27 September 2013

Megaphone diplomacy never works

There isn’t a day that goes bye when some person, on one side of the rift between the ERC and Anglo/French clubs, bloviates from on high as to the future of European club rugby. It is even getting to saturation point in the media, to the extent that rugby supporters are confused as to what is actually going on. People are also becoming sick and tired of how the dispute is dragging on and on, with no solution is sight.

At this time of the year most rugby supporters just want to enjoy watching rugby, which happens to be continuing every weekend, seemingly oblivious to the battle being waged around it. And this is a battle of titanic proportions for control of club rugby in the Northern Hemisphere. The Heineken Cup is merely the battleground on which this power struggle is being fought.

It was never a matter of “if this would happen” but just “when it would happen” and was always coming down the pike. It started with a whisper just about a year ago, that the English clubs had signed a TV deal with BT Sport, which included the broadcast rights to cross-border games. It resurfaced again, albeit briefly, last May but really didn’t get much traction with the media. We were at the end of a long season and the Lions Tour was the only show in town.

But this is a show of a different genre that has developed into a cacophony of noise resembling a Tower of Babel. And the Tower of Babel is a good analogy because nobody seems to know for sure what is going on and how this whole power struggle will play out.

The clubs in England and France control the contracts of their players and merely loan them out to their respective Unions to play for their country. The clubs bear the costs of the player’s contracts and all that goes with it. Most of these clubs, and especially the English clubs, are under huge financial pressure to compete in the marketplace.

The Anglo/French clubs feel they are not alone entitled to a bigger share of the financial pot from the European Cup competition but they should have control over the competition. This has now become the “Battle of European Rugby”.

What started out as a row over the restructuring of the Heineken Cup in terms of the number of teams, qualification and financial shares, has now morphed into a battle for the control of the premier club rugby competition in Europe. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this power play was always the intention of the Anglo/French clubs and starting a row over the Heineken Cup was the best way to trigger the battle.

The Heineken Cup is run and administered by the ERC, which is in essence run by the Six Nations Rugby Unions. If the ERC lose control of European club competition then the power to control rugby in Europe goes straight to the clubs. The club owners see this opportunity to cash in on their investments.

Most rugby club owners in England and France have been shovelling money into a black hole for a number of years with no end in sight under the current arrangement. Without their investments the clubs would have gone to the wall a long time ago. So it is easy to see why they would want to jump on what they see as an opportunity to redress the situation.

On the face of it, the Celtic Unions seem to be holding it together. At the same time there are some of the Celtic clubs saying very little but watching very closely. The reason being they feel that they are more than capable of making their way in the world without the Unions playing ‘nanny’ to them all the time.

Things have now descended into an appalling mess that resembles a barroom brawl more than a process of business negotiations.

We have had statements from the European Rugby Cup (ERC) that there can be only one European competition under their governance. Conflicting statements from Premier Rugby Limited (PRL) and Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) that they intend to go ahead with a breakaway competition. That tournament, The Rugby Champions Cup, will incidentally leave open invitations to the Celts and Italians to jump in.

Last week the ERC even announced an independent mediator, Canadian Graham Mew, to unravel the problem. The next day not alone did the PRL and LNR reject the move but they announced their breakaway tournament.

Every day somebody from one or other side of the divide, including individual club owners, delivers a press release blaming each other for the quagmire we find ourselves in, while at the same time digging themselves in ever deeper.

Even the global governing body for rugby, the International Rugby Board (IRB), was eventually sucked into the fracas. Although with his first ‘at bat’, the CEO Brett Gosper, seemed to deliver mixed messages by supporting both sides of the row. Eventually the Chairman, Bernard Lapasset, came down on the side of the ERC.

The most worrying aspect of the whole dispute is all communication seems to be through the media, with the interested parties entrenching their positions on a daily basis.

Everybody knows, in disputes of this nature, there has to be some form of compromise from both sides. For compromise to take place people need to talk to each other in a constructive fashion with a view to bringing about a resolution. Listening to what the other side has to say is always a good starting point.

But the current finger pointing and shouting from both parties amounts to nothing more than megaphone diplomacy, which has never worked in resolving a dispute.

There is no sign that the standoff will be resolved any time soon. There are contracts signed, TV deals in place, lots of money on the table and the clock is ticking. Both sides are painting themselves into opposite corners of the room and the only option, which increasingly becomes available to them, is the nuclear option.

That nuclear option is a court of law. Once the courts become involved it is anybody’s guess where it will lead or even worse how long it will take to get there.

European rugby is on the edge of a precipice. The outcome of the current dispute will affect the game at all levels and not just in Europe, but around the globe. What is required now is not a shouting match but the emergence of some leaders. People who can convince the key players to put away the megaphones and walk back from the edge of the cliff.

To date there is no evidence that the required leadership will emerge. Rugby supporters can only wait and see where all this leads. But in the meantime it would be somewhat reassuring if there were less shouting and more communicating.