There are legal implications to sports teams playing big matches in neutral countries, says AnneMaree McDonough
The support of a home crowd is often said to be the 12th man in football or the 16th man in rugby. The vociferous support of a home crowd can not only push a team on, it can also put off opponents. Sport scientists have even attempted to quantify what the home advantage might be worth in terms of points, with one South African scientist calculating that in Super Rugby, home advantage was worth five points and not having to travel internationally for a game worth another five points.
Given the advantages of playing at home for both club and country, it is interesting to examine the subject of home games being played in neutral grounds, in order to achieve longer-term and more strategic objectives for a sport. Whilst we have seen few examples of this in rugby in the Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere rugby nations seem to be increasingly embracing this move. Australia, for example, has played two of its home Bledisloe Cup matches against New Zealand in Hong Kong in recent years and one in Tokyo. With games being lucrative, the Australian Rugby Union has also suggested that it would be willing to take a Bledisloe Cup home game to London or even New York.
Similarly, only a few weeks ago, Argentina chose to give up their home advantage against Australia in The Rugby Championship, opting to hold their home rugby game at Twickenham rather than in Argentina. In doing so, Argentina was able to capitalise on the excitement that had been generated by their participation in last year’s Rugby World Cup and allow the match to be billed as a chance for Argentina to overturn last year’s semi-final defeat by Australia at the same ground.
Whilst Argentina may have been unable to redeem their semi-final defeat on the pitch, they would no doubt have met many of their strategic objectives in terms of continuing to showcase Argentian rugby to the Northern Hemisphere and cementing their place in the pecking order of world rugby. The game was also probably financially lucrative for Argentina with 48,515 fans attending a game where ticket prices ranged between £45 and £80. In addition, the increased exposure in the Northern Hemisphere will also no doubt have given them greater leverage when it comes to renewing or entering into new sponsorship agreements with sponsors whose businesses are suited to international exposure.
Where nations go, clubs are likely to follow and it is likely that it will not be too long before we see a Super Rugby game being played at a neutral venue. But what about Northern Hemisphere clubs and countries. Are they likely to climb on this band wagon of seeking out a neutral ground in order to expand their worldwide following ?
There are obviously a number of legal issues that will arise when a country or club seeks to move a game to a neutral venue, particularly if it is overseas. The legal issues that will need to be addressed include obtaining the consent of the Union in whose territory the match will be played and arrangements for the broadcast rights. International matches between the national representative teams of high-performing unions will also need to obtain not only the consent of the two governing bodies of the teams involved in the proposal but the consent of the Council or CEO of World Rugby.
For club games, if the teams come from different unions, the consent of both unions will be required, as well as the consent of the union from the hosting nation. That is before you turn to look at the myriad agreements with sponsors, venues (both existing and proposed), as well as all the other issues that come with hosting a game.
Apart from the legal issues, there are a number of commercial and strategic issues. Clubs and countries know that there is a fine balance to be struck between trying to expand a fanbase and taking the existing home fanbase’s loyalty for granted.
Similarly, much depends on the willingness of the neutral venue to host. The local governing body may be concerned the rugby calendar does not become too crowded and dilute the attractiveness to spectators of their own games. This would clearly be a concern, for example in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, should countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina seek more frequently to bring games to the Northern Hemisphere. Doing so, might be viewed as diluting the attraction of the existing Autumn test series between the Southern and Northern Hemisphere teams.
Given these issues, there is probably a natural limit to how many times we will see clubs or teams at national level moving home games to pursue more long- term strategic or financial objectives. But moving a home game, once anathema, is now definitely a strategic option that many are considering. The sports scientists will need to recast their models.
AnneMaree McDonough is a Consultant in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s Business of Sport practice