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The battle of the formats.....

It’s been another intriguing - if not baffling - week in sports business, seeing the latest two ‘innovations’ to two very much loved sports.

Not content with bloating the World Cup to 48 teams, FIFA announced plans that would mean the tournament takes place every two years. Whilst in the rugby world, former RFU Chairman Ian Ritchie unveiled a new form of the sport called Rugby 12s, featuring twelve players rather than fifteen.

It’s weeks like this that do little to improve the public perception of sports administrators. FIFA’s plans seem particularly tone deaf given the backlash to the failed European Super League in April. Whilst Rugby 12s seems to completely ignore the fact that there is already too much rugby in the calendar at a time when players welfare is being tested to the limit. Oh, and there are already five, seven and ten-a-side versions of the sport.

Sport is big business, it has been for a long time, hence the obsession with growth. But governing bodies (Rugby 12s is not associated with any existing body) need to remember that growth at all costs never helped anyone in the long run. The reason that people love the World Cup is in part down to its scarcity. The fact that it takes place once every four years gives it such jeopardy. If the plans were to go ahead, and many journalists (Martin Ziegler and Sean Ingle to name two) think that it will, how long will it be before we have a competition every year?

You might think I’m being melodramatic but we’ve witnessed this kind of short-termism before. There were three Ashes series in the space of as many years (albeit for scheduling reasons). I’m not the only fan that felt this diluted the product and the intensity of it. Likewise rugby has been guilty of cramming international fixtures into an already bulging diary that has produced club v international conflicts in most countries.

COVID19 was obviously catastrophic for most sports but it also brought with it an opportunity. A chance to put aside the self serving governance that had dogged the industry and create better quality competitions. Rugby 12s is the latest sporting venture to try and ‘emulate the success of the IPL.’ The difference is that T20 genuinely solved a problem and filled a gap in the market. There was no form of cricket under 8 hours and a condensed version helped create something genuinely new and exciting. The IPL took this one stage further and assembled the best players to create a club competition that had global appeal, although it helps when you launch it in a country of 1.4 billion people.

It’s hard to see what problem Rugby 12s is trying to solve. This summer’s Lions tour was dominated by turgid, unattractive rugby that is unlikely to win over any new converts. But will freeing up more space on the pitch solve this in the long run? If it was that simple surely Sevens would be the primary form of the game by now. Rugby 12s claimed that it would be attracting the best players to play for eight franchises (*heave*). However, a game with three less players would require a different skillset, so maybe the best fifteens players wouldn’t be the best for this form of the game.

The fact that private investment has spotted this as an opportunity, shows how the game has muddled its way through the professional era and reached this point. With various stakeholders looking after their part of the game, with nothing vaguely resembling a cohesive calendar and far too much club rugby played without the international stars present.

Whatever the faults of Rugby 12s, it might just trigger some action amongst the leading governing bodies and its existing financial backers.

The fundamental problem with the FIFA proposals is the lack of meaningful competition. Just by making something bigger doesn’t make it better. Even if it does mean you’ve got more of it to sell to broadcasters and sponsors. A World Cup with 48 teams means 16 groups of 3, with the top two progressing to the knockout rounds. The best sides will be seeded, let’s face it, it’ll be a procession for the leading nations. It comes back to jeopardy, the best teams from the most powerful and rich nations are looked after.

In any article examining new formats, it’s impossible to ignore The Hundred, which debuted this summer, amidst both fanfare and scepticism. Most of the industry write ups about the tournament have been overwhelmingly positive. Full grounds, great TV figures and a massive shot in the arm for the women’s game. Quite how many of these things are down to the format is, in my opinion, up for debate. Would a rejuvenated T20 tournament have done the same thing? Is the bulk of the short term success down to the extensive free to air broadcast coverage. I’d argue yes. Administrators are quick to point out that attention spans are getting shorter, but so is the longevity of trends (Wealdstone Raider anyone?*) So it’ll be interesting to see whether the South West Doritos and the Northern Hula Hoops have the same appeal in ten years time.

The real tangible benefit that The Hundred has provided is the increase in the profile of women’s cricket. Something that Rugby 12s claims to offer too. However, it begs the same question, is a new format needed to support women’s sport or is it actually about the investment?

The reason for this article is not to bash innovation. At all. I’m all for innovation that solves problems. Cricket has done this in the last twenty years with T20 and with technology. Both of which addressed real problems. Innovation should not be about creating new formats for the sake of it but used to address the issues that a particular sport has.

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