Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Global Scope: Farewell to the Heineken Cup

The Heineken Cup, also known as the H Cup in France (because of alcohol sponsorship restrictions), is considered the most prestigious European club rugby tournament. The Cup’s inaugural season was in 1995 involving 5 countries (France, Ireland, Wales, Romania, Italy) with a total of 12 clubs competing. The Heineken Cup has seen many changes in format throughout its 18 years of existence, leading up to the “present day” version with 24 teams from England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Italy. The competition is held from October to May, overlapping domestic club competitions. Also, The Heineken Cup’s major winners are Stade Toulousain (France) and Leinster (Ireland) with four and three championships respectively.

Unfortunately for Heineken Cup fans worldwide the tournament is at the brink of its extinction, due to dissatisfaction from the two top European Rugby federations. Together with the French, the English clubs have long been dissatisfied with the structure of the Heineken Cup, arguing that the qualification process is unfair and complaining about the weak performances in the commercial and governmental spheres. Since both federations are the major financial drivers in European club rugby they have pushed hard for a revamping of the Cup, proposing a cut in the number of teams to 20 and demanding equal opportunities in the qualification process.

The proposed qualification process would see the top six teams from the Premiership, The French Top 14, and the Celtic-Italian Pro 12 leagues making the cut straight through. Currently the qualification system has the top six teams in the English and French leagues qualifying directly to the cup as well as the top three Irish and Welsh teams in the Pro 12 league. However, Scotland and Italy have two teams automatically qualified to the Cup every year regardless of where they finish in the Pro12 table. The reasoning behind this system is that since Scotland and Italy only have 2 fully professional teams each, they can be guaranteed to represent both nations in European play. However, the Anglo-French dissent states that they are at a disadvantage because they cannot rest players in league matches since there is always the pressure of qualification to European play looming in the back of their heads.

The other main reasons for the Anglo-French breakaway from European rugby are the issues with distribution of competition revenue, and the way the competition is run. Currently, the Pro12 clubs receive 52% of the funding, with the English and French receiving 24% each. Of course the English and the French are calling for an equal three-way split in funding between the three leagues. In June of 2012 both entities gave the European Rugby Cup (ERC; Organizing body of The Heineken Cup) two years’ notice of their withdrawal from European club competitions.

Unhappy with the commercial value being extracted from the Heineken Cup,  the English clubs browsed around in order to find out what it was truly worth. In September of 2012 all the behind-the-scenes talks prompted by the English hit the headlines pretty dramatically, with the announcement of Premiership Rugby’s four year TV deal with BT Sport. The deal included the rights to show the English clubs’ European matches and it was reported at £152m, 50% better than the offer from Sky who are the Heineken Cup broadcasters. However, the ERC immediately announced their own brand new four year deal with Sky and stated that Premiership Rugby did not have the rights to sell European games. So with the TV money in their pockets, the English, backed by the French, presented their proposals for a new-look European landscape. Inside this proposal, you can find how much each federation would be receiving if the funding were split equally, and how much more they would be making with the injection of the BT cash. The English and French clubs would each gain around £14m (up from £10.55m to £24m), while the four Pro12 nations combined would gain just over an extra £1m (up from £22.8m to £24m). That would, in theory, work out as around £250,000 a year more for Scotland, Ireland, Italy, and Wales.

It is now October of 2013 and while the domestic leagues have already been under way, an agreement between federations has been delaying European play. The Anglo-French proposals have not met with the approval of the Pro12 countries, and it seems as if negotiations might coming to an end.

While there has been a lot of focus on the issues with the qualification process, it seems the financial split is the real problem here. It appears to offer limited incentive for the four Pro12 countries to accept a significantly reduced involvement in European play.

The only thing that is certain here is that one of rugby’s success stories might be coming to an end, and a top of the tier competition is set to disappear. Unless the six nations involved can reach an unlikely agreement soon, European rugby is looking at a legitimate restructuring of its governing spheres.

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