New Zealand Rugby has private equity groups lining up to invest in the All Blacks, with the national body expected to soon decide whether it is willing to enter formal discussions.
The Herald understands that several investment consortiums have held exploratory talks with NZR to identify specific opportunities with the All Blacks, which are separate to any plans the various venture capitalists may have to try to buy a stake in the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby.
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NZR has long sought a means to unlock the true commercial worth of the All Blacks, whose brand recognition is in line with sporting giants Manchester United and Real Madrid but whose revenue is only a fraction of the numbers posted by those iconic clubs.
There's no sense yet that NZR will commit itself to working with a private equity group, although sources have said it would seem inevitable that developments elsewhere will push the national body towards trying to strike a deal.
World Rugby will meet this week and is expected to ratify a deal that will see global private equity group CVC Capital take a 15 per cent stake in the commercial rights of the Six Nations.
They already have major stakes in the English Premiership and Pro D14 and are one of several interested parties who are eagerly looking for opportunities to invest in Southern Hemisphere rugby.
Sanzaar is yet to reach agreement on whether it is ready to enter negotiations as like NZR, it has not fully assessed all the consequences of having an external shareholder.
But given the direction in which the Northern Hemisphere is heading and the multiple possibilities which exist in regard to how private equity could be utilised, NZR is expected in the next few months to make the historic decision to work with an outside investor.
They have also made clear in the preliminary findings of their major review of domestic rugby that generating new revenue is a major part of their overall strategy.
And what may sit top of their list is to explore the possibility of selling All Blacks digital content direct to the consumer in offshore markets.
For most of the professional era, sports bodies have targeted broadcast rights as their main source of income, but as technology has changed and viewing habits with it, digital rights now sit as the potentially more lucrative area to exploit.
NZR has long-toyed with the idea of owning its own streaming platform. An All Blacks-owned and operated digital offering, available globally to view tests and wider content about the team and its players, has the potential to dramatically change NZR's income flow.
But there are significant costs in building the technology and risks attached in protecting content and successfully marketing and distributing it – hence the attraction of private equity groups who have deep pockets and expertise.
NZR signed an improved broadcast deal with Sky TV late last year but it's believed that doesn't prevent them from creating additional means to generate digital revenue.
The National Basketball Association in the USA has broadcast contracts with several TV companies and yet also owns its own digital platform where fans from around the world can buy a global pass.
NZR could effectively do the same, where the All Blacks tests in July and November are broadcast by Sky TV and are also available digitally around the world on an NZR-owned platform.
A private investor could fund the upfront and ongoing costs and take a share of the generated subscription revenue.
NZR doesn't own the rights to the Rugby Championship - these are held by Sanzaar – but a major revamp of the international game to make the July and November tests more appealing continues to be discussed.
Having seen a 12-team global league proposal rejected last year, the major playing nations remain determined to build meaning into fixtures outside of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship.
NZR needs to be positioned so it can financially benefit from any changes to the test calendar.
A spokesperson for NZR confirmed that the national body is exploring all its commercial options but is not in formal talks with any party at this stage.