The Pro14 club rugby competition is changing its name, adding more South African teams and has agreed new broadcast deals, in the first sign of how private equity firm CVC Capital Partners aims to revamp the sport.
The buyout group paid £120m for a 28 per cent stake in the tournament last year, one of a series of rugby deals as it seeks to reshape the global game by changing how the sport is sold to fans, sponsors and broadcasters.
The contest, an annual tournament featuring teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa, is rebranding to “United Rugby Championship”, people familiar with the decision said.
These people said it has also secured new television deals for the start of the 2021/2022 season in September, including with the BBC in the UK, RTE in Ireland and SuperSport in South Africa. The organisers will also launch a new global subscription streaming service for fans.
Though the aim is for the majority of matches to be screened on free-to-air TV to reach the largest possible audience, the broadcast deals will help boost annual revenues for the competition to £55m, up from £25m last year.
The tournament may still struggle to secure new viewers and revenues, however. Rugby is dominated by interest in national competitions, such as the Six Nations in Europe, the Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere and the Rugby World Cup.
According to people close to the decision, the newly named United Rugby Championship will play fewer weekend matches when international fixtures are held and star club players represent their national teams.
Alongside its stake in Pro14 CVC has also invested in England’s Premiership Rugby and the Six Nations, Europe’s top national team rugby tournament.
Its plans for United Rugby Championship points at how CVC intends to act as a powerbroker between the disparate groups that run the sport in order to enhance the value of its investments.
The Luxembourg-based group, a former owner of Formula One and Moto GP, has tended to take minority shares in sports competitions, seeking commercial control in a way that will allow it to bundle together TV rights for different competitions and sell them to broadcasters.
As well as rugby, the buyout group has also acquired a stake in volleyball’s global governing body and held recent investment talks with companies including the ATP and WTP, the men’s and women’s tennis tours, Italy’s Serie A football league, and US basketball franchise San Antonio Spurs.
The United Rugby Championship will expand from 14 to 16 teams. Two South African sides, the Southern Kings and Cheetahs, have left the competition, but will be replaced by four of the biggest teams in the country: the Lions, Stormers, Sharks and Bulls.
Over time, South Africa Rugby, the country’s union, will also become a shareholder in the competition, tying it closer to some of Europe’s leading unions.
CVC has also discussed investing in South Africa Rugby and is engaged in talks to create a Club World Cup tournament of the world’s top club rugby teams. CVC’s recent influence across rugby has helped to progress the talks and a new global contest could launch as early as 2024, according to people close to the discussions.