So the telly deal is done. One of the biggest sticking points in the unholy European rugby war has been resolved. Sky and BT will share the rights to the new, improved “European Rugby Champions Cup.”
It’s been an unnecessarily painful birth. The single most important issue has always been money, and who controls it. We always knew the answer, of course: television. And now the disagreement between Sky and BT is resolved, we have a way forward.
So if the answer was so simple and obvious, why has it taken so long to get to this point? It’s been over two years now since the English and French clubs served notice of their intention to abandon the old European Cup.
It’s important to note at this point that England and France are the countries where the money comes from: that’s where the majority of the chimney pots (and satellite dishes) are located. As I said last week, us Welsh are just spectators at this rugby feast, and we’re not the ones picking up the tab.
The French and English clubs are calling the tune, as they always have done throughout this long and drawn-out process. Now, finally, they’ve got what they want. A fairer share of tournament money and representation.
The important point is that it is now rugby clubs, and not unions, who are in control. But were all the unions digging their heels in? No. It was just the Irish (IRFU) and Welsh (WRU) governing bodies who were, as late as January this year, still clinging to the old order. They’ve failed in their attempt to retain control of the professional game in Europe. It’s quite clear that they’ve annoyed the hell out of their negotiating partners in England into the bargain. “It’s time for the egos and blazers to get out of the way, and leave the business to real businessmen,” has been the clear message from the other side of Offa’s Dyke.
Why would the IRFU and WRU be opposed to the new deal? Well, for the Irish it’s quite clear. They’ve brought very little to the table in terms of TV money and have enjoyed more than their fair share of the proceeds of European rugby. The WRU take the money from TV deals, and pass it straight on to the Welsh regions, who then use it to pay the players they’ve developed and supplied to “Team Wales.” Incidentally, the WRU still declare this money (several million pounds a year) as revenue on their balance sheet, even though it’s questionable as to what they’ve contributed to the generation of that revenue.
“So what?” you might ask. Surely the deal is done, and we can go back to watching the battles on the pitch? Not quite. There’s still the significant matter of the lack of any agreement between the WRU and the regions (RRW) over participation in competitions and the supply of players to Team Wales. That’s quite a big obstacle to get over, especially when the regions are on record as having little or no confidence in Roger Lewis, the WRU CEO and his colleagues.
There is also another challenge hoving into view: the spectre of former WRU CEO David Moffett, who has returned to Wales to mount a challenge to the WRU Chairman David Pickering. Moffett’s aim is to reform the WRU and replace the current board and executive with people who might be able to do a better job of doing a deal with the regions. He’s also very keen on semi-pro and community rugby in Wales getting their fair share of the cash which is sitting the WRU’s coffers. Nobody can argue with that noble aim. Good luck to him.
Whatever you might think of Moffett and his record when he was in the job, he has managed to provoke much-needed debate on the way in which the WRU operates, and the behaviour of the people who run it.
It is quite clear to many of those who have been party to the discussions (if you can call them that) between the WRU and RRW, that a solution to this Welsh problem would be reached very quickly if we could get rid of the egos, vested interests and incompetence at the top of the WRU. If Moffett succeeds in securing that change, then we will have a lot to thank him for.
This crisis is not just about the WRU. During the course of the last few months, the mainstream media in Wales have failed to hold the WRU to account. Of course, the Western Mail have no obligation to provide a balanced view of the issues, but their journalists could at least make an effort to practise their trade competently. Instead, the self-styled “National Newspaper of Wales” has resorted to regurgitating WRU press releases and speculating as to which Team Wales player will be next to sign a central contract with the WRU. This is not journalism by any stretch of the imagination. It is public relations. The Western Mail now relies upon access to Team Wales in order to fill its pages in print and online. It doesn’t matter how superficial the story is, as long as people click on it, the paper will creep along with a tiny trickle of advertising revenue, staving off the inevitable for a little longer.
BBC Wales, on the other hand, has quite clear obligations, which it has totally failed to meet in its treatment of the crisis in Welsh rugby. We know very well that the BBC and WRU are business partners; parties to the TV deal which sustains them both. If it wasn’t for the access to “Team Wales” that this partnership affords BBC Wales, there would be hardly anything left of the corporation in Wales. Look at ITV Wales if you want to know what a rugby-less BBC Wales might look like. The WRU are fond of the BBC because they are a free and unquestioning PR department who will say (or more often, not say) whatever the WRU tell them to.
In the absence of proper media analysis and journalism in the mainstream, it has fallen to the likes of Gwladrugby.com and others on social media, as well as the London press, to hold the WRU to account. Whenever this unedifying episode does finally end, we will be left wondering whether the problems in Welsh rugby would’ve been sorted out a lot more quickly if our national media had demonstrated a bit of backbone and basic journalistic skills.