Rugby Union: Last traces of amateurism go with IMG appointment

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The Independent Online
AS PRESS releases go, the news last week that Mark McCormack's International Management Group would be involved in running the next World Cup had all the impact and importance of a bring-and-buy sale at Old Rottinghamians. It scarcely covered one side of foolscap.

Yet it was an announcement of great significance and one which will have a profound effect on the future of the game. At the very least it merited a full-blown press conference, but then, as we saw at Bristol a fortnight ago, public relations is not exactly the International Board's strong point, and the sooner they seek professional guidance in this area, the better.

It is Mark McCormack, more than anyone else, who has been the architect of change in the hugely lucrative business of sports marketing and sponsorship. He will undoubtedly make serious money for rugby union, although quite how IMG will happily work alongside CPMA, the much smaller organisation responsible for the marketing of the World Cup, remains to be seen.

There is every reason to expect that IMG will do for rugby union what it has achieved for golf and tennis. Within 10 years of making their first tentative approach to McCormack in 1978, Wimbledon's turnover had risen to over pounds 40m with a surplus, which had been a paltry pounds 100,000, rising to over pounds 5m. Only last week more than pounds 60m was given over to the development of tennis in Britain, largely from the revenue raised at the All England Championship.

Now that he has gained a foothold in rugby McCormack will certainly want to renegotiate contracts with those sponsors who signed up for the last World Cup and who wish to take up their option on the next. It is too late, however, for the renegotiation of the television rights, but McCormack's entrepreneurial mind will surely boggle at the deal struck with ITV before last year's event which blocked any counterbid for 1995 from the BBC, the major player in the business of televised rugby.

What rugby must now ask itself is whether there will be a price to pay for this service and for McCormack's unrivalled flair for making money, and if so will that price be too high? In return for filling its coffers will McCormack demand control of the game? Is the family silver in danger of being sold off?

There is no doubt that IMG has a reputation for peddling all four sides of the square. The Toyota World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth is a case in point. The tournament is structured in such a way that IMG makes money from every available source - from the players, from the sponsors, from television, from ticket sales and from merchandising. In short, McCormack runs the whole show. But then he would argue that without him there would be no show for the simple reason that he invented it.

In a fiercely competitive business there is inevitably jealous rivalry and, just as surely, some disenchanted clients. McCormack's acrimonious bust-up with Jack Nicklaus many years ago was a bruising affair, and Sebastian Coe was another to break loose from his commitment to IMG, believing that athletes were more than a commodity to be packaged and sold to the highest bidder. But then the key to the company's success has been the control it exercises over its clients and, through them, the power to influence the sport itself.

This doesn't have to be a bad thing so long as the sport's governing body knows where and when to call a halt. McCormack's relationships with Wimbledon and with the Royal and Ancient are, for the most part, harmonious and have survived his acquisition through his television company, Transworld International, of the overseas rights to both Wimbledon and the Open Championship.

Now it is rugby's turn, and there are many who fear that IMG, with some of the sharpest minds in the business, will have too much influence. McCormack already has the Australians, the world champions, on his books, although how successful he has been in that venture is uncertain. It is unlikely that, even with the glitziest of packaging, a monosyllabic prop forward will ever be as marketable as a Palmer or a Faldo.

Nevertheless, rugby, like golf, is a sponsor's dream, and there can have been few better examples of how to conduct a rugby tour both on and off the field than the one so recently set by Michael Lynagh's Wallabies. They didn't miss a trick.

But rugby union, unlike Mark McCormack, cannot have its cake and eat it. To retain players with the talent and drawing power of Lynagh, Little, Horan and Ofahengaue, and to attract worthy successors, it requires the ingenuity and expertise of men like McCormack.

The noble but embattled concept of amateurism, which has failed to survive the march of time in tennis, athletics and cricket is nearing the end of the road in rugby union, and the decision to give Mark McCormack a front seat on the World Cup bandwagon is surely official recognition of that fact.

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