By admin | December 22, 2011
What is the Hollow Frontier?
The settlement of North America, the USA in particular, was based on the progressive development of land and the continent’s resources each step of the way. Initially those closest to Europe settled along the eastern seaboard. When each successive group, from countries deeper and deeper into Europe, arrived, they leapfrogged those already there settling further and further inland. This meant that later settlers settled further and further from their country of origin and had to settle the wilderness in a sustainable way. This has led to the continued development of North America until today.
By contrast, Brazil, an equally large area was settled in a completely different way especially in the coffee-growing region of the Matto Grosso. What happened here was that the land along the initial frontier was worked to exhaustion. It was then abandoned as the frontier pushed further and further inland. The development was not sustainable as the coffee barons living in the big cities, especially Sao Paulo, siphoned off the profits. This meant that the infrastructure was minimal with railways being built only to get the coffee to market. The economy that emerged was termed a hollow frontier because economic activity took place only at the frontier with dereliction being the fate of the exhausted land behind each advance of the frontier.
How Does This Apply to Rugby Today?
This is becoming the model for rugby in the professional rugby era. It is especially so in the major professional unions. Initially the game covered the country. Players from lesser unions within the country could achieve international status. Each union had its niche and potential for a place in the sun. Each could be supported by amateur effort committed to the game as part of their way of life. The game could be measured in a quantifiable sense by the numbers playing but, more importantly, it could be measured by other criteria be they subjective. These criteria were community spirit, camaraderie, loyalty and a code of behavior and ethic that tied the unions together to create the game as part of the national identity.
Money as a means to an end with no ethical value oiled the wheels of this model. But what is now happening is that money in the game has become an end in itself. This is creating a hollow frontier with all the action being at the professional frontier and the amateur game left behind. This is demonstrated by the lack of affinity that parochial support has with some professional teams. In some cases these are new identities, in others they are swept up versions of what existed previously.
Some years ago the threat of “money is everything” criteria was likely to have on the traditional values of the game came up at the NZRU Council meeting. There were councilors who had a sense of value being more than monetary. One was J.J.Stewart. When it was declared that they were there for the mighty dollar to maximize the return on investment, JJ’s reply was simple.
“All your grounds are in the close-in suburbs of the towns and cities. This is prime real estate. You want to make a profit? Sell the grounds for housing, commerce or industry. Generate capital or maybe rent. This will generate a return. You will have plenty of money but no rugby.”
Money is everything in the game today. There are some who retain the broader values of the game. When it becomes necessary to codify these values in a DVD and to include them in a course you know that we can no longer assume their existence.
The Current Economic Model
With the progress of time the frontier has increased in most national unions and includes the first tier of professional teams be they franchises, professional clubs, corporate teams, rugby schools or provinces. The hollow frontier is the amateur clubs, most of the schools, the semi-professional provinces and part- time professional clubs.
Party to this is the loss of the Olympic ethos of competing being more important than winning, the loss of the Corinthian spirit. This is ironic given rugby’s entry into the Olympics but maybe this organization is struggling with the same dilemma.
The income distribution that has resulted is that of a third world country. Up to ten percent of the playing population and their structures control ninety percent of the wealth while ninety percent, the remainder, have ten percent of the wealth. This is an aggravation of the USA sports model where it is sustainable because, for them sport is a business. In the US all the major sports are professional and they only employ the best at that sport.
They are not encumbered by the amateurs and don’t need to have a moral conscience about sustaining them. The best service the rest can do for these sports is put their bums on the seats, be it at the ground or in front of TV, to increase revenue.
Rugby has the dilemma of being morally obliged to levels of the game that are a financial cost to run. Some may see this as an investment in many ways. Rugby as part of an on-going healthy life-style is one. With these levels of the game viewed as a cost Rugby has a problem but team owners do not. Their problems are solved by buying in the talent developed by others, frequently, with no return to those who did the developing.
The Traditional Model
Those that make up the 90% bring their amateur talent to the game be they players, coaches, referees, administrators or fans. They frequently get involved through the participation of their children. Each new generation drops out with the exception of a few who make a career out of it. The game depends on each new group contributing in their turn. Schooling them is not very expensive individually but the game needs a lot of them and new recruits have to be trained continually as many drop out.
If this group loses its interest because of assumptions made about their willingness to be involved by those who see the game as exclusively commercial we could be in trouble. They must be fostered to sustain the interest.
Because money is the sole criteria the big event is siphoning off funding from the small to the rich. There doesn’t seem to be a willingness to place a monetary value on playing numbers, recruitment and retention, and relative success in the competition that would result in the flow of money in the opposite direction. Why shouldn’t these measures be rugby related, such as playing numbers, with money just being the vehicle? In addition those participating need to be recognized.
The irony is that sponsorship money is ultimately coming from the purchases of the whole population not just the company sponsoring the event or the team.
Further to this is the very good job the players association has done in making the employer pay for the value the professional players bring to the game. In the world marketplace high salaries in some unions are increasing the value of players.This is encouraging players to move when unions cannot afford to pay.
This takes a financial toll on the union and further reduces the amount available for the amateur game. When the union has to make cuts, anecdotally I know of some examples, these come from the development budget. This is the budget that services the non-professional game.
If the coaches ever get organized the situation could be more costly. At present the coaches are the sacrificial lambs. The game lacks a mature market for coaches. This results in sacked coaches not easily picking up a rugby job elsewhere, as happens in American sports and European and British football. Many return to their previous job while others become coaching nomads. The intellectual property they hold and the investment that has been made in their coaching is lost. Worthwhile amateur coaches who are in sound and secure jobs will not make themselves available for positions.
A crisis is emerging given the large number of coaches getting into positions very early in a coaching career many of whom have no coaching qualifications. Many of these leap frog over the others because it is assumed that their playing ability and coaching ability are one and the same thing. There will be inevitable casualties compared to the situation in the professionally mature sports.
Some Ideas for the Future
No one is saying that we don’t need money but it needs to be distributed equitably to sustain a mass participation game in the long term. This long-term commitment cannot be turned off when the going gets tough. Progress is through sustained development from the start to the finish of a player’s career.
The only ones who are not suffering are those who are well paid. The market, be it the multi-national corporate market in Japan or the inflated philanthropist owner market in Europe, is inflated. It is neither a level playing field nor a global market. It is a market of two parts the well off and those who are managing to get by. They are under the threat that the players will go unless the union can be pushed to pay unsustainable salaries.
A New Zealand Perspective
The New Zealand economy is characterised by new initiatives giving a competitive advantage. However this advantage is often lost when others catch up.
The future of the game in its current form may be sustainable as a joint venture. If we can set up a joint venture within the global rugby market of rugby entities who complement each other we may be getting somewhere.
The Chiefs may provide a training ground for young Japanese players while at the same time training their coaches and referees. Toshiba may provide the opportunity for young players to be tested living and playing away from home as well as for a player nearing his sell by date. Bath may provide exposure to a different style of rugby, a larger market place. The players and coaches could be jointly owned within the structure and all would benefit. Just a thought. New Zealand may avoid becoming the Brazil of world rugby, a country who provides talent for others to use.
The Bottom-Up Approach
Historically the game has been one that depends on mass participation and grassroots involvement. The pyramid goes something like this.
Schools and clubs do what they do best but when there is a need to have a collective purpose they form a collective body called the local rugby union to which they send representatives. When they find there are opportunities that they have a collective need for the rugby unions form a co-operative for that purpose, the national union and so on up to the world governing body. Each level has its own niche and is responsible for that niche. It is bottom up and not top down. When it is top down you lose support because there is no longer local input to the same degree.
The structure runs into difficulties when each level assumes a role that infringes on those below. In the professional game this has become prevalent especially when it comes to competitions. The effect is to channel money and time away from amateur rugby.This has resulted in the financially weak having less say. This is the vast majority of the people involved in rugby. The effect is to narrow the base of the pyramid making it unstable.
The Original Intention
When the game went professional I was an employee of the NZRU. The philosophy seemed to be that it was a role of the professional game to enhance and sustain the amateur game which depends on volunteer personnel. Many realized the danger but few thought the game would, so quickly,become a means to its own end.
So how do we get out of this dilemma?
Joint venture is an option.
To sustain amateur and semi-professional levels of the game, to spread the base, the mass participation sections of the game must be expanded. AFL is a good model. It is a professional sport with a strong level of participation. Sure we can put the best youthful talent in an academy. Variations in the rate of development do create problems. For a sport best played by mature adults early talent ID could result in wasted resources.
So the answer is in setting standards and targets, both in quality and quantity, for administration, coaching, playing, officiating, governance and competitions. When targets are met or exceeded increase support to the clubs both financially and in kind. Incentivize the whole thing but let the locals set their own standards, as they know what is best for them. In so doing you are creating diversity. The overall model may be the same and the diversity is in the detail based on the character of each club, province etc. More importantly the criteria should be based on performance not outcome to take account of each individual situation.
What must be avoided is amateur clubs and provinces going into debt competing for mediocre playing talent. Frequently the talent is not only mediocre but lacks the commitment and loyalty needed for success.
The Game Not the Team
It is here that the mature, professional sports have a lesson.
A team cannot be the game on its own. At the very least the professional sporting event is the game of two teams, the competition of fifteen teams or the tournament of 170 golfers or tennis players.
What the fan is keen on is the competition between the participants who, over a period of time, have an opportunity to excel and win. In rugby recruitment can be through a draft. It is the collective responsibility of all in the competition to see the sport as the product, the brand, not the individual team or player. This is no less important in amateur sport especially in amateur rugby.
Reaping Your Own Rewards By Planning
The greatest incentive of all is for the clubs and provinces to bear the fruit of their own development programme. This programme would be centrally resourced, the resourcing would be equitable and unions or clubs would be judged on their performance. The reward is in having first call on the players you have developed and adequate transfer fees if you are prepared to let them go.
So there is a way ahead but it is not knee jerk from year to year. The time period must be enough for a collective aim to be agreed to and for all to plan their individual role as they move towards the aim. It requires vision and selflessness and could easily be undermined by self-interest.
The competition between teams that makes the game on the field so attractive can be developed by co-operation looking after the common good.
Unpaid or Paid Development Staff?
If we want to put value on volunteer help to get some idea of its value to the game we need to look at the cost of replacing them. This may be measured against what the individual could earn in their next best alternative use of their time. Or this may not be a monetary value but the value of another recreational pursuit or family time.
It may be measured in the cost of someone to do the same job in a salaried position. The person would have to bring the same know-how and enthusiasm to the job and would have to see the position as part of a career path.
Consider the implied value unions place on technical staff when they do employ them. In many situations their career path is limited, their ability undervalued and payment doesn’t compensate them for the effort made. The attitude seems to be
“There are plenty more where they came from.”
Love of the game is at the core. It is in marked contrast to the increased number of other employees that unions have attracted since the game went professional.
This is where Australia has it right. Australian colleagues over the years have been development officers but it is not a dead end job. They have then moved along the career path be they regional DO’s, skills coaches, academy managers, head coaches or to be involved with the national team.
So it is better to build on the hybrid that we have but to also fine-tune to avoid the risk of disaffection and departure.
What we are looking for is a game for all that supports life-long involvement in a number of roles.It is not a sport with the best playing and the remainder watching. It is part of a healthy life style in which all can find a niche for themselves in a variety of ways that is embedded into the fabric of society and not just one part of it as an entertainment.