Former All Blacks halfback Andy Ellis says New Zealand Rugby’s [NZR] potential mega-deal with Silver Lake could provide more than just a financial boost for rugby within New Zealand.
NZR are expected to confirm whether the controversial deal with the American private equity giants, understood to be worth $387.5m, will go ahead at the union’s annual general meeting on Thursday.
The proposal to sell a 12.5 percent stake of NZR to Silver Lake has been met with some resistance, particularly from the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association, although there has been support from other parties, such as the cash-strapped Heartland Championship provincial unions.
A former NZR-contracted player himself, Ellis said he can see benefits aside from the financial windfall that would come with investment from Silver Lake.
Currently living in the United States while he plays for Rugby United New York [RUNY] in Major League Rugby [MLR], the 37-year-old told The Breakdown he has developed a better understanding of what the Silver Lake deal could mean for the growth of NZR’s brands in one of the world’s biggest markets.
“You’ve gotta understand with the opportunity that would come with not only the investment, but the fact you’d then have it on all the major TV stations in the States,” Ellis said.
“Super Rugby, for example, All Blacks tests, the scope to grow individual brands and things like that over here. When you come over here, you start to understand it a little more. I’m still not sure what the right answer is.
“I know the Players’ Association is pretty staunch and New Zealand Rugby have got their reasons for bringing money in, but if we’re going to grow the game, at some point we’re going to have to look to have that investment, both money but also to help push and grow it into other regions of the world.
“From being over here, from spending time here, I start to understand the concept better. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.”
The 28-test veteran, who was part of the 2011 World Cup-winning All Blacks side and played 154 times for the Crusaders, added the potential growth of rugby as a whole in the USA is “exciting”.
Ellis said he has noticed there is a genuine interest for the sport in America, of which MLR can harness in the coming years via the solid foundation the league has developed in its formative years.
“Already, I feel this bit of excitement around rugby in the States. This programme where there are 12 or 14 teams now, they’re really establishing themselves with private ownership,” he told The Breakdown.
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“The money isn’t like what it is in other parts of the world, but there’s other things here that are really unique and pretty cool to experience as well, and there’s a lot of opportunity here.
“I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I’ve got a good feeling that it’s going to grow and grow quite quickly. You bump into people on the streets here and they want to know more about it.
“Americans love entertainment and they love sport, and so whether I’m getting my hair cut or me and my son are throwing the ball around down at the park, people will actually come up and say, ‘Oh, is that rugby? We always wanted to know more about rugby’.
“There certainly is that element of wanting to come and see or experience a new sport or entertainment or just get out and see something new. I’m excited by the opportunities that lie ahead in the next sort of five and 10 years.”
Conceding he didn’t know what to expect when joining RUNY from the Kobelco Steelers in Japan’s Top League, Ellis has since been pleasantly surprised by the standard of quality on offer in the USA.
“I was really surprised by the talent here. Genuinely really good skill set, good athletes here,” he said.
“Coming from Japan, I wasn’t sure what to expect, if it’d be similar to Japan or what, but the guys here are very skilful and can play, which, not surprised me, but I think that was a pretty awesome thing to see and experience.
“They’re quick learners, too. They really want to learn and get better and develop quickly too, so it’s been good. It’s been an interesting but challenging first few months.”
Ellis has featured in all five of RUNY’s matches thus far this season, four of which he has started, as he has helped his side to three wins over the San Diego Legion, Rugby ATL and Old Glory DC.
Defeats at the hands of NOLA Gold and the Toronto Arrows leaves Ellis and RUNY in third place on the MLR Eastern Conference standings ahead of this week’s clash against the Seattle Seawolves at Starfire Stadium in Seattle.
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