Pro14 in talks with private equity firms but will not cede control
Wales, Scotland, South Africa open to idea of outside investment - Ireland to be conviced
Tadhg Furlong powers to score for Leinster against the Dragonsin the Pro 14. The league has been in talks with provate equity firms. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Private equity firms have been talking to the Guinness Pro14 board about investing in the tournament as part of their strategy to exploit untapped broadcasting income in sport – but the board are not prepared to give up control of the game.
Premiership Rugby last week rejected a takeover bid by the equity firm CVC, believing its £500m offer undervalued the league and not willing to concede control. Talks had been going on for a year, but the Pro14, the shareholders of which are all unions, was first approached 12 months before.
The Pro14 suspended the talks last year as it negotiated a television agreement with Premier Sports, but when CVC’s interest in the Premiership became public, it rekindled the interest of some of the unions. Wales, Scotland and South Africa are open to the idea of outside investment, while not being prepared to concede control. Ireland still have to be convinced.
“What the companies are looking for is not control of the tournament, but of its commercial rights,” said a Pro14 source. “They believe that rugby is only touching the surface when it comes to realising its broadcasting potential. They understand the consumer content market far better than rugby bodies, even Premiership Rugby, and have links with the likes of Amazon and Facebook.
“The fact that there is such an interest in rugby can only be good for the sport. What is also heartening is that the companies we have spoken to see their involvement beyond the short term. They are talking about being involved for between eight and 12 years and anticipate being able to make a decent return in that time.”
While the Pro14 is owned by unions, an attraction for private investment is that it is made up of teams from half the 10 tier-one countries in world rugby and could potentially open doors to the international arena.
“What we have in the longer term is the opportunity to bring the club and international games closer together,” said the source. “Test rugby has pretty much reached its maximum in terms of the number of games played and the question is what purpose friendly Tests in the autumn and summer serve beyond raising money.
“At the moment, unions use Test matches as a way of feeding the grassroots, but what the interest shown by private equity firms in the club game demonstrates is that it could become a means of sustaining the levels below, and reducing the strain on the international game.”
CVC is considering whether to make a modified bid to the Premiership, which has also been speaking to other potential investors. A sticking point is the issue of control, with World Rugby regulations prohibiting anyone owning – directly or indirectly – more than one club. The issue has been raised at meetings with the Rugby Football Union, with owners feeling the regulation breaches European competition law, but with Britain leaving the EU in March, there is not much time for a legal challenge.