WELLINGTON • New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is poised to vote on the sale of a multi-million dollar stake in its legendary All Blacks franchise to a US private equity firm, opening a new front in the battle over big money in sport.
New Zealand rugby's governing body is expected to approve the US$280 million (S$371.4 million) offer from California-based Silver Lake investments at an annual general meeting in Wellington today.
But the proposal faces a potential veto from players, some of whom believe the soul of rugby's most storied national team is being sold. The vote comes just a week after the European Super League (ESL) fiasco, when Europe's top football clubs shelved a US-backed breakaway competition within days, following an outcry from fans and officials.
The All Blacks are a national obsession in New Zealand. Their players are household names and countless youngsters dream of running out to perform the famed haka pre-match challenge to opponents.
Over the decades, the team have won worldwide recognition for the attacking verve that has delivered three World Cups and a win rate of almost 80 per cent.
That success has made the team a valued asset, attracting Silver Lake, which wants a 12.5 per cent stake in NZR's commercial rights, and the right to negotiate merchandise and broadcast deals worldwide.
The deal would value NZR's commercial assets at a whopping US$2.2 billion.
NZR chief executive Mark Robinson said the deal would be "transformational" for rugby in New Zealand and for club sides who are perennially short of cash despite the All Blacks' on-field success.
He said the game's financial woes - driven by rising player wages and the limited broadcasting funds available in New Zealand - had worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. "The game needs to change and we have a strong leadership role to play in providing opportunities for that to happen," he told reporters.
But critics point to the ESL debacle as evidence that mega-rich foreign owners often chase cash and care little about a sport's tradition and culture.
"Clubs have sold their souls and then had to do a complete backflip," former NZR chief executive David Moffett told Radio NZ.
He said Silver Lake, which boasts assets under management of US$79 billion, was not buying into NZR as a benefactor and would want to squeeze all it could from the All Blacks brand.
He added that may involve the team playing "meaningless" exhibition matches in the United States to generate income without providing a genuine sporting contest.
"And that just devalues the greatest brand in rugby," he said.
All Blacks fans reacted angrily to a shirt sponsorship deal with US insurance giant AIG in 2012, accusing NZR of disrespecting a jersey that, until then, had been largely commercial-free.
But they have been largely silent about the private equity proposal so far, seemingly content to let the players' union spearhead opposition to the move.
Silver Lake, which started out as a technology investment vehicle, has moved into sport recently, taking a 10 per cent stake 18 months ago in City Football Group, owners of English Premier League giants Manchester City - who were among 12 English, Spanish and Italian clubs willing to participate in the ESL.
Documents released before the vote revealed US$28 million of the Silver Lake money would be released to NZR stakeholders and a proportion would also be put into a long-term "legacy fund" to ensure the game remained sustainable.
The New Zealand Rugby Players' Association, which can veto the plan, has raised concerns about appropriation of Maori and Pasifika culture, including the haka.
Mediation between the players and NZR has so far failed, meaning Silver Lake's proposal is far from a done deal.