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New Zealand rugby stars resist Silicon Valley investor’s bid for All Blacks stake

New Zealand players perform the haka before a clash with South Africa in Wellington, New Zealand, in September 2018. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)
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SYDNEY — A plan by a U.S. private equity firm to take a stake in New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team has prompted strong pushback from star players, whose support is needed for the deal to go ahead.

New Zealand’s 26 provincial rugby unions voted unanimously in favor Thursday of the proposal to sell 12.5 percent of rugby’s commercial rights in the country to California-based Silver Lake Partners for about $281 million.

More than a half-dozen of the country’s top rugby players, including All Blacks captain Sam Cane, have threatened to block the deal, worried it could ruin the team’s relationship with fans. Rugby is close to a national religion in New Zealand, and media outlets ran live coverage of Thursday’s vote. Generations of New Zealanders have someone in their family who has played rugby.

“We believe there is a risk that this special bond and the nature of what rugby means to New Zealanders, players and spectators alike, is at risk in the proposed transaction,” the New Zealand Rugby Players Association wrote in a letter ahead of the vote.

The Super League crashed on takeoff. English soccer fans are taking credit.

Players also are concerned the deal could leave the Maori and Pacific culture associated with the team open to foreign exploitation, including the haka — the famous ceremonial dance the All Blacks perform before each game.

The debate over rugby’s future in New Zealand comes shortly after soccer fans in England helped to torpedo the proposed European Super League, which critics said was too commercial and too American in its outlook.

“In the week that we’ve seen greed try to take ownership of our national game via their European Super league, the #nzrfu seek to sell a [New Zealand] sporting treasure — absolute madness disguised as being in the best interests of the #kiwi grass roots rugby,” one England-based sports fan wrote on Twitter.

In 2019, Silver Lake — a Silicon Valley investor with a history of high-profile tech deals including Airbnb, Dell and Twitter — acquired a 10 percent stake in City Football Group, which owns English Premier League club Manchester City and soccer teams in the United States, Australia and China. Silver Lake didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment Thursday.

What virus? My excellent pandemic adventure in weirdly normal New Zealand.

Rugby has a far smaller fan base than soccer. Yet the All Blacks have managed to develop an indomitable reputation as the most successful rugby team of all time, with a win rate of close to 80 percent. The team held the No. 1 ranking for almost a decade and has won two of the past three Rugby World Cups.

Some worry the deal will damage that reputation if the All Blacks are forced to play inconsequential matches in a bid to get the game in front of new fans, including in the United States.

“I can see that diluting the brand and the aura around the All Blacks,” David Moffett, a former chief executive of New Zealand Rugby, told the country’s state broadcaster.

Proponents of the deal say it is necessary to inject money into the sport, especially at a grass-roots level to engage younger players and invest in the increasingly popular women’s game. New Zealand rugby was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, recording a loss last year.

“It’s been pretty obvious for a few years now that New Zealand rugby needs financial investment,” said Louisa Wall, a former women’s rugby player and now a government lawmaker. “To me, [the deal is] a no-brainer.”

The Super League crashed on takeoff. English soccer fans are taking credit.

What virus? My excellent pandemic adventure in weirdly normal New Zealand.

For New Zealand’s Maori people, touching this sacred tree is taboo. They let scientists climb to help save it.