Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images The future of the Heineken Cup is currently in doubt.
# Analysis
Opinion: Money makes the Heineken Cup go round
Financial arguments relating to the competition have been overshadowed by the death of Nevin Spence, writes Tom Fox.

Reproduced with permission from Setanta Sports

FIRSTLY, LET ME state that given the recent tragedy involving the Spence family – where Ulster and Irish player Nevin, his brother and father all lost their lives – writing an article on money in the game and the Heineken Cup seems trivial. In many ways, given the circumstances, its significance has been diluted down to the point of irrelevance.

A cliché though it may be, some things in life put everything else into perspective and the harrowing accident that occurred on a farm in Hillsborough on Saturday last has cut to the core of the rugby public and beyond.

It is the cruelest twist of fate that Nevin Spence will never get to realise his outstanding potential and that one family could be dealt such a savage blow. RIP.

As the rugby fraternity comes to terms with this shocking news, efforts have begun to save the Heineken Cup or at least to agree on new terms on a new accord for the competition. An initial meeting took place this week in Dublin involving the powers that be from the six unions and the ERC themselves.

Heineken Cup

The five-hour meeting was said to be ‘productive’ with the next battleground set to be Rome on 8 October. This sounds like progress, and it is to an extent, but the finishing line is not in sight yet – not by any stretch.

If there is to be a real advancement, it now seems to hinge almost entirely on the English, particularly given the BT announcement last week. Before we delve into that, let us firstly have a quick recap. Probably best to draw breath now as there are more sides to this than a Roy Keane press conference:

The English and French feel that the Heineken Cup in its current format is heavily weighted in favour of the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides. This is because each of these unions are guaranteed to have representation in the Heineken Cup no matter where they finish in the RaboDirect Pro 12, meaning they enjoy luxuries which the English and French clubs don’t in their domestic leagues. Players can be rested, there is no danger of relegation and their place in Europe’s ‘elite competition’ remains secure.

The English and French prefer a model which sees the number of teams in the tournament reduced from 24 to 20, with the top 6 teams from the Top 14, Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect Pro 12 qualifying, along with the Heineken and Amlin Cup winners.  If this were to happen, it could of course have very serious implications for the Scottish and Italian rugby, and to a lesser extent the Irish and Welsh.

The issue of money

This leads us on to the main reason the French and English served their notice for the competition on 1 June – money.

Currently the ERC’s revenue for the competition is distributed equally between the six nations, meaning that of the £50m revenue taken last year, the English clubs would receive about £300,000 each.

The English and French teams are a big part of the Heineken Cup and want a more proportionate share of the profits, essentially. Thus came the inevitable threat of an Anglo-French breakaway.

Subsequently, a rather unexpected bombshell was dropped when BT announced that they had, in a deal with Premier Rugby, bought the rights to the Aviva Premiership for £152m from 2013/2014 onwards; a deal which included the rights to any games the English sides played in Europe from 2014.

(English and French teams have complained that clubs such as Leinster have received an unfair advantage in the Heineken Cup in recent years – David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Indeed, BT Vision CEO Mark Watson last week somewhat brashly declared that he is looking to set up a “dazzling new European competition”. Thanks but no thanks Mark – we have one of the best club competitions in the world already in existence. It may need to be tweaked but certainly not replaced.

This new European tournament proposed by BT would significantly improve the earning potential of the English clubs, depending on many other unions joined them, but you would be certainly talking millions rather than a couple of hundred thousand as is the current case.

The claim by BT to have the European rights for the English clubs from 2014 onwards had the legal eagles out in force and on the face of it; it would seem wholly unlikely given that the governing body, the ERC, are supposedly the only party entitled to sell the rights. By way of retort, the ERC then announced a new four-year television deal with Sky Sports from 2014 onwards.

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How would one describe the current situation? An unadulterated mess.

Legacy of the competition

The Heineken Cup as we know it has been one of the great success stories of the professional era in rugby and has matured into one of the top club competitions in the world – irrespective of the sport. It successfully marries a sense of community and passion with all the glitz, appeal and quality of a world class tournament.

The caveat to this of course is that the competition has almost fallen victim to its own success, leading to the current situation where a number of of the big players are looking for a greater piece of the pie.

And that is what all the disputes essentially boil down to – money.

Will it get sorted out? It is very early days and compromises will have to be made but early signs are relatively positive for the future of the tournament.

The admission of the French National Rugby League (LNR) Vice President Patrick Wolff that the French do not wish to participate in a Franco/Anglo breakaway and “want to play with the Celts and with the English” can only be a good thing too.

Don’t be expecting a resolution anytime soon however and before we get too entangled in this monetary mess, let’s pay tribute to Nevin Spence and his family this weekend and get back to the rugby.

Follow @TomFoxy on Twitter

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