The news that Jonny Sexton’s return to Leinster is being funded by private (i.e. non-Union) money was confirmed this week, and also clarifies how they managed to stave off Toulon’s interest in Jamie Heaslip last January. Leinster’s main sponsor, Bank of Ireland, made Heaslip a “brand ambassador” and gave him a chunk of cash, and Denis O’Brien has bankrolled part of Sexton’s wage packet. Newstalk, owned by O’Brien’s Communicorp, was, completely coincidentally, the platform for an exclusive Sexton interview on why he is coming home.
The professional model up to this point has been founded on increasing commercial, ticket and TV revenue (largely from the national team), with the proceeds invested back in the game – part of which is player contracts. The Union (largely) controlled this process in Ireland, but in France it was the clubs. Rugby has become hugely popular and the players are success stories and icons of the modern age; they also have a job which could end any given day if they are unlucky, and they naturally want to be compensated for that risk. And of course they want to be paid the market rate, which is high for multi-HEC winning, Six Nations champions and Lions tour winners.
So this is the new dawn – we’ve been through the emotional “let’s build it together” of the initial bringing the players home and contracting them centrally, and since then player salaries have increased sharply, to the point where, from the Union’s perspective, they have reached a ceiling, for the very elite players at least. Hence the need for top-ups from private sources. The bumper wages on offer from France (and likely England in the future) cannot be matched by the Union, so in order to keep the players here, big business (and Bank of Ireland) have been contracted to help full the gap. It’s a model that was common in Australian rugby in the early 90s, where players were given cushy well-paid numbers with national team sponsors with the blessing of the ARU, but it’s a big step for Ireland, where the Union has been among the most conservative when it came to embracing professionalism.
The financial reality is that it’s this or doubling ticket prices – and the ticketing fiasco that greeted the launch of Fortress Palindrome, among other factors, would have made the second approach seem less desirable.
We can’t be too precious about it. In an ideal world, the IRFU would be entirely self-sufficient and this sort of private funding wouldn’t be required, but the goalposts have shifted in the last couple of years, probably for ever. The Top14, where the clubs are entirely funded by private funds, is awash with cash and the players can earn enormous sums of money. Irish players have long been coveted by the top French clubs, and while Jonny Sexton has been the only one to take up the offer, numerous other players have gone close. Without being too presumptuous, it appears that the general line from the players in contract negotiations is ‘<Insert French club> have offered me €X to play for them next season. Now I don’t expect you to pay me the same, but you have to offer me something not a million miles away from it.’ As the all-important €X becomes higher, so too will the amount the IRFU has to pay. This is the age in which we now live, the age that drove us to the Rugby Champions Cup and the fallout that went with it. We have grown used to stadia and the team jerseys being sponsored and Leinster received private funds to build their state-of-the-art training facilities. The next step it seems is the players themselves.
If the likes of Denis O’Brien and Bank of Ireland are offering to ‘save the day’ by making up the difference between what the IRFU can pay and what the player is demanding, it stands to reason they would find it very difficult to say no. Imagine the outcry if Sexton had stayed in France, only for the story to emerge that the IRFU flatly turned down the hard-earned readies that would have kept him here.
It’s also important not to get ahead of ourselves too much and remember this has happened only in the case of two elite players, and is only likely ever to be relevant for the select group on the highest salaries. Envisioning a doomsday scenario where every player has his corporate backer, and Charleveille Cheddar fork out an extra €50,000 to keep David Kilcoyne at Munster, or worse still, that Rory McIlroy offers the €300k to keep Peter O’Mahony in Ireland but only if he moves to Ulster, is not especially relevant. It’s simply never going to happen outside of a handful of special cases. Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien and maybe Conor Murray are the only other players we can imagine being offered the sort of pay packet in France that would put them outside of the IRFU’s reach. Although, O’Brien’s history of injuries reportedly put off suitors last year.
But it’s not a completely costless strategy. Modern players are very aware of their brand and how to monetize their image, so they aren’t likely to get too upset by having to sit for two hours at a ridiculous corporate event where they get given advice on team selection by half-cut Hooray Henrys. So that’s fine. But, for a start, it’s inherently advantageous to Leinster – there are simply more people and businesses who are likely to have the kind of funds required (appears to be ~€300k annually) and the need for a “brand ambassador” in Dublin than there are in Belfast, Limerick, Cork and Galway.
What if the sponsors start demanding more of the players than was agreed? After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune etc. What if O’Brien rings up Sexton (or rings up Browne who rings up Sexton) to tell him he needs him to come out for some after-dinner-circuit Q&A two nights before a Six Nations match. O’Brien is an important sponsor for the player, the province and the Union – can they tell him to bugger off? Now, based on his experience with the FAI – where he stumped up for Il Trap’s pay packet – he is unlikely to do this – but it’s hardly an impossiblity for other sponsors in the future. Extreme care needs to be taken.
Also, is there some consideration of who the sponsors are? If this model was put in place in, say, 2006, Anglo Irish Bank could have sponsored Dorce. When they became the most evil bank in the history of evilness, this would not have looked like great business, either economically or reputationally. Ireland is far from a well-governed modern country, and the likelihood is that, like in the 80s and the 90s and the 00s, a big Irish company will go from flavour of the business circles to a scandal-ridden shell. To protect its investment, the IRFU needs to exercise due caution when accepting private funds.
Now, back to the rugby, and over to the stadium announcer (who, sponsorship or not, seems unable to pronounce non-Irish player names): ‘At No.8 and captain it’s Bank of Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip. Now everyone, let’s stand up for YOUR Bank of Ireland Leinster team.’