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'Change is hard, all the old habits exist. Rugby's old and stodgy'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Big-spending Marco Masotti is banking that a massive shake-up in rugby around the world will eventually generate profits after his investment last year in becoming the controlling partner of the Sharks in Durban and a part-owner at Saracens. The South African, who made his fortune on Wall Street in New York over the guts of the past 30 years, believes that the post-covid era was the perfect time to buy into a sport that has struggled to make ends meet since turning professional in 1995.

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Masotti, who had opportunities to invest in American sports franchises, was initially courted by the Stormers but he instead took over at the Sharks, their up-the-coast South African rivals, and the hope is that playing in European tournaments such as the URC and the Heineken Champions Cup will help revolutionise the sport’s finances.

Appearing on the latest episode of The Big Jim Show, the new podcast hosted by ex-Scotland lock Jim Hamilton, Masotti gave his outlook on the sport in a wide-ranging in-person interview recently held in New York where he keeps abreast from afar on his rugby investments.

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“Rugby is a massive sport and no one is making money. How can that be? The players aren’t making enough money, the owners aren’t making enough money, how can that be? It is the same size as baseball with 500 million fans. It’s a top-ten viewed participation game in a massive market…

“If it is good enough you will get business people around the table making business decisions in the interest of the sport, taking some risks. Post-covid it feels like the time is now because everyone seems to be saying the same thing, getting on the same page…

“Change is hard, so you have to bring new people around the table. All the old habits exist. It is old and stodgy. I was looking at some images from some of the older games when a guy would touch down without any expression, run back to the halfway line and wait for the restart. No dancing, no singing, no shushing (the crowd).

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“It has so many old and traditional values and that is okay, those are great but it doesn’t mean you can’t build on from that and create a product that is fun and engaging for a new demographic which is mostly young people looking for alternative sports around the world.”

What tempted Masotti to the Sharks? “I probably wouldn’t be at the Sharks if it wasn’t for covid, The need for a capital infusion by rugby clubs around the world drove some new owners and different people to step in. Everyone was effectively saying the same thing, we need to change, we need to bring more people to the table, we need to look at issues like the global calendar and different competitions, and we need to grow in places like the United States.

“I am the biggest investor in the Sharks and have asked some real investors to join me in this endeavour. We got it at a good price. There is a lot of opportunity for growth. I also made a good business decision, it’s not purely romance and it’s not reckless. With the platform of Sharks playing in Europe, where the residual businesses around the sport and rugby, I will make a return on my investment and hopefully ride the wave.

“It’s a great time to get in. The snow globe has been shaken, it is going to take a little time to settle. If you are investing in a South African rugby team that is about to play in Europe, you are effectively investing in a different type of labour market with a massive talent pool and that comes with European exposure. That seemed like a great deal for me.”

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The thoughts of the players at the Sharks on how to expand the sport are also important to Masotti. “It is important to speak with players because they have a lot of ideas and I have learned a lot, I have learned a lot from Siya Kolisi, he has some great ideas. There is a lot of opportunity for growing the sport.”

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