best professional sports in the world are all closed leagues, where you are able to effectively invest in your competition, invest in your facilities, invest in the infrastructure and invest in the players. I think Pro 14 is in the position where we can do that.”
The French and English club games, Browne noted, are severely hampered by the constant threat of relegation.
“One of the difficulties with the PRL and Top 14 is the fear in mid table is you could drop out and if you [are relegated] you might not get back up again.
“It becomes quite tricky running a professional sport in what is still in its infancy, but in a situation where you cannot invest properly due to fear of relegation it really does not make a lot of sense.”
When the ineptitude of Italy as an international team was raised, the 59-year-old pointed to the influence of Conor O’Shea and improved results of Treviso, before adding Italy’s ability to become a genuine tier one nation “is just going to take time – you may ask ‘well, how much more time?’”
Relegation for any team would “almost make it impossible to put them back together again”.
“We have to try and preserve what we have. Georgia are always touted as the team to come instead of Italy. Italy have beaten Georgia on numerous occasions – the record is there – I don’t think you would get a massive improvement by bringing in Georgia.”
Helping to improving second and third tier nations, Browne stated, is “down the agenda”.
“Survival is the name of the game at the moment.”
On the proposed rules changes to enable amateur rugby to safely return, without access to expensive testing, Browne stated: “In the amateur game I think we’ll probably end up starting with the short forms of the game. It makes perfect sense that we do that.
“In fact the short forms of the game might also happen in the professional game with Sevens rugby. It is probably an easier sell to public health authorities from the 15-a-side game.”
Such a revelatory statement was quickly dampened by Browne changing tact: “Having said that, the finance of the entire game is dependent on 15-a-side rugby being played in full houses at club level and international level.
“Unless we can get back to that position [of full stadiums] there will be a real problem for rugby as a sport.
“We have submitted detailed return to train and return to play and event management protocols to Sport Ireland’s expert group.
“We are aiming for the 22nd of August,” said Browne, confirming the return of professional rugby in the shape of Leinster versus Munster followed the same weekend by Ulster versus Connacht. “We will play them in a controlled environment in the Aviva stadium.”
The IRFU’s priority, it is believed, is to finish the 2020 Six Nations in order to gain access to the prize money. For example, €2.6 million was banked after the 2018 Grand Slam.
“We will inevitably end up changing how we do things but at least we have a plan. We have a date. One would hope the Government, NPHET and the department of health will look at those seriously and if they don’t like it they need to come back and tell us why they don’t like it. And we will change it and work with the health authorities to make it happen.
“‘No’ is not a good enough answer. We need to understand why, if it is going to be ‘no’, why is it no and what can we change to make it happen?”
Browne also provide some detail around the talks between the Six Nations and Sanzaar to form a global international calendar.
“It’s the old saying: ‘Never waste a good crisis’. It’s the right time to look at it.
“Project Light – which is the Six Nations project to effectively aggregate all their TV rights across the autumn internationals and the Six Nations has been a move in the right direction.
“To take that a step further is to aggregate the rights of incoming and outgoing tours and try to see by aggregating rights that you can generate a greater level of interest from broadcasters, with the possibility of doing some sort of [exclusive] channel which effectively gives all the punters a one-stop shop for rugby.
“The difficulty at the moment is if you want to watch international rugby in the autumn you are looking at it on three different channels with two games on at the same time.
“It just doesn’t make any sense. We are shooting ourselves in the foot as a sport.
“[We are] Looking at seeing can we align the global season is another obvious step to take.”
On the Government bailout Browne proposed last week, the chief executive added: “Professional sport is a marginal business. We don’t bank huge reserves. We spent the money we earn [keeping the game in Ireland] going.
“The reality is cash is limited. Yes, we could go off and borrow but nobody should get engaged in borrowing funds unless they have some idea how they are going to repay them. At this point in time I have no idea how we would repay any debt we took on.”
The hope is Government support would be a grant rather than a loan, similar to how the EU is supporting its member states.
“To be fair to Government and Sport Ireland I think they do understand [the need to keep sport active in society despite the pandemic] but there are a lot of hungry mouths out there.
“It is an unenviable task for Government but they need to understand it is existential for some sports.”