Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Open questions for the IRB and Rugby Canada

(Updates below.)

Rugby Canada has an IRB press release today ejaculating about strong financial results.

In part, the IRB report (.pdf) states:

The International Rugby Board (IRB) has announced strong financial results for the year ending December 31st, 2006. The results from the third year in a four-year financial cycle leading up to Rugby World Cup 2007 in France, reflect the IRB’s continued commitment to major investment in the game on a global scale. [...]

The vast majority of revenue generated continues to be in respect of Rugby World Cup 2007, which is already guaranteed to set a record for gross revenue for a Rugby World Cup. [...]

"Rugby World Cup 2007 in France promises to be a huge commercial success," said IRB Head of Finance Robert Brophy. "Broadcasting deals for the tournament have already been completed in the major territories such as France, the United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, representing a substantial increase on Rugby World Cup 2003.

"We are also pleased to have completed significantly enhanced broadcast deals in the emerging rugby markets of Russia, India, USA and Romania and there has also been significant growth in the corporate travel and hospitality and official suppliership markets. [...]

Worldwide Development of the Game

"The IRB is committed to major development of the game worldwide," continued Brophy. "This commitment resulted in an extra £30 million ($64.9 million CAD) being invested in the game at Tier 1 and Tier 2 Union levels as part of the unprecedented, three-year Global Strategic Investment Program that was launched in August 2005. This also includes significant investment for targeted Tier 3 Unions of up to £1.3 million ($2.8 million CAD). [...]

This investment has also resulted in the implementation of exciting new cross-border competitions across the globe, including the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup, IRB Pacific Nations Cup, IRB North America 4 and IRB Nations Cup in Europe as well as enhanced funding for the Churchill Cup and various regional tournaments in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. [...]
"Significantly enhanced broadcast deals...?" Who is the IRB trying to bamboozle here?

How can a Canadian rugby fan not grow increasingly agitated about these IRB boasts? Does the IRB honestly expect Canadian rugby fans to eat dog-feces and call it chocolate ice-cream? Mmmm, yummy!

It's terrific to hear all the wonderful things the IRB is doing to assist India and Russia. But how do we know they aren't simply setting up Indians and Russians to pull the rug out from underneath them in a decades' time? Isn't that what's happening here?

The IRB is telling us that the RWC is a financial windfall, and that they are growing and promoting the game in Tier 2 and 3 developing nations. Yet they price their RWC broadcast rights beyond the affordability of any Canadian networks or sponsors to show the tournament. For the first time in the history of this global showcase, Canadians will not be seeing it on their TVs without paying a Pay-Per-View arm and leg for the privilege - and only then if they are digital cable subscribers, or willing to pay money to watch the games at "select" bars and taverns - which, as a poster in the Rugby Canada forums points out, is a pathetic strategy to promote and develop the sport to our kids ~ the next generation of rugby players.

The report also boasts about that wonderful injection of money into the Churchill Cup ~ the tournament ostensibly established to promote and develop rugby in North America ~ and the same tournament that is no longer available on Canadian TV ~ again, for the first time in the history of that competition.

The IRB report states the December 31, 2006 meeting at Dublin was attended by Canadian councillor Chris Le Fevre. Mr. Le Fevre is not listed on Rugby Canada's "Office Staff" personnel list, and their Board of Directors link is broken, so I can only surmise Mr. Le Fevre is an IRB councillor representing Canada. I'm curious what our representative is doing at these meetings? Sitting on his hands, nodding his head, and repeating, "Yes Mastah, Yessah..."? Why are our representatives not screaming to the IRB about the damage they are doing to the promotion of the sport in Canada? Why are we not dressing down the IRB about their filthy broadcast deals and restrictions?

Rugby Canada offers a feeble excuse in their FAQ:

Why is there not much rugby on TV in Canada? Does Rugby Canada control what is shown on Canadian cable?

Rugby Canada is only responsible for national men’s and women’s teams matches that have been produced through broadcast agreements with a particular broadcast partner. Any other rugby broadcasts are solely the decision of the rights holders, regardless if Canada is involved in a contest. For example if a game involving Canada in Europe is being broadcast by the host country, Rugby Canada has no control over what rates or to which network would be able to show the game on Canadian television. Generally the rates asked for by foreign broadcasters are prohibitive and thus games involving Canada do not air in Canada. Decisions about the World Cup 2007 fall under a similar vein, as there are rights holders for this region, and they control who will show the games and for how much. Currently Setanta Sports in the US zone holds North American rights, though it remains unclear if another broadcasters will partner with Setanta to show the World Cup in Canada. We will keep fans advised of the situation as it develops.
"Broadcast agreements with a particular broadcast partner"...? Rugby Canada has NO broadcast agreements, and NO broadcast partners. None, zero, nada, zilch. Who are we kidding here?

The IRB officially states, quote, "Rugby World Cup (RWC) is the financial engine which drives the development of the game world-wide."

The RWC may well be the IRB's "financial engine," but the IRB's brainless broadcast deals and lameass excuses are doing NOTHING to drive the development of their game in Canada.

We're just a little over three months away from the RWC, and Rugby Canada has NO CLUE WHATSOEVER about the chances of Canadians seeing their national team play at the World Cup.

Some questions:

  • Does Rugby Canada think Guinness - or for that matter, ANY future sponsors - will want to become partners with a national body that can't even get the IRB to work with broadcasters and get their biggest showcase - the so-called "3rd biggest sporting event in the world" - onto Canadian televisions sets?

  • Why do Canadian rights have to be wrapped under the umbrella of North American rights?

  • Why does the IRB grant India, ranked 87th in the world, a "significantly enhanced broadcast deal," but Canada, a participant at EVERY RWC ever contested, does not?

  • India has never attended a Rugby World Cup. India has no IRB council representation. Yet India receives RWC broadcasting license benefits that Canada does not. Why?

  • If Canadian broadcast rights have to be a part of a North American package, then why is India getting special treatment and not part of a broader Asian package?

  • The FIFA World Cup, the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, EPL, Serie 'A,' Wimbledon, Australian Open - basically every important sporting event in the world - brokers separate broadcasting deals to the United States and Canada, but the Rugby World Cup - which the IRB repeatedly gloats is the world's "third largest sporting event" - is supposedly handcuffed and incapable of separating American and Canadian interests and operating the same way every other major sports organization in the world does. For the love of God, why?

  • Lastly, why isn't Rugby Canada doing more to direct these blunt questions to the IRB? We are a partner and have a seat at the table. Why is Rugby Canada remaining stone silent on the matter? Why is Rugby Canada not aggressively pursuing the interests of Canadian rugby fans?

  • This letter has been forwarded to Dr. Syd Millar, Chairman of the International Rugby Board, and Mr. Graham Brown, Chief Executive Officer of Rugby Canada. I suspect neither will pay much attention to the questions of a piddly rugby blogger, but dammit, WE NEED ANSWERS.


    UPDATE No. 1:

    Rugby Canada CEO Graham Brown responded promptly, with a deft offload to Nick Taylor, Rugby Canada's Director of Marketing & Communications. As always, Taylor was unfailingly polite and courteous, which is probably more than I deserve, so I want to thank him for his speedy and thoughtful reply. I have omitted some of his pleasantries, but here's what Mr. Taylor told me:

    Thank you for taking the time to send your thoughts to us at Rugby Canada. Thank you even more for sending these same thoughts to the iRB.

    It may come as a surprise to you, but we have in fact discussed Television coverage (or lack thereof) in great detail at both the staff and board of director level. It is at that BOD [Board of Director] level that Mr. LeFevre serves his function as a council rep with the iRB.

    I have personally been involved in communications with a number of Television Broadcasters in North America (mostly Canada). I have had discussions with SportsNet, The Score, CBC, TV5 and of course Setanta. Of the aforementioned companies - Setanta are the rights holder for the 2007 RWC in North America. (I agree Canada should be kept separate - but I see how with our market being so small - the iRB chose not to). The rest are broadcasters that had shown some level / varying levels of interest in the 2007 RWC.

    Recently, after months and months of internal discussion, of conversations with the broadcasters, with the rights holders and the agency that sold the rights (IMG), I too have reached my final point of frustration.

    I have drafted a memo just last week that was distributed to our CEO (Graham Brown) as well as two members of our board that act as Co-Chairs of our marketing committee. A call is scheduled this week to address my concerns and take the matter to the entire board. Once at the board level, it is my hope that the matter will be taken personally to the iRB by our President and another board member.

    Dave - in summary I could not agree with you more on many of your points. I believe strongly that the iRB are ignoring a responsibility to ensure / guarantee that children around the world have an opportunity of witnessing the worlds 3rd largest sporting event (let alone fans such as yourself).

    I would however like to point out a few things that I would ask you to consider:

  • Rugby Canada does have a partnership with a TV Broadcaster in The Score (you will find them on our home page of www.rugbycanada.ca).
  • Notwithstanding that partnership, there are still significant costs to be paid by Rugby Canada and/or The Score for producing or airing content of a domestic or international nature.
  • Events that we do not control the rights to are quite often priced beyond what our market will accept.
  • In 2006, The Score had on average 22,000 viewers tune in to their live coverage of the Barclays Churchill Cup or 2006 WRWC. The numbers for poker are much higher by comparison.

  • You can see therefore, there is another group that should shoulder responsibility for the lack of coverage for rugby on TV. That is the fan base. People need to tune in and watch content in order to grow audience numbers. Growth in audience numbers will be like an extra bargaining chip for us at the negotiation table when working to convince a broadcaster to air content. More content will provide assets to sponsors and advertisers.

    (Emphases mine.)

    It's certainly heartening to learn that there's as much frustration at the Board level as much as at the grass-roots fan base. It doesn't move us any further along than where we already are, but at least it gives me the impression that piddly assinine basement-bloggers aren't shouldering all the weight in this fight.

    Some thoughts...

    Re: "Rugby Canada does have a partnership with a TV Broadcaster in The Score." Mea culpa. It's true that The Score does carry the weekly 30-minute IRB program "Total Rugby," and they did broadcast the Womens World Cup (thankfully ~ Canada was the host nation for that tournament!) I also see where the producer of The Score's daily "Sportsworld" program, Garth Gottfried is listed as "Communications Consultant" at Rugby Canada.

    Nevertheless, the IRB themselves, as stated directly in their official propaganda linked above, underlines the senior mens RWC as the showcase that drives their sport - and bottomline, Canadian viewers will not see their nation participate in that showcase. Ergo, the tournament will be driving NOTHING to promote and develop the sport in Canada.

    Alas, Canadian viewers have not seen their national mens rugby team play on broadcast TV in a year. (Go here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

    Sports fans in Canada comprehend that the growth of soccer in Canada - in terms of participants and viewership - is linked to the popularity of the FIFA World Cup, which has always drawn astronomically higher viewership than any other soccer tournament or soccer programming on Canadian television.

    Accordingly, there is evidence of a direct correlation between the RWC broadcast on Canadian TV, as begun in 1987, and the increased level of participation and interest in rugby at all levels in Canada since that tournament began. The IRB seems not to care nor comprehend that the failure to broadcast the RWC in Canada will have an equally adverse affect on the sport at all levels in this nation - from grass-roots high-school participation to national team sponsorship.

    Re: "I agree Canada should be kept separate - but I see how with our market being so small - the iRB chose not to." I don't necessarily disagree with this comment. Still, it doesn't add up:

    1. Our market has always been small, and in prior years was even smaller. And yet, in prior RWC's, Canada received a complete RWC broadcast package. Indeed, when the initial RWC commenced in 1987 - and was entirely broadcast on TSN - there were few-if-any high-school rugby teams. Now there are hundreds of teams for girls alone, which was unthinkable two decades ago. Last week Brian Lynch, president of the British Columbia Secondary School Rugby Union, told the Globe and Mail that participation in boys rugby in his province alone has "climbed dramatically. It's larger than football now."

    2. Our market may be small, but the IRB has nevertheless granted us a seat at the IRB Council, a privilege than none of the United States nor India nor Russia enjoys. That's fabulous at a corporate level, but for the fanbase it's meaningless. It's not merely that Canadian fans aren't equals to Indians and Russians - it's that the IRB is treating Canadian fans and potential new fans like sub-humans undeserving of their showcase.

    3. If the IRB truly believes that Canada is a small market, then surely it behooves them to draft broadcast license deals that reflect the realistic size of that market. The IOC would never go to the Netherlands and expect their broadcasters to pay the same licensing deals than NBC in the United States does.

    Even drug-pushers and Jehovah's Witnesses understand you don't get new customers/adherents/addicts by overpricing wares at the opening bell. No JW anywhere on Earth is going to knock at your door and offer you a copy of The Watchtower for the princely sum of $100, 'cos they know they'll get no further than doors slammed in their face. They are more likely to offer you a Bible - for free - and get a foot in that door. Same thing goes for anglers. They understand to get a fish to bite, you have to offer more than a shiny hook - you need to put some bait on it.

    4. The IRB short-sightedness is Bizarro-World ridiculous. Do they not comprehend that the way to expand that small market is to offer them their "showcase"? If you get a viewer hooked on rugby, you tease them by offering them the RWC, and then maybe networks and viewers will afterward want to purchase additional IRB properties between RWCs. Same goes for sponsorship. Whereas, removing the "showcase" guarantees NOBODY in Canada will want to pay for IRB properties between RWCs, and sponsors like Guinness will in the future take a pass because it's a losing proposition.

    Bottomline: If the IRB has a desire to see young Canadian boys pick up a rugby ball and join a rugby team, they should offer their showcase at an affordable price. And if they think that by over-pricing their showcase to a small market unable to afford it, that in future sponsors will be beating each other over the head to get their corporate logo onto Canadian national mens team jersies, they are seriously deluding themselves. Fewer participants, fewer eyeballs, and fewer sponsorship dollars does NOT grow, promote nor develop the sport of rugby in this country, and it's about time the thick skulls at the IRB got a grasp on reality.

    HAVING SAID ALL THAT, I would again like to thank Mr. Brown and Mr. Taylor for their prompt replies. It's certainly more than I ever expected.

    Still haven't heard back from the IRB yet (... chirp... chirp... ).


    UPDATE No. 2:

    Longtime poster "Gary" at The Silver Fern is another angry rugby fan annoyed about the raw RWC tv deal the IRB is screwing over Canadian rugby fans this September.

    Gary draws my attention to even more facts that fly in the face of official IRB propaganda, directing me to the IRB's own 2004 Strategic Plan.

    An information sheet titled "IRB Invests in Rugby's Future quotes IRB Chair Dr. Syd Millar describing the IRB Council - Interim Meeting of November 2004 as, quote, "the most important Meeting of the IRB Council since 1995 when the game of rugby went open."

    The report details the IRB Council as having "unanimously approved a new strategic plan for the IRB incorporating a new governance structure. Rugby has undergone profound change since 1995 and the strategic plan recognises the fact that the game's policy-making and delivery mechanisms required modernising to reflect the changing requirements of the game."

    IRB Vice Chairman Bob Tuckey, Chairman of the Governance Working Party established by Council in 2003, added, "In consultations with Member Unions and other stakeholders a common message was prevalent, that the IRB needed to review the way in which it conducts its business to ensure that it remains relevant to the changing needs and imperatives of all Member Unions."

    Gary points to the 2004 IRB Strategic Plan that was produced from that Council meeting, highlighting the section titled "IRB Strategies: Appendix 2.5" (scroll down to page 15 of the .pdf document):

    Maximize the promotion and marketing of the RWC

    We will do this by:

  • Establishing targets for global broadcast audiences and broadcast targets for each key market.
  • Reaching global and specific target audiences levels.
  • Negotiating broadcast contracts to reflect commercial and broadcast targets.
  • Developing a broadcast strategy for each Participating Union.
  • Increasing the brand value of the RWC mark.

  • Gary rightly wonders how this new broadcast deal with Setanta meets any of the above criteria and stated objectives. The underlying reality is that Canadians will see substantially less of the 2007 RWC on television, and at substantially higher Pay-Per-View costs.

    All valid points.

    It's too bad the IRB seems to be much too busy waving their bank account statements around for them to answer any of them.

    My best advice is to write letters to the IRB and Rugby Canada. Light a fire with the facts, and don't be afraid to throw the IRB's own stated propaganda right back in their faces.

    Ask them why their organization is failing to live up to their strategies and objectives.

    Demand to know why they are penalizing Canadian fans after the demonstrable growth of rugby in Canada.

    Go Howard Beale on their arses ~ let them know you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it any more!


    (Image courtesy Outhouse Graffiti.)


    At 12:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    At 3:57 PM , Blogger Frankie said...

    I don't even bother with the television anymore. I just watch rugby online. Its great because I can watch pretty much any match and it has other features like stats and chat too. Its kind of like having my buddies around watching the match with the chat feature.

    If anybody wants to check it out, I get my streamed content from MediaZone.com heres the link-


    The Tri Nations are coming up soon so I can't wait to boot up my laptop and watch the matches.

    They also have a blog that I find pretty interesting -


    Just one more way technology is improving our lives - streamed rugby.

    At 8:49 AM , Blogger The Red Terror said...

    Mediazone is a big help, no question. But it comes with caveats.

    One, the picture quality isn't nearly as good as TV.

    Two, rugby on TV used to be free for regular cable TV subscribers. Mediazone and Setanta are currently PPV-only in Canada.

    Three, computer viewing is not an ideal social setting. If you want friends and family to watch the game with you, TV is obviously a better option.

    And Four, TV helps grow the game. It can attract new fans by sheer accident of the remote control. Nobody is going to pay ten dollars to watch a single match on PPV computer and become a fan by accident; they'd have to be a hardcore fan to subscribe in the first place.

    Nevertheless, the computer right now is our best bet because it is our only available option. Thanks for writing.

    At 2:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I too am reduced to watching rugby on MediaZone I use a S video cable to connect to my TV and the picture quality improves quite a bit. Unfortunately you can't get the image to show much bigger than what would see on a 17 inch laptop but a least is simulates TV watching.

    Hopefully we we Canadians will get a break on the RWC


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