Were there any lessons for rugby union to be learned from the footie World Cup in Qatar? Believe it or not, I think there were.
First of all, however, a word of congratulations for the people who put together the memorial service for Doddie Weir in Melrose on Monday. It was in turns sad, funny and inspirational, and I think the man himself would have approved of it, even being mockingly described as “a pest” by John Jeffrey.
In years to come I will take from the service the repeated pledges that Doddie’s courageous commitment to funding research into Motor Neurone Disease will continue in the form of his Foundation, and just because the man himself is no longer with us, we must never forget that MND is most certainly still with us and is not going to go away anytime soon. Therefore fundraising must continue and if a national research institute doesn’t happen soon, then the focus must be on the UK Government, which must be held to account over its pledge of £50m for research into MND – a promise secured, I believe, at least partially because of the awareness of this horrible disease created by the truly remarkable and completely unforgettable Doddie Weir.
Now back to the mundane subject of money. If Qatar’s World Cup taught us anything it is that cash is king. Money can’t buy you love, as the Qatari leadership found, but it can buy you football’s biggest tournament and the squalid promotional opportunities that the World Cup brings to a nation.
That’s why rugby must never go down the route that FIFA, UEFA and the biggest leagues in Europe have followed by allowing people with no real interest in sport to achieve a foothold – no, make that a stranglehold – on football. The days when local businessmen put a few quid into a club and bought themselves seats in the directors’ box are long gone – except in certain parts of Scotland – and at the top level, local investors have been usurped by foreign conglomerates whose interest is in making money. The ordinary fan has been priced right out of the game, and increasingly that is the case for rugby where tickets for internationals are often like gold dust because that’s what they are costing these days.
The English Premiership is a case in point. With Wasps and Worcester in administration, a tragedy of history, if anything, as both clubs are more than 150 years old, there is a temptation on the part of some clubs or the Premiership overall to look for investment from oil rich countries or the money markets, and indeed prior to the pandemic, capital investment firm CVC, which manages assets of more than £130 billion and which has long had serious commitments to sport, had bought a 27 per cent share in the Premiership for around £200m plus a further £365m for a share in the Six Nations. With over half a billion invested in rugby you can bet that CVC will want a return on their money, but I know they are patient and I believe they have the best interests of rugby at heart. But Qatar? Saudi Arabia? The USA? Can people from those countries really be passionate about rugby especially when, unlike CVC, they have not had any prior involvement?
Steve Lansdown, the billionaire owner of Bristol, summed up the problem: “For people to invest in it (rugby), it’s a passion. It’s not one you point to and say you make a return on your money, so you have to go into it with your eyes open knowing that it is going to be a bit of a black hole for a time. That’s the difficulty.”
So a quick fix of millions from oil states should be ruled out. Yet money is needed in rugby, especially if clubs like Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors are to develop into genuine challengers in Europe.
As I have written before, no serious business person is going to invest in either of our two professional clubs as long as the SRU’s high heid-yins insist on retaining control. You could argue that having players on centralized contracts helped preserve both clubs through the pandemic and the fact is that the faltering UK economy means Murrayfield can continue to retain control.
There is a future, however, and that must surely be the governing body of Scottish rugby handing over our two professional clubs to businesses and business people who know and love the sport.
The time has come for people with ideas about a sustainable future for all of Scottish rugby from the grassroots up to be allowed to give their views, and that includes the most important people of all, namely the fans who, don’t forget, pay to fill Murrayfield Stadium and thus the Murrayfield pockets.
Yes, we need investment – but it must be the right kind.