Reasons Super Rugby’s conference system failed

Reasons Super Rugby’s conference system failed

Whatever you say about Super Rugby conference system, it has pretty much failed to please anyone.  The Kiwis especially hate it as they feel their side’s chances of getting the home finals they deserve are dented by teams from weaker conferences getting home semis when they have far poorer results.  Crowds don’t seem to like it as attendance has declined and a total of 4 teams (a 22% failure rate) have left the competition with a fifth (the moondogs) having a questionable future.

With this season being the last using the conference system, I thought it would be interesting argue that the conference system’s failure was predictable and that SANZAAR should have foreseen the risks they were taking and realized it couldn’t work.  To do this I am going to compare policies and practices of other sporting leagues that have conference systems to see what SANZAAR should have realized before 2010 when they revealed the new format.  This will involve discussing draft systems & salary caps because with these conference based sports can work.  Without them? well, you have Super Rugby.

A Super Draft

Looking first at the draft option, it exists in leagues to ensure an even spread of talent throughout to make it competitive.  The NFL have had just 5 teams manage back-back Super Bowls since 1966 (53 years).  This draft, (which has its problems and critics), whereby the worst team in a season gets first shot fresh talent for the next season, is chiefly why teams from a certain geographies that produce numerous players cannot dominate the league for extended periods.

Pittsburgh is hardly a huge US city yet it is able to compete for talent with New York as well as other parts of the USA that have large concentrations of college players trying to get into the NFL (the mid-west, the southern states and California all have a density of universities that produce top players).  In Ice Hockey, nearly half of all players in the NHL are Canadian.  If they were all required to play in Canada, the league would not exist to any significant degree in the USA.


Drafts for rugby exist but only on Facebook

Contrast the above to Super Rugby.  The greatest developer of talent is undoubtedly New Zealand.  Very few of these players play in Super Rugby outside of NZ and it’s a common view that access to this conveyor belt of talent is the chief reason (along with coaching) New Zealand dominate the competition.  The greater concentration of talent in NZ has made their conference games of a high standard.  Reducing the number of times teams from other conferences were facing this level diluted their ability – Australian sides have won very few games against them and South African sides lost much more often than not when first facing NZ sides in a season.

SANZAAR, had they thought of it, would have been well aware that a draft system that would force a talented young New Zealander for example to play outside that country would never happen but any analysis of other conference based sports would reveal it’s a key ingredient.  To be clear, I do not think Super Rugby should have a league-wide draft but I also do not think Super Rugby should ever have had a conference system.

League Wide Salary Caps & Currency

Another key issue SANZAAR ignored was a league wide salary cap and associated currency issues. The NFL, NHL and NBA all enforce a salary cap – MLB does not and while it’s a complex topic, its attendances are at record lows and, as the film & book Moneyball make quite clear, poor teams have a tough time competing against rich sides.  A phrase attributed to an NFL team owner is that they are all republicans who vote socialist.  What he means is that if the NFL were to allow rich teams to dominate by buying up all the best talent, poorer teams will slowly die and, taken to its extreme, there’s no one left to compete against.  Two things have always struck me as ironic about the NFL, the sport most popular among US conservatives. Firstly it enforces two of the things they regard as the road to socialist ruin – a minimum and maximum wage and secondly, but they seem completely unaware how successful it makes the league.

They're talking to Matt, Reg & Hugh to make the G&GR sporting blockbuster

They’re talking to Matt, Reg & Hugh to make the G&GR sporting blockbuster

The NFL’s chief advantage in this regard is that it pays its players and receives its revenue in the same currency – the US dollar.  This effectively reduces currency exchange rate risk to almost zero for them but it is an issue SANZAAR could have foreseen but appears not to have, or just got it flat wrong.  All other major sports leagues North America have teams based in Canada and for the NHL, which has 7 teams out of 31 (29%) based in Canada it is a significant issue. Canadian sides pay their players in US Dollars but receive their ticket sales in the frequently weaker Canadian Dollar (the home team keeps the gate receipts in the NHL).  This causes, even with a league wide salary cap, real problems for Canadian teams when the Canadian Dollar weakens.  That’s a league with 2 currencies who are quite closely interrelated.  SANZAAR decided to have a league with six currencies from economies that are nowhere near that intertwined.  Six. The Australian Dollar, The NZ Dollar, The Rand, The Yen, The Singaporean Dollar and the Peso.  Six.

“So what?” I hear you say.  Travel is a significant expense in Super Rugby as jet fuel is priced in US Dollars and if you’re paying Pesos it can get painful.

Results on the field forced three teams (with a 4th on the block) to be cut.  It wasn’t all caused by one thing, but the fact is that we fans have had to endure several seasons with lopsided results.  The powers that be went to the conference format without 2 key factors that other sports leagues have and Super Rugby has had exactly the problems they foresee and avoid like the plague.

As with a  draft, I don’t think a league-wide salary cap was ever an option or would work as we play a global sport and our union’s relative lack of financial clout compared to Europe and non Super rugby Japan acts as a cap to a degree.  However, messing with a working system as SANZAR did without appearing to appreciate the risks they were taking seems, in retrospect, unwise.

So what could they have done?

Well, this is the tough part  Probably not fixing what wasn’t broken would have been best. But, there was a desire in SA to expand the competition AND reduce travel so probably a recognition that these were incompatible goals would have been sensible.  There was no way a draft system would be implemented league wide so perhaps all 3 unions agreeing to one in their own conferences would have helped, although how Australia could do that without a 3rd tier at the time is a question due diligence should have revealed, assuming SANZAR did any.  Having a salary cap in a league that expanded to include 6 currencies was also not going to happen.  The limited budgets of the three unions acts as this to a degree so to me it’s not the key issue, the concentration of talent in NZ is/was.

I’m sorry if it seems a cop out but about all I can think beyond realizing it was a bad idea to start with is to suggest a pool of top coaches funded by the league to help struggling sides.  If, for example. a side finished in the bottom 4 then they would get a funded skills, fitness and specialist coach (line outs and scrums) to help them get better.  Even that’s got logistical and political issues with it.  Whatever, the conference system is going to end so we may as well do a decent autopsy.

Got any ideas? Put them in comments below.


G&GR’s chief economics and business reporter at large who is now allowed to write the odd match related article. A player who always preferred to social aspect of the game to training and was therefore a tragic loss to the professional ranks. Tweets can be seen at @skandahooligan

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