The Globalisation Of Rugby

Even the Most Sacred of Our Icons Cannot Avoid World Trends.
Listener 11 April, 1998.

Keywords Globalisation and International Trade

In an innovative and insightful article a couple of decades ago, sociologist Geoff Fougere pointed out that there was a sense in which non-Maori New Zealand was organized on a tribal basis, where the tribal areas was the rugby football provinces. A number of factors determined the regions: community of interest (parochialism?); geographic integration, for club teams would not want to travel too far; size to be financially viable, and to be able to compete effectively against the rest of the country. The regional structure of unions evolved. At late as 1985 North Shore split off from Auckland, while there was a continuing amalgamation among smaller unions no longer viable by themselves: Golden Bay and Nelson in 1969; Wairarapa and Bush in 1971.

Fougere was writing about New Zealand’s response to the 1981 Tour, and perhaps did not foresee that his model would be a metaphor for future great upheavals. The provincial rugby unions still exist, but overlaying the 28 provinces are now five super provinces: Auckland Blues, Waikato Chiefs, Wellington Hurricanes, Canterbury Crusaders, Otago Highlanders. Their existence is a result of the Super-12 competition between teams from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Various factors are creating this new competition. It would be impossible if South Africa had not abandoned apartheid and rejoined world society. It involves only Southern Hemisphere teams, reflecting that the seasonal cycle still influences us. Crucial has been the reduction in transport and communication costs, and the evolution of new profitable mass-markets. They have diminished the effective size of the world, so that an international competition is simple with an international audience which is capturable by CNN and Sky. I am always surprised at the public anger when some television channel gets exclusive coverage, and the viewer has to pay. In the good old days no one complained that they had to pay (and queue) to get into a live match. From whence do the complainers think come the funds to pay the expenses of the touring teams (not to mention remunerating the professional players)? Gate takings are now insufficient, if they ever were, and somehow or other the viewer is going to have to contribute. Free-to-air programs are only possible if there are advertisers and sponsors, who are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts (whatever they protest) but because they believe they are influencing viewers to purchase more of their products.

The technology and market processes transforming top rugby are the same as those driving the globalisation of the world economy. What we learn from the metaphor is how globalisation is transforming our community geography. The small intimate areas which once were reflected our tribal allegiances are being replaced by grander super-provinces. You may tell the locals you are a Hawk-eye supporter, but the internationally you are more likely to mention the Hurricanes. (Observe how the regional adjectives are being dropped, in favour of the marketable name.)

This is not necessarily the end of rugby, as we knew it. I would not wish to be associated with the visiting economists who tried to give an account of the changes in rugby, and never once mentioned the All Blacks. Their reputation (in commercial language “brand name”) gives the New Zealand Rugby Football Union a monopoly source of revenue (which will come under pressure from the super-clubs if overseas experience is any indication). Of course, other sports are coming under the same globalisation pressures, here and elsewhere. (Women’s netball will retain an inferior place until some entrepreneur works out how to extract revenue from its supporters.)

The speed of change is extraordinary. While separation and amalgamation has been going on since the first provincial unions were formed in 1879, the current transformation has occurred in a few years. It illustrates the speed of the current phase of globalisation. (Globalisation has been a phenomenon for thousands of years since the beginning of trade. Internationalisation of rugby goes back to the 1884 tour to Australia.) While sport followers may be aware of these radical transformations, they do not always understand the commercial logic. Are those who follow international economic relations as aware of the impact of globalisation? Or are they trapped into a nostalgia for a past being swept away by technological and mass-market revolutions.

A map showing the division of the country into the five super-twelve ‘super-provinces’ went with this column

Incentives Score
Incentives affect the way rugby (or any other sport) is played. Once a score of 10 to 6 was considered a bit excessive. Today the sum of the two scores frequently exceed 100. High scoring incentives in the Super-12 include a bonus match point for the losing side getting within 10 points of the winner, and either side scoring four tries gets another bonus point. Throughout rugby tries are now valued at five rather than three game points. As an accountants say, referring to changes in their profession, ‘how you score affects the way it is played.’

The nostalgic might reflect whether the great players of the past would be as outstanding in the new incentive system. The issue, being outside economics, I leave in the safe hands of Joe Romanos.