Australians approach rugby’s Super League about stake purchase

The top flight of English rugby league has been approached about selling an equity stake to its Australian counterpart in a deal that would shake up the sport’s ownership.

Sky News has learnt that the Super League, which features clubs including Wigan Warriors, Catalans Dragons and Leeds Rhinos, has held talks in the last few days with Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) about a possible deal.

The talks, which are at a very early stage, are expected to continue next week, according to insiders.

Precise details of the terms envisaged by the NRL were unclear on Wednesday, although senior figures inside the sport said they expected the NRL to seek a controlling stake in the Super League if a deal is to proceed.

One observer put the value of a 50% stake in the Super League at approximately £75m.

Robert Elstone, the Super League’s chief executive, has discussed the idea with Andrew Abdo, his counterpart at the NRL, although sources cautioned that there was no guarantee that a formal offer would be made or any agreement reached.

Like many other professional sports, rugby league has found its finances stretched to breaking point by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rothschild, the investment bank, was asked by the Super League to identify an external investor more than a year ago, and has held discussions with a string of private equity firms and other financial investors.

The NRL’s approach marks an unusual development in the efforts to bolster sporting finances, with such cross-border investments extremely rare – particularly in a sport as prominent as rugby’s Super League.

Last month’s Grand Final between Wigan Warriors and St Helens was dramatically won by St Helens in the dying seconds.

The match was the final one in the penultimate season of a five-year broadcast deal between the Super League and Sky Sports, which shares the same parent company as Sky News.

Recent reports have suggested that Sky is close to agreeing a new TV rights contract worth more than £20m annually – a sharp reduction on the previous deal, but an agreement that would nevertheless deliver more than £60m to rugby league’s coffers during financially parlous times.

The Super League, whose multi-million pound title sponsorship is currently held by Betfred, also faces the potential predicament of a ban on sponsorship by betting companies floated by the government this week as part of a review of gambling legislation.

Betfred also sponsors the Championship, rugby league’s second tier.

Rugby league is due to receive £12m from a £300m government support package aimed at helping dozens of sports survive the winter period.

Under the current ownership structure, the 11 Super League clubs each holds one ordinary share in the Super League, while the Rugby Football League holds a “governing body share” with different rights.

Next week, the Conservative peer Lord Caine will chair a panel to determine the 12th club to contest next season’s Super League following a decision not to reinstate Toronto Wolfpack.

Further details of the NRL’s interest in the Super League, including the structure of a proposal, were unclear on Wednesday.

NRL clubs due to compete in the 2021 Telstra Premiership include Melbourne Storm, Newcastle Knights and Sydney Roosters.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced even some of the world’s richest sports leagues and governing bodies to turn to new sources of financing after being forced to endure months of performing without spectators in attendance.

In European football, the top flights in Germany and Italy are in talks with private equity firms about big capital injections, with numerous other governing bodies, leagues and clubs also looking to raise funds.

A spokesman for the Super League declined to comment, while the NRL could not be reached for comment.

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