Super Rugby has confronted numerous problems during its 25 years, but experts warn the coronavirus pandemic may prove a knockout blow for the southern hemisphere’s premier club competition.
With 15 teams in five countries straddling 16 time zones from Buenos Aires and Cape Town to Sydney and Christchurch it has long been criticised as unwieldy, expensive to run and exhausting for elite players.
Now virus-related travel bans have put the competition in limbo, leaving administrators scrambling to set up locally-based alternatives that do not require international travel.
While officials say Super Rugby is on hold “for the foreseeable future”, in reality they are preparing for the season to be scrapped.
Sanzaar admitted that would place the governing body and its constituent unions “in a precarious position”, as broadcasters have paid huge sums for the rights to cover the game.
“Without that revenue, without the ability to be playing in front of stadiums that have crowds, it all does have a direct impact on the bottom line,” Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos told Newshub.
“That’s something I know the national unions are dealing with all of their clubs and then indirectly with all their governments.”
Short-term plans are focused on staging local derbies in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, with Japan’s Sunwolves potentially part of the Australian competition and the Jaguares of Argentina based in Africa.
However, that may not satisfy broadcasters.
New Zealand’s Sky Network Television noted in a market update this week that “the company has options to recover some costs associated with sports content rights”.
Australia-based sports consultancy firm Global Media & Sports (GMS) said Sanzaar’s members were in no position to pay back tens of millions of dollars in broadcasting revenues.
“I doubt any of the unions could afford to do that, I’d wager that most of that money has been spent already, or at least allocated,” GMS managing director Colin Smith told AFP.
Given Super Rugby’s myriad structural problems, Smith said, the virus-enforced shutdown would raise questions about its future, with the makeshift local derby matches potentially forming the nucleus of new national competitions.
“It’s been very, very expensive and there’s an argument for the unions to say ‘Is this something we should continue with, can we afford it?’,” he said.
“It goes to the future of the competition.”
Super Rugby began with 12 teams in 1996 but its format has undergone almost constant tinkering in the past decade, testing the loyalty of fans.
Over-ambitious expansion plans have been followed by the painful axing of Australia’s Force, the Cheetahs and Kings in South Africa, as well as the Sunwolves at the end of this season.
The Cheetahs and Kings both joined Europe’s Pro14 competition and there has been persistent speculation all of South Africa’s teams could ditch Super Rugby for a more lucrative and time zone-friendly switch to the northern hemisphere.
In Australia, the game has been flatlining in the face of keen competition from other sports, notably rugby league and Australian Rules, after years of poor onfield performances.
Rugby Australia has suspended negotiations on a new broadcast deal due to the virus crisis, with reports it had received little interest anyway.
“This couldn’t have come at a worse time for them,” Smith said.
Despite the issues, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson insisted Super Rugby was viable in the long term.
“We’re a world-class competition, as we’ve seen in recent times the quality of the rugby has been outstanding,” he told reporters.
“So we believe it’s a competition that’s got a future, what that might look like is something that we’re always revisiting and looking at.”