18 September 2013

Would a European NFL solve the Heineken problem?

Over the weekend I received a very comprehensive email outlining what, on the face of it, seems like a perfect solution to the Heineken impasse. It suggested a new competition, starting with a blank page, a European competition modelled on the NFL.

It outlined different structures involving conferences from different parts of Europe, possible competitive formations and play-off options. The potential financials are impressive. It even outlined the possibility, in time, of expanding the league as the NFL expanded in the past and will very soon expand into Europe. The proposal has a lot of merit and the author obviously gave it a lot of thought.

This is not a totally new concept and has been discussed before, albeit at a very informal level. But it is an exciting thought that one single pan-European rugby competition could become the norm for rugby supporters throughout the continent.

The NFL generates a turnover of $9.5 Billion each year. That statistic alone should be enough to at least turn the heads of the interested parties. The European sports market is not quiet as large as the USA and even then it would be a little naive to think rugby can corner the European market, given the support soccer enjoys.

But if rugby were to substantially enhance its share of the European sports market, it would seem a worthwhile consideration.

So could it happen?

It is possible but there would be difficulties to overcome and unintended consequences to be avoided.

The first problem would be to convince the French to abandon the Top 14. The Top 14 teams compete for the Bouclier de Brennus trophy, a competition that has run in one form or another since 1892. The French are hugely committed to their league and for many reasons, including historical, are extremely unlikely to implode the competition for an all encompassing European Cup tournament.

The English are probably less committed to their league, which began as recently as 1987. It is reasonable to assume if the money were big enough they could be swayed into a European tournament quicker than the French.

But even if all concerned were to have an epiphany and begin to look at the possibility, the NFL model could not be adopted en bloc.

The NFL is a stand alone entity and answers to nobody. It is a football league run by an organisation whose stakeholders, for the most part, are extremely wealthy franchise owners. The owners make even more money from the NFL and there is nothing wrong with that, as they had to at some point invest a lot of money to buy their franchise.

NFL franchises, because they are privately owned, have been known to up sticks and move cities. So profit and personal choice play a part in the location of a franchise. Can you imagine the Worcester Warriors moving to Wolverhampton? Worcester fans may be unhappy about that, but under an NFL model they could do absolutely nothing.

But apart from the possibility of private owners controlling almost every aspect of a club, there is no international game outside of the NFL. International rugby is inextricably linked to the club game, as clubs are affiliated to a national rugby union and supply the players for the national team.

Also, the international game is hugely popular and the Rugby World Cup and Six Nations competitions generate a huge amount of profit. That popularity and profit is used to promote and develop the game across the globe.

It might not become an issue for some time, but if club owners became wealthy and powerful enough, they may decide not to make players available for international duty. Let’s not forget that not too long ago there were rumblings in England and France about player availability for international team duty. That caused the IRB to formally institute “International Windows”, which frees club players up for international duty.

Also, just last week the Toulouse coach, Guy Novés, bemoaned the fact that there are so many French internationals in the team. One would think it is something that Toulouse would take great pride in. But instead Novés said, in future Toulouse would sign less French internationals to their squad. He suggested that French internationals are of less value to the team as they have divided time and loyalties. This problem is not even a possibility in the NFL as there are no international American Football competitions.

Call it unintended consequences, but any action that could damage the international game in Europe would automatically do untold damage to the global game.

Another area for consideration is player development. Were the NFL format to be introduced, the player development pipelines for club and country would need to be restructured or at least remodelled financially.

The American football development pipeline is extremely structured and efficient. It is estimated that over 1 million kids play high school football. That number is reduced to around 65,000 who play college football. Ultimately just 1,696 players get to play professionally in the NFL.

The beauty of the system is its simplicity. The kids who play high school football do so for enjoyment and the hope of a college scholarship. Those who receive a scholarship play because they get a free college education and a chance to pursue the NFL dream. Only those who reach the holy grail of the NFL get paid, and that is less than 0.02% of kids who play football in high school.

So the odds of reaching the NFL are miniscule and the system is ruthlessly efficient.  The huge advantage for the NFL is the league does not have to develop and maintain developmental pipelines, as we do in rugby, all the development work is carried out by the high schools and then the colleges. The NFL just cherry pick the best college players into the league through the NFL Draft, which is in itself, viewed as a sporting event in the US.

In rugby the national unions fund a large amount of the developmental pipelines through supporting clubs at and below the professional level and also manages the international age grade structures and competitions. If the international game is struggling financially because the club game attracts most of the money in the rugby market or doesn’t make players available for international competition, player development will inevitably struggle.

This could lead to a gradual decline in the number of European players being developed for the professional club game in Europe. That could in turn mean less European players playing in Europe and most if not all the jobs being filled by players migrating from overseas. The financial model around an NFL style European Cup would have to greatly incentivise player development in Europe.

It may also spell the end of the amateur game as young players may give up playing the game socially once they realise they are not going to make the professional ranks. There is already some evidence of this at amateur club level. Remember, in the US your high school football career ends when you don’t get a college scholarship. If you are talented enough to get a football scholarship it will almost certainly end unless you are drafted to the NFL. There is no structured amateur American Football of any consequence. It’s either pro-ball or no ball.

This doesn’t mean that in time an NFL style European Cup could not exist in this part of the world. But it is not just about a competitive structure. It would require a lot of forethought and planning to ensure a sustainable structure that would not alone preserve the game, but propagate the game at all levels.