NEWS that a £300 million investment in the Six Nations by CVC Capital Partners private equity firm is set to be announced soon after the World Cup has received a predictably lukewarm response from the game’s top brass.
“Certainly, a big an investor in the sport [such] as a private equity firm like CVC, is going to create influence, and that would be in some areas something that would concern us,” said World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper, speaking at the Rugby World Cup ‘Opening Press Conference’ in Tokyo this afternoon. “So, it is important that we understand from CVC exactly what their medium to long-term plans are. And from that information we can react. So, it is a bit early to evaluate but that’s where we are.
“The areas that concern is that when you have a high-funding commercialiser of the sport that isn’t a governing body, their interest is in the commercialising of it, which may not be the interests of the growth of it [the sport], player welfare or other areas. So, we would want to make sure that, for the right reasons, our influence isn’t usurped.”
World Rugby had hoped to attract their own significant outside investment in the game with their ‘Nations Cup/World League’ proposal, which would involve a £6 billion investment over the course of 12-year television deal, but that was rejected by the Six Nations countries back in June, leaving the path clear for CVC.
“As you are all aware, we had another alternative on the table when we were looking at investment in the global game and how we can take that forward with a ‘World League’ to generate the possibility of funding. Six Nations have chosen to take another route, I have to say we don’t know enough about the ins and outs of that yet, so we can’t really comment at this stage if it is good or bad,” added Gosper.
“We have met with CVC during the conversations we had on the World League and so on, when we were considering meaningful types of investors in the sport. Of course, given CVC’s recent positions taken in the world game, it would be madness for us to not put ourselves up for communication.
“There are lots of areas of commonality, as well as divergence in some areas. I think we all want a healthy, growing sport. We’re probably coming at it from a slightly different angle, but we still need to get together and ensure that what we are all doing is for the good and the growth of the sport.”
Gosper, and his colleagues at the top table, were keen to celebrate the developmental value of bringing the World Cup to Asia for the first time, which they hope will create a sustainable legacy and deliver a tangible long-term impact.
“In addition to exceptional ticket sales and superb host city engagement, this will be the most widely viewed, engaged and consumed rugby event in history. Matches will be broadcast to 850 million homes and 217 territories in line with our Asian growth strategy.
“In tune with that strategy, we have consumed unprecedented broadcast platforms in China and India, as well as the USA. Indeed, coupled with our offering, it is possible to access Rugby World Cup in every nation on the planet.”
It was stated that 1.8 million new participants in Asia have been introduced to rugby as part of the drive to grow the game during the build-up to this tournament, but local-based journalist Rich Freeman questioned whether the current structure for rugby in Japan is compatible with growing the number of players given that very few high schools have rugby clubs, the ‘bukatsu’ system (whereby kids between the ages of 12 to 18 system focus on one extra-curricular activity all year round) makes it virtually impossible to attract teenage converts, and the fact that there is no age-grade rugby for any kids from 15 years and older.
Gosper also said that World Rugby will give serious consideration to increasing World Cup squad sizes from 31-players per squad ahead of the next tournament if it improves player welfare but stated that this issue had not been raised in time for the 2019 event.
The issue of player tattoos was also raised. The organising committee issued a directive last year banning all players and supporters from displaying tattoos. Alan Gilpin, the Chief Operating Officer of World Rugby and World Cup Tournament Director, has encouraged all teams to cover their tattoos by wearing rash vests, while out in public.While Gilpin has stated that the rule will not be enforced, or punishable by fine should it be flouted, he has encouraged touring teams to respect Japanese tradition. The public display of tattoos in Japan is associated with the Yakuza, the fierce local mafia.
“It is about educating people from different parts of the world,” said Gilpen. “We’re here in Japan and the culture around tattoos is different to many of the countries where the teams are from. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the players about that. We’re blessed players in our values-based sport who understand the need to respect other cultures. There has never been any issue with the teams or the players.
“And, similarly, we’ve worked with the organising committee and the host cities to understand and particularly those around team camps understand that players have tattoos from their own countries and cultures, so we don’t see it as an issue.”