There are many questions related to why New Zealand Rugby has bought back a
40 per cent stake in the Blues. None will be more pressing than whether it was a mistake for the national body to offer private equity the chance to invest in the club.
Murray Bolton put $5 million into the club five years ago, and now he's been bought out after the Blues have suffered the worst period in their history. There hasn't been a good year for the Blues since they welcomed private investment.
They have suffered one substandard season after another, and while for nearly all that period, blame has been mostly attributed to the coaching staff and, to a lesser extent, the players, the light has finally been shone into the boardroom.
And NZR didn't like what it saw. The governance situation at the Blues has been impractical and obstructive to good decision making. Bolton, with a 40 per cent investment, has had 50 per cent of the director roles. Rugby Holdings, an amalgamation of Auckland Rugby, North Harbour Rugby and Northland Rugby, has a 60 per cent shareholding but the same 50 per cent representation on the board. So a six-person board has two equal groups that can effectively leave everything at stalemate.
It reached the point this year when NZR decided it was untenable and that it needed to force change. The obvious solution was to persuade Bolton to sell his holding — which wasn't, by all accounts, an easy or smooth process. The licence runs through to 2020 and he wasn't keen to sell, but eventually came to realise there was no value to him holding his position when it clearly wasn't in the club's best interests.
So the answer to whether inviting private equity was the wrong move is no. It was the right thing to do but the execution was wrong. In hindsight, NZR wouldn't sell such a big stake to a single investor. If that seems curious given they sold a 60 per cent stake to Rugby Holdings, the difference, of course, is that is an amalgamation of interests.
The better question for NZR is what they plan to do with the stake they say they are holding on only an interim basis. Will they now break it into smaller parts and sell it in blocks or will they spit it in two, retain a stake and find someone to buy 20 per cent?
And will there be anyone or any group willing to buy or even able to find $5 million to pump into a rugby club that has so horribly lost its way in recent years?
Strangely, perhaps, the answer to whether there will be any willing investors is yes, as despite everything, the Blues represent good value.
Commercially, they are a strong proposition with sizeable membership, significant sponsors and potentially much higher ticket revenue.
If they can win more and play a consistently engaging brand of rugby, Eden Park will start to fill again and the revenue will flow. It's a big ground and a home quarter-final alone would probably add an extra $1 million or more of profit.
It might be a big risk to gamble on the Blues improving their performance but that's the key to all good investments — they carry a level of risk because it takes a combination of good judgement, boldness and gut feel to determine whether something is going to pay off or not.