Traditional sports properties have in the past been accused at times of showing great reticence in changing the status quo, taking refuge in the view that ‘it has always been like this’.
It would have therefore been easy for Martin Anayi, chief executive of rugby union's Guinness Pro 14, to take this well-trod path when the opportunity arose of adding two South African franchises - the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs - to what was until this summer an all-European Pro 12 club roster.
During rugby union’s closed season, the South African sides - along with Australia's Western Force - were removed from the Southern Hemisphere’s elite club competition, Super Rugby, when organising body Sanzaar reduced the number of competing teams to 15 from 18.
Although the Cheetahs will continue to contest South Africa’s domestic competition - the Currie Cup - the lure of joining Pro 14 proved too much for both franchises and Celtic Rugby, the legal name of the body running the competition.
Until the new additions the league was made up of four Irish provinces, four regional sides from Wales, two city franchises from Scotland and a two Italian clubs, each representing the best club sides their respective nations had to offer.
The bold expansion will give Pro 14 a global reach - with a presence in two hemispheres - that no other rugby union club competition can boast. What’s more, Anayi has been vocal in his desire to spread the league further afield with the possibility of a North American franchise, as well teams in Germany and Spain. The US has long been a market coveted by global governing body World Rugby, which would likely be enthused by the prospect of an American team in a major competition.
With the 2017/18 season now one game old, Anayi talks to SportsPro about how the logistics of a dual-hemisphere league will work, its future expansion plans, its longstanding relationship with title sponsor Guinness, the financial implications for the league and how he plans to truly globalise rugby union at club level.
SportsPro: Could you tell us how and why you decided to add the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs? Did they approach you or did Pro12 make the initial move?
Martin Anayi: Since I began working with the tournament, the goal has been to increase commercial revenues and, along with the board of Celtic Rugby, we established that looking to new markets would be the best way to do that. Last summer, we spoke openly about the possibility of expanding our horizons with North America as a possible location for new teams.
That process alerted a lot of stakeholders around the world of rugby that we were looking at new opportunities and it certainly sparked conversations, with interest from a broad range of countries.
With South Africa, once the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings knew they were no longer going to remain in Super Rugby they spoke with us about the possibility of joining our championship. The fact that we had already done a significant amount of work on figuring out what the tournament structure would be if we expanded gave us a good platform to begin with.
Once you can see that it’s practically possible, that’s when the really in-depth conversations started. To see that we’ve brought these teams into the Guinness Pro 14 in such a short space of time is a huge credit to everyone involved, from our board, the South African Rugby Union, our own unions and all of the clubs.
It’s a very historic point in rugby history, but the effort to get us here has been monumental.
From L-R; Torsten van Jaarsveld (Toyota Cheetahs), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Lubabalo Mtyanda (Southern Kings) and Garry Ringrose (Leinster Rugby) at the Guinness Pro 14 launch in Cape Town.
How will the team logistics of the reformed league work? Will the South African franchises play their games in blocks?
The South African clubs are used to the concept of touring, where they would visit Australia and New Zealand on round trips before playing blocks of home games. The advantage they have in our championship is that the flights are overnight and there is only an hour time difference so immediately you remove jet-lag as a factor.
In the opening rounds we have the Cheetahs spending close to two weeks in Ireland as they played Ulster and Munster; the Southern Kings have been in Wales and will come to Ireland to face Connacht in round two. After that the Cheetahs will play four home games in a row, the Kings will play two home fixtures before embarking on another mini-tour. From that point of view, we get a great opportunity to introduce the South African fans to our tournament with that big block of home games.
The Southern Kings and the Cheetahs were only confirmed as participants in June. How prepared are the two teams for the 2017/18 Pro 14 season?
The Cheetahs are in good shape. They're still competing in the Currie Cup in South Africa - their first team will always play in the Pro14 - and they have a tremendous pedigree in producing homegrown players. They have very close ties with Greys College in Bloemfontein, who have this incredible record of producing South African internationals with about 85 having come through the school.
The Cheetahs have access to this talent pool, which is very reassuring from a sustainability point of view but also, once the Currie Cup ends in November, more players will available for both them and Kings to contract while their Springboks will more readily available, too.
Both teams will get stronger as the season goes on, and in particular the Southern Kings. They’ve had to contract a lot of new players in a short space of time, but in Deon Davids they have one of the best coaches in South Africa to take on this opportunity.
Like Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Province has a huge catchment area and fantastic pathways with their school system so while this season will be one of consolidation but we would expect them to kick on in year two after a full recruitment drive.
Are you open to further expanding the league?
Yes, we are, and I don’t think we’ve made a secret of that. What the South African phase of the expansion allows us to do is to take our time and be patient about the next steps. North America is very appealing and we have a lot of interested parties there, both in the US and Canada, while there are very real prospects emerging in Germany and Spain.
But it’s very important that we control the pace of our growth, we have a focus on ensuring the Cheetahs and Kings get up to speed in our tournament on and off the field and learn from that process.
The DNA of the tournament has always been about cross-border competition: it’s our USP and we’ll always embrace that. We’re not locked down to one geographic location which presents challenges, but those are by far outweighed by the opportunities for us to meet our own goals and help grow the sport into new markets.
From R-L; South African Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux, tournament chairman Gerald Davies and Pro 14 chief executive Martin Anayi
What are the financial implications for the league as a whole?
We’ve seen an immediate uplift in commercial revenues which our clubs weren’t expecting. Currently, we’re negotiating the broadcast rights for the UK and Ireland market which will kick in for the start of the 2018/19 season, so again the South African element has increased the interest in our product.
Discovery Eurosport have come back on board as a broadcast partner in Italy for this season, where they will show more matches than ever before, while we have also signed off on worldwide broadcast rights, too. The appetite to show rugby, particularly the exciting brand we have in our championship - which is backed up by the World Rugby Positive Play stats - is increasing all the time, and the addition of the South Africans has only added to that.
We’ve also see new sponsors and potential commercial partners come to the table to see what we can do - this idea of being a global sports tournament is new, but already we can see the excitement that it is generating in the marketplace. South Africa is such great example of a primary market in the rugby space and with a population of around 55 million it’s a golden opportunity for our tournament, our broadcasters, our unions and our teams.
Were all the existing teams unanimous in their support of the South African teams joining?
We’re unique from the other major leagues in Europe where the clubs are in the hands of private ownership. Celtic Rugby is formed by the Irish, Scottish and Welsh rugby unions and they, alongside the Italians and now the South Africans, have a more direct influence on their teams.
For example, in Ireland and Scotland the teams fall under the umbrella of their unions, in Wales the Dragons are now part of the WRU and the other three regions have a working relationship with the union. We have the same split in Italy and South Africa, with each having one privately owned team and a team run by the union. However, in all situations the clubs are part of a strategic plan to retain the international talent produced in those countries and to feed into the national teams.
There’s an incredible number of international players in our tournament, nearly 300 played last season while we contributed 26 players to the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. A large majority of those players are currently involved in their national squads, too, so it’s a staggering amount of quality to have on show.
The clubs and the unions share the same goals so when this opportunity came along there was support from all quarters because everyone sees it as a way of getting stronger so everyone can benefit.
Guinness, a brand that is synonymous with European rugby union, renewed as your title sponsor last season. What has it brought to the party regarding activations?
Guinness first came on board in 2014 and last season they extended that relationship up until 2020, which is a terrific endorsement of the strength of the championship and the scale of our ambition going forward. Guinness are a marquee brand and they have so much experience of activation in the rugby space.
They have a great presence around international rugby during the November internationals and the Six Nations, and they do a lot of activation using former players as ambassadors and they bring these influencers to the media and to the supporters. Live events, pub nights and media events are core elements, but to see what Guinness did around our final in Dublin last May was fantastic.
Instead of hosting a fan zone, Guinness treated the city of Dublin as its fan zone with a live music event the night before the game and activations in a number of pubs all leading towards the stadium. They ran a competition for fans to win the Ultimate Fan Experience seats at the game, but the one that sticks out was the ‘Bring Your Local’ to the final. Fans were asked to enter their local pub in a competition to bring 24 people to the final at Aviva Stadium, where Guinness turned one of the corporate boxes into a replica of the winners’ pub.
Guinness are such a well-established brand but it doesn’t stop them coming up with new and original ideas, which makes them perfect for our championship.
Scarlets' Wales international centre Jonathan Davies beneath Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain
Australian international stand-off Christian Lealiifano has joined Ulster on a five-month deal. Do you think that the globalisation of the league will see an influx of Southern Hemisphere players join Pro 14?
First and foremost, we want to ensure that we retain all of the high-calibre international talent that our teams produce, but also we want our teams to be able to add that stardust when they need to. We’ve a long history of some of the top stars from the Southern Hemisphere playing in the championship already, headliners like Charles Piutau, Doug Howlett, Ruan Pienaar, Justin Marshall, Percy Montgomery and Felipe Contepomi.
Will this expansion make us more attractive? Absolutely, our tournament has more in common with Super Rugby because there is no relegation and that makes our games more entertaining and allows coaches to focus on the positive aspects of play.
What do you think makes Pro 14 unique?
There’s a great tribalism around the different countries involved in the Guinness Pro 14 which brings something fresh and new each weekend, players want that type of invigoration, they want to play good rugby and compete for major honours while getting compensated for their ability.
Our tournament ticks all those boxes and will only get stronger as the years go by. Added to that, we also have these fantastic rivalries within the countries themselves when you look at Munster v Leinster, Ospreys v Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh.
There’s huge passion for these clubs and the game itself so whether you’re in Italy, South Africa, Ireland, Wales or Scotland you’ll get a taste of everything that’s great about the tournament, but each nation will provide its own unique spin on it, too. You can’t ask for more than that.