Blues chief executive Andrew Hore has laid bare the financial crisis New Zealand rugby continues to confront amid the Covid-19 pandemic by confirming the Auckland franchise faced the dire prospect of insolvency during lockdown.
The Blues have savoured record crowds as fans flock to Eden Park through the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition in recent weeks. This Sunday's final-round match against the Crusaders is another sellout, with 43,236 supporters keen to celebrate the culmination of the captivating local format.
Across their four home games the Blues have sold 150,000 tickets, averaging 37,000, which is around double the average attendance last year.
That rush of revenue thanks to the forced creation of the New Zealand derby competition has effectively saved a franchise that was on the breadline when the country went into lockdown on March 25.
"It was scary leading into lockdown," Hore told the Herald on Monday as the Blues squad gathered in Britomart to re-purpose over 400 pairs of boots to be gifted to children.
Such was the state of their reserves, the Herald has been told the Blues would have been insolvent by July had crowds not be permitted to attend Super Rugby Aotearoa.
With Covid-19 largely under control, however, New Zealand was the first nation to resume domestic rugby after emerging from lockdown on April 27 which starved off the worst case scenario for the Blues and other franchises.
The dramatic financial turnaround is now expected to see the Blues to post a profit for the first time in six years. This situation directly affects New Zealand Rugby's bottom line, too, after the national body stepped in to take a 40 per cent stake in the Blues in 2018 after a number of disputes with then private owner Murray Bolton.
"Whether it would have folded could be classed as dramatic but it may have gone down into some form of hibernation," Hore said of his franchise.
"It's a relief. You understand that as the CEO you've got a responsibility to all of those families. Just like any boss or board you take those responsibilities very seriously.
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"The five franchises were all in precarious positions so getting this competition off the ground, as with so many companies and industry in New Zealand, was a godsend for us. We've been very lucky that we've been able to do it.
"We're really appreciative of the fact people took lockdown seriously because it's not just the players – it's everyone from the cleaner to the burger salesman, security right through to Patrick Tuipulotu. Jobs were on the line."
As the Super Rugby franchises re-negotiate their license agreements with New Zealand Rugby, Hore indicated there is a push to alter the Blues' revenue-sharing model.
"Everyone was facing the same dilemma, whether you had reserves or not. The profits we make are generally distributed through to the provinces and that's the same for many of the franchises. Now we're in a world where we've seen what can happen, does that change in the future? That's something that will be discussed.
"We're no different to any other business, we'll be asking those questions. We've still got question marks over next year so ensuring that if there are any profits made from this year then we've got to make sure we're prudent in how we use those reserves."
As for the future of the competition beyond this season, Hurricanes chief executive Avan Lee revealed to the Herald that two teams, one possibly being the Western Force, are willing to stay in New Zealand next year.
"There are I understand teams from elsewhere in the world who are prepared to base themselves in New Zealand for a competition should the borders stay closed," Lee said. "It's working through that over the next few weeks and hopefully we'll have something to look at."
Lee agrees with Chiefs counterpart Michael Collins who stated his preference for a competitive and compelling eight team competition which would leave room for three additional sides, one of which is expected to be a Pacific entry.
"Eight is the right number. You've got to think about player welfare. Eight teams is a pure home and away draw. That would be our preference. It just depends on where New Zealand and Australian Rugby land.
"I think having a sixth team in New Zealand, which is being discussed, has some fish hooks in terms of where do the players come from, who pays the players, and how that impacts the five Kiwi teams."
Lee also confirmed the touted cross-over regional competition involving the top two New Zealand, Australian, Japanese and South African teams playing off after their respective domestic leagues, remained firmly on the table.
"There's been some discussion about that very option. We've got an open mind. I don't think the current competition is sustainable but it has been a lifesaver this year so people aren't too unrealistic about why it had to happen."