In another potentially significant business deal in the rugby world, the Pro14 (formally the Celtic league or the Pro 12) has agreed a deal in principle to sell a 27% stake of the league to the private equity investment firm CVC Capital Partners.

This follows a similar transaction in December 2018, when CVC also invested in the English Premiership Rugby, in a monumental deal worth more than £200m for a 27% stake.

At the time, Premiership Rugby chairman Ian Ritchie declared, “this is a landmark new partnership. It is positive news for the league, the clubs and the game. It takes the clubs to a new level and is the heralding of a new era.”

If that deal was the beginning of a new era, then this one also feels like a seminal moment in the development of professional club rugby, a business that is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy, and widely considered in the business world to be under-exploited financially. It also raises the crucial question, what is the future of club rugby in the British Isles?

Previously the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Rugby Unions, and their respective clubs, have been the poorest competing in the European Champions Cup. These unions own the Pro14 brand, and so the deal, with its cash injection of around £120m, will help to rectify the imbalance between the Pro14 and the English and French clubs.

Breaking the numbers down, it has been calculated that each  of the individual unions would receive a cash injection of around £35m, with those sides from South Africa and Italy that participate in the Pro14 also benefitting. Hopefully then, it will lead to more equitable competition in Europe, and greater quality within the league itself.

However, with The Six Nations already in “an exclusive period of negotiation” with CVC to sell the firm a significant stake in the tournament, the picture becomes murkier.

Without wishing to sound conspiratorial, CVC’s proposed investment in the sport’s oldest championship suggests a longer term strategy for rugby in Britain, Europe and indeed the Northern Hemisphere more generally.

According to BBC sources, there has been talk about developing the Pro14 beyond the parameters of the five countries that already play in the tournament, with the north American market being targeted. It is logical to assume that English clubs could also be incorporated.

Gareth Davis, head of the WRU, however, was keen to stress, “the rugby element will still be controlled by the Unions and professional team.” Commercially though, Davis recognised the need for modernization in the sport.

“Rugby is not always good at working together because there are lots of areas of self-interest. It probably needs an external partner to knock heads and to more commercialise what is regarded as an underexploited sport.”

A British and Irish league has been talked of for years, whether this deal is the start of a process building towards that goal is, as of yet, uncertain. My suspicion is that CVC intend to think bigger. A global rugby calendar, at least a northern hemisphere rugby calendar, could be on the horizon. For now though, how much of the proposed money filters through the league structures should be everyone’s primary concern.

Written by Joe Ronan.

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