The agreement between Rugby Australia and the Rugby Union Players Association for players to take 60 per cent pay cuts will provide critical short-term financial relief for the struggling code during the coronavirus pandemic.
But as drawn out as these negotiations were, they should be just the first step towards striking a new deal between RA and its most valuable asset, serving as a precursor to a re-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement which will give the code a greater chance to achieve long-term sustainability.
The interim pay deal gives RA another six months’ breathing space to survive the current crisis, but the CBA looms as a potentially even more important negotiation for the future of the game. RA needs to rethink how it is going to engage with the players in order to be on a stronger footing to survive downturns, particularly unexpected ones.
Both RA and the RUPA seemed to come out of the negotiation with a reasonably fair deal based on the understanding that they need each other. Similarly, the two parties need to come to a mutual understanding on what is a sustainable business model for the future or they will not have a game to administer and play, at least not one as we know it.
Australia’s professional players are entitled to seek the highest salaries they can, but for the last decade or so Australian rugby has been forced to pay a premium for players because of strong competition from rich clubs in Europe and Japan. This has placed a strain on Australian rugby’s capacity to invest in the grassroots of the game, which has fallen well behind its major rivals, especially the AFL.
Under the current CBA, players receive a generous 29 per cent of player-generated revenue regardless of the game’s income streams or player performance. That’s a pretty good deal for the players, but for a financially fragile code like rugby, it may not be sustainable.
During the life of the current CBA the Wallabies have slipped to seventh in the world, their lowest ever ranking, while no Australian Super Rugby team has won the title in this period. Yet, the players’ pay scale remains the same. RA should seek a player payment model that rewards success. Australian players give their all, but sport is driven by results and Australia’s professional rugby teams have not delivered for some time.
A tiered payment model which might begin at a minimum of 20-to-25 per cent of player-generated revenue and increase in line with success on and off the field is possibly a more realistic option for a cash-strapped code. The Wallabies receive bonuses when they win the World Cup. Why not extend this to winning the Bledisloe Cup, The Rugby Championship and the Super Rugby title?
As well, if players successfully re-engaged with Australian rugby’s disillusioned fan base, perhaps they could also benefit indirectly from increased crowds and television ratings by factoring bonuses into the CBA. This would give the players skin in the game.
The players have accepted massive pay cuts now because really there was no other choice. RA was in danger of becoming insolvent and players would have lined up with the rest of the creditors for whatever cents they could get out of dollars owed.
The pay cuts allow RA to slash its overall wages bill by around 80 per cent and have cleared the way to secure a $16m loan from World Rugby to help keep it afloat until play resumes and revenues are generated again.
But without a broadcast deal beyond the end of this year, Australian rugby remains in a vulnerable position. Whether RA secures a new broadcast partner such as Optus or returns to long-time partner Fox Sports, it is hard to imagine it negotiating a better deal than the current $57m-a-year in the current economic climate.
RA will need the cooperation and goodwill of the players more than ever in a post-coronavirus world. As part of the interim agreement the players will be involved in discussions about any future competitions and structures.
Any new CBA negotiation needs to recognise the fact Australian rugby players are a valuable commodity on the global market. How can RA keep costs down in an uncertain future and ensure its top players are properly rewarded?
Part of the solution may already lie in the interim agreement. Up to six highly paid players will be allowed to take sabbaticals overseas to recoup lost earnings from their salary sacrifice. Perhaps this measure could be expanded to allow more players to take sabbaticals so that Rugby Australia could pay its leading players what it could afford without players being financially penalised.
It would not be an ideal solution as the Super Rugby teams would bear the brunt of being without some of their star players, but if RA can successfully reduce the salary burden in the next CBA it could free up much-needed revenue to invest in the growth of the game.
Rugby is a players’ game, not just present players, but players of the future also.