Euro chiefs not averse to change
October 1, 2012
ERC CEO Derek McGrath admitted he was 'surprised' by the breakaway television deal%]
European rugby chiefs have welcomed a debate on the future of the Heineken Cup but once again slammed Premiership Rugby's recent conduct and their attempt to 'pre-judge' the outcome.
The launch of this season's Heineken Cup was over-shadowed by the on-going row over the future of the European club game with Premiership Rugby, the umbrella body for England's leading clubs, leading the call for a re-vamp having served notice to leave the competition, along with the French counterparts, unless radical changes to the qualification criteria and the distribution of income were embraced.
Premiership Rugby poured further fuel on the fire by announcing a 'ground-breaking' broadcast deal with BT Vision last month that includes rights to European games from the 2014-15 season and that conflicts with another agreement between European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC), the organisers of both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups, and their existing UK broadcast partner Sky Sports. A very public spat played out between the two parties ahead of a meeting European rugby's stakeholders last week that was described as 'productive' although they still appear some way from resolving an issue that threatens the existence of one of the gems of the modern game.
ERC chief executive Derek McGrath did his best to herald the start of the latest quest for European club rugby's biggest prize at Sky Sports' base in London, a notable venue given the headline-grabbing sub-plot, but despite his best efforts the agenda was dominated by the off-field battle.
"We have always had challenges around our table," he said. "We have 10 parties that come to the table each with their own business models to defend and prosper. In difficult circumstances they are all very keen that what they are involved in is going to get bigger and better and generate bigger rewards for everybody and that is what ERC has always done. The conversation we are having right now is the first we have had for five years and like any good business it is a good time to stop and review and consider what our future might look like.
"This is an opportunity to set down a platform for the future so it is right and proper that we should not be afraid to consider any issues, proposals and challenges to the business. But there are some fundamentals in terms of how we approach that and how we have always approached doing business together. The principles of solidarity, respecting sovereignty and the integrity of the competitions and also looking at how we got where we are today and that will help us understand what we have and where we should be heading. But there will be no concern about change. We have a history of changing things, doing things differently and that is the way the tournament has developed."
McGrath may be happy to debate change but that does not mean he is happy with the series of events that has brought the European game to the brink of imploding - specifically Premiership Rugby's decision to sell rights to a competition that does not currently exist with the current accord governing the current competitions set to expire at the end of next season.
"I think there was a lot of surprise and there continues to be," he said of Premiership Rugby's aggressive efforts to force change. "There was obviously the decision to pre-judge an outcome. While there has always been challenges there has also been respect for each other's country, challenges, cultures, developments etc and this [deal] in a way has changed the agenda in terms of how we approach a fundamental which is how we market our rights. Like any other tournament, we have a centralised approach to the marketing and that's how we have always done. To do things in a different way is not only prejudging an outcome but it is also going it outside the institutions that are laid down and respected by everybody."
Premiership Rugby insist they were not acting illegally as has been claimed and have insisted that their long-term agreement with the Rugby Football Union allows them to negotiate such deals. The RFU are investigating that claim while pressing for an amicable resolution to the euro row, but McGrath thinks they do not have the RFU's permission to negotiate a separate deal.
"The board can only reject a deal that is not receiving the authority of (the country's respective) union under IRB regulations," he said. "We understand that no approval was sought so therefore the ERC, even if it wanted to, couldn't recognise any such dealing."
BT Vision chief executive Marc Watson angered many with his reference to "owning a sport" in relation to his company's exclusive deal for Premiership rugby and it is not a sentiment that sits well with McGrath. "What is really important," he added, "is it is not just the people sitting around the table that we have to think of. It's the fans, the media, our partners - all the people who don't actually sit round the table but are now feel they have an ownership of what we do. We have to be very careful not to make decision that are not in keeping with any of that and that any impact is considered very carefully."
McGrath has not ruled out changes that may appease English clubs but those decisions will have to be made by all the interested parties - the six Unions, Premiership Rugby, Ligue Nationale de Rugby, Regional Rugby Wales and ERC. "What we have in the current accord is 10 parties who have an interest in the development of the tournament and they are all going to represent their views. What has been fundamental to the success of the tournament is that it is European, it is inclusive and it helps to progress the game not only on a European basis but helps to develop the game in each of those countries. Those are the sort of principles that we will have to re-examine in the context of any proposals on the major issues."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.