Silver Lake’s Deal for New Zealand All Blacks Stokes Players’ Concern

New Zealand Rugby’s ambitious plans to sell a slice of revenue to a private equity investor could be stymied by the nation’s leading players, who fear control of the iconic All Blacks brand may be lost.

Silver Lake Management LLC has pledged to invest NZ$387 million ($278 million) into the game by taking a 12.5% stake in a new entity that will own the commercial revenue from the All Blacks brand. Last week, the provincial unions that govern the game gave New Zealand Rugby officials clearance to finalize the Silver Lake deal. But it still needs the consent of the New Zealand Rugby Players Association, which has expressed grave concerns.

The All Blacks have been a dominant force in world rugby for decades, including winning the men’s Rugby World Cup three times, but the cost of running a professional sport in a nation of five million people has stretched the resources of New Zealand Rugby. Administrators are looking for a cash injection to help fund the game at grassroots and have turned to Silver Lake, which has $79 billion under management including in sports teams such as the New York Knicks basketball franchise.

The debate comes amid a backlash against the corporatization of sport, most recently shown last month when angry fans, politicians and soccer players scuppered plans to form a European Super League.

“We are at a critical juncture and need our players’ support if we are to make the most of the opportunity in front of us,” New Zealand Rugby Chairman Brent Impey said after the April 29 vote, which he described as a “transformational opportunity” for the game.

NZ Rugby posted a loss of NZ$34.6 million last year. With the Covid-19 pandemic gutting sports revenues worldwide, Silver Lake’s foray into New Zealand rugby could be a template for private investment in other national sports teams.

Veteran All Blacks player Dane Coles told local media last week that the players’ concerns are “not about the money.”

“It’s about leaving the game in the best hands, and having the future as bright as we can, and looking after everyone, and not selling a percentage of it,” Coles told Newshub. “It’s a big decision.”

The Association couldn’t be reached by phone and didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Players representatives met several times to thrash out an agreement before the unions voted, and more meetings are planned to resolve the impasse.

“The game has to change, and Silver Lake’s capital injection would allow us to re-imagine rugby and invest in the areas of the community game that need it most, particularly teenage and women’s rugby, and to create better and more engaging experiences for our fans,” Impey said. “The players are a critical part of this journey, but we have to look at what is right across all levels of the game, our whole eco-system. We hope the NZRPA will realize the significance of the opportunity in front of us and will continue to work toward an agreement in coming weeks.”

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