Meet the ‘outsider’ with plans to revolutionize rugby in New Zealand

He doesn’t even work for NZ Rugby, but Justin Nelson might be key to deciding the future of the sport in this country.

Rugby doesn’t need to reinvent itself, but it might have to reimagine its place in the national consciousness.

The game created by players for players, which spent the vast bulk of its history as an amateur sport upholding amateur traditions, has to become far more fan savvy, says a man who has spent the latter part of his career re-engaging people with broken sports businesses.

Meet Justin Nelson, Sky Television’s newly minted head of commercial, a broad term for a broad role but one with some very pointed goals, including how to find a way of engaging a younger audience with sport.

And in New Zealand, sport is often just subtext for the ‘r’ word – rugby.

The 50-year-old Melburnian with a background in the AFL, V8s and basketball doesn’t leap off the page as rugby’s saviour, but pull up a chair and listen in – he’s got a few things to say in the national sport, starting with the vexing issue of Super Rugby.

The competition has been derided in recent years, the result of misguided expansion, bitter contraction, an exodus of South African teams and post-Covid arguments about who will run it.

Nelson believes the competition’s biggest issue is far more fundamental than where the clubs come from and who sits at the head of the table in board meetings.

“I come from an AFL background. AFL as a business is a monster and what it has done really well is build a 365 business. Super Rugby in this country is not a 365 business,” Nelson says. “Too many Super Rugby fans go into hibernation and the game allows them to.

“When you are trying to build tribalism and you have hibernation, you get passive fans rather than engaged fans. The AFL has done an incredible job of doubling the action off the field as soon as the action on the field stops.

“I say this with the absolute blunt honesty of being an outsider. I’m no rugby expert but I am a fan expert and at the moment Super Rugby has too many passive fans… because there’s not 365 content driving the sport.

“Too many Super Rugby fans go into hibernation – and the game allows them to.”

Part of the issue is that the competition lacks agency. New Zealand Rugby sees Super Rugby’s primary role as producing players for the All Blacks, which is their ATM machine. It’s an oft-cited comparison but it doesn’t make it any less true – the Premier League doesn’t exist in service to the England football team.

Nelson says if it was up to him he’d introduce a televised Super Rugby draft tomorrow. In the US, drafts for the big four sports are content-producing machines in themselves, but he wouldn’t stop at a draft.

He’d institute trade windows, have cameras follow Next Generation type camps. There’d be a more robust and complementary women’s competition and there’d be a world-class fantasy product (though he concedes rugby’s less codified statistics make this a little more difficult).

Sky is listening to him; it will be fascinating to see whether NZR and Players’ Association do too.

In many respects Sky Television and NZR’s fortunes are intertwined, even if the latter’s 5% equity stake in the pay-TV broadcaster has been diluted by subsequent share options.

Sky’s investment in the sport is existential. It is estimated that they pay around $90 million per year for rugby rights and although they have made some savings by outsourcing the outside broadcast to NEP, you can add another eight-figure sum annually in talent and production costs. They also recently bought Rugby Pass for $60m, though there has been talk of them trying to offload that to World Rugby.

It’s a huge investment that reflects the importance of rugby to Sky.

Part of Nelson’s role is to squeeze value out of the relationship. He’s coming in hot after transforming a National Basketball League that was on its knees into not only a commercially viable tournament, but one many consider the best-run league in the country; a league that is making good on the incredible participation base basketball has.

He did it by introducing a salary cap that has brought parity to the competition and by bringing Sky on not just as a broadcaster but as a commercial partner.

(Yes, for better or worse, the Resene Stripe, which in a more innocent age was known as the free-throw line, is his brainchild.)

“I didn’t want the broadcaster to be there just to switch the cameras on. They’re there with a commercial lens, in the trenches with the sport, building the sport for a commercial income. We wanted to increase the sustainability of every team in the men’s and women’s league by using that broadcast money.

“The money goes to the teams rather than the [NBL]. They don’t need to be banking dollars. What the dollars are needed for is to stimulate growth among the teams so they can all reach the salary cap, so they can play on a competitive field. Every team can now reach the salary cap and as a result the competitiveness of the league is at the highest it’s ever been.”

Nelson says sporting utopia is reached when every fan thinks their side has a chance of winning, but the challenge is to convince those who are used to unfettered success that dominance is bad for business.

“You can be a winning business without winning the title. If you build a winning business you’re building sustainability and a destination. You build a story and a solid future.

“That was the most important message I had to get across to the NBL teams when I arrived. Domination wasn’t good for business, it wasn’t good for commerciality, it wasn’t good for viewership or fans in the stands.”

Are you reading, Crusaders fans?

Justin Nelson during his time as general manager of the National Basketball League (Photo: Supplied)

Nelson is an easy interview subject. Ask a simple question, hit “record” and let him go. You can take the Australian out of Australia and all that…

A Melburnian from a broken home who left home and school at 14 to become a baker, Nelson was a father at 17 and a grandfather at 37 (he has six grandchildren).

His oldest child was born a daughter and is now his son, Ace.

Having a transgender child has been, he says tenderly, “a superb journey to be on as a parent – ​​one of the most satisfying learning experiences you can have as a human being”.

He fell into sports commentary by accident, having his arm twisted by his radio commentating mate to fill in for the color man one Saturday and finding himself on the books of the station by Monday.

He commentated more than 600 games of Aussie Rules and more than 300 national soccer league games before moving into sports administration, first with a V8 Supercars team and then as general manager of the Melbourne Boomers women’s basketball franchise.

“The Boomers are the longest running women’s sporting franchise in Australia, any sport. It was a completely busted business. Three hundred people at the games, a revenue of about $250,000. Over the next five years we ended up having an average of 3300 people per game, more than 3000 members and commercially we went from $250,000 to a $1.5 million business.

“Then the NZNBL opportunity was put in front of me at the end of 2018 and moved here in 2019. I had never been to the country before.”

If it’s possible, his mind works faster than his mouth. He’ll be talking about respecting the past but living in the future and you can tell he can’t wait to get that mantra out because he’s thought of what he wants to say next.

And what he says next might have purists doing a double-take.

“Players come and go, they’re commodities.”

OK, that’s a bit mischievous leaving that hanging there. While Nelson is good at delivering soundbites, this one requires context.

“Love them, but understand that they come and go. Coaches come and go. Fans can be with you for life. They’re the most important people in the sport. I’m fully invested in the fan. Fully.

“They can be with you from the moment they’re born to the moment they die. Players aren’t. Coaches aren’t. Sometimes even teams and franchises aren’t,” he says as a South Melbourne Swans fan, an AFL team that left Melbourne for Sydney when he was 11.” The fan is the one constant: if you treat them well, you engage and you immerse, you value their value, you will more often than not be a success.”

“Players come and go, they’re commodities.”

And this brings him to his pet project. Fan immersion as compared to fan engagement. It’s where he says traditional sports and sports broadcasters have to get to.

“Buying tickets to a game and sitting in the stands, or reading a story about a player, buying merchandise – they’re all levels of engagement.

“The next step in sports fandom is to take you and put you in the middle of the sport. For you to see and feel and be emotively immersed in what the players and coaches go through; to put you in the middle of the field as a viewer, rather than outside the boundary.

“You get to choose what jumper the team wears, what songs you hear at the ground that day, to choose who the player of the day is. To immerse you in the product. It’s the next level.”

He notes that young fans do not consume sport in the same way their parents and grandparents do, something the sports business needs to be aware of because they are the decision-makers of tomorrow. In some cases, he says, the younger fans don’t even care who wins and loses.

“They only care about that one big highlight in the game that they can share with their friends.”

He delivers this line at an interesting time in New Zealand’s sports history, when the All Blacks are struggling as badly as they ever have. If the comments section under stories is a barometer, people seem to care enough to be angry at the flagship team yet increasingly disengaged from the sport as a whole.

That’s part of Nelson’s letter. Sky needs people watching rugby, through thick and thin. The mistake we make, he says, aiming this barb at the media more than anything else, is to equate the fortunes of the All Blacks with the health of the game.

“We’ve got to stop telling people the game’s crap because it’s not. It’s got unbelievable fandom, it’s just passive, not tribal.”

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