Mixed Ownership in Sport: The Case of Super Rugby in New Zealand
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Research on the evolution of amateur sporting organisations into business entities, has used sport governance as an effective lens through which to examine change. These studies have illustrated the progress sport has made in the professionalisation of the governing function (Freeburn, 2010; Shilbury & Ferkins, 2011). Leadership, strategic thinking, board design and performance are some of the sport governance studies that demonstrate how sport organisations have dealt with the challenges of professionalism and commercialisation (Hoye & Doherty, 2011; O’Boyle, Shilbury, & Ferkins, 2019). This research seeks to contribute to the emerging body of knowledge on sport governance by studying a relatively novel form of ownership of sporting organisations. Whereas the 20th century was dominated by ‘amateur’ member equity holding exclusive ownership (Ferkins, Jogulu & Meiklejohn, 2013), the 21st century confirms the growth in ‘private’ equity ownership, as sport looks to meet increasing commercial demands though new ownership models and design. This study explores the changing ownership design of sport organisations using the 2011 decision of New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to allow partial private ownership of its Super Rugby entities. The two research questions that guided this study were: 1) What were the motivations material to investment in the mixed ownership model? and 2) What were the learnings from the investors’ experience? A constructivist and interpretive research paradigm (Mertens, 2005) led to the choice of a case study approach to research design, which also drew on phenomenological principles. Data were gathered by interviewing seven investors (private and member) in four of the Super Rugby entities in New Zealand: the Blues; Chiefs; Hurricanes and the Crusaders. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted, exploring the motivations and experiences of investors in a mixed ownership model; an ownership design rarely seen in sporting organisations to date. Document analysis also supported the interview process. The study was limited to the investors’ perspective on sport ownership. The research findings indicate that whilst investors share common motivations (e.g., commercial gain and keeping the game local), the investor experiences suggest that how these motivations are prioritised can cause tension around the ownership and governance table. As an overall outcome, this study has established the importance of ownership as a key topic within sport governance (specifically the need to unpack owner motivations/experiences in the context of changes to ownership). Ownership is an aspect of sport governance that has largely been overlooked by scholars to date. Through an understanding of NZR’s Super Rugby mixed ownership model (through the eyes of the investor), it is anticipated that this study will provide insight for other sporting organisations reviewing their governance and ownership options. In turn, this study can be used as a platform to guide future academic research into ownership design within the context of sport governance.