The Mitre 10 Cup, not that many would know, is coming to the business end of things.

It wasn't that long ago that most of the rugby following fraternity would know who was heading towards making the last four and not that long ago when stadiums would be more than half full for knock-out games.

But it's all so different now. The Mitre 10 Cup plays out to a sea of empty seats and a media landscape that can no longer devote resources to covering it.

How hard and far this once great competition has fallen is as surprising as it is sad.

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And yet in the greatest contradiction of all, it is the Mitre 10 Cup that holds the key in the ensuing battle to win the next All Blacks and Super Rugby broadcast rights.

It is the Mitre 10 Cup that will perhaps prove to be the trump card in Sky's hand when the broadcaster attempts to fight off rival suitors hoping to snatch rights from them in 2021.

The Mitre 10 Cup is the most deceptively important competition in New Zealand. It may be clinging to the lowest rung of the ladder but it is not broken and nor can it be allowed to be broken.

New Zealand's conveyer belt of talent has to come from somewhere. All Blacks don't materialise out of nothing and while it is true that provincial rugby is less of a nursery than it once was, it is still a nursery.

An increasing number of young players spend just one season in provincial colours before they sweep through to Super Rugby and the All Blacks, but they still spend that one season in the Mitre Cup.

And besides, the likes of Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Rieko Ioane and Beauden Barrett who have only had a fleeting association with their respective provincial sides, are very much the exception rather than the norm.

It is more typical for players, even the best ones, to spend at least two or three seasons playing Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup before they have developed the necessary skills and strength and more importantly, understanding of the professional game to graduate
to the All Blacks.

What New Zealand Rugby is in no doubt about is that if the Mitre 10 collapsed, the All Blacks would soon topple, too.

And to ensure the Mitre 10 Cup doesn't collapse, it has to have the necessary investment to continue to operate as it is.

It has to continue to expose young players to professional environments and it has to continue to provide a meaningful and relatively lucrative means for more experienced Super Rugby players to fill in their time.

Here lies the problem though. The costs of running the Mitre 10 Cup are not discernably less than they were a decade ago.

The imposition of a salary cap has helped, as has squeezing the competition into a tighter window, while this year more teams have been travelling to games by bus rather than by plane.

But while costs may have been clipped rather than slashed, the situation is reversed on the revenue front and the overall financial picture may look relatively stable, but that's almost entirely due to the near $10 million cash injection each province received on the back of the British and Irish Lions tour.

It is not quite a house of cards but there is no doubt that it is critical for NZR to negotiate a good broadcast outcome for the Mitre 10 Cup in the next rights deal.

Hence the feeling that Sky is well-placed to win again, despite the increased competition from players with deeper pockets.

Amazon has been touted as a potential bidder for the next rights but the world's richest company won't have any interest in anything other than the All Blacks tests.

Spark, having secured the World Cup rights, is almost certainly going to be competing for content. But again, will it have any interest in provincial rugby?

It is not a glamour ticket. It is not an audience driver per se and it is expensive and logistically difficult for broadcasters to cover the Mitre 10 Cup.

Such an equation may not appeal to Spark who may like the idea of owning Super Rugby and All Blacks tests, but not be so keen on being lumbered with provincial rights.

Presumably NZR doesn't want to sell rights in component parts and risk being left with the Mitre 10 Cup unwanted or valued at next to nothing?

Sky, for all that it is portrayed as the Hanibal Lecter of the TV domain, has made an enormous commitment to film local sport and for 20-plus years has invested millions in the provincial game.

It has the infrastructure and expertise to cover the domestic game and the proven track record.

The Mitre 10 Cup needs to be loved and it is probable that only Sky will be willing and able to love it.