Fri, 14 Oct 2016 12:39
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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jan de Koning spoke to Mpumalanga Rugby Union CEO Pieter Burger about the future of small unions in the professional era.

There are two very 'clear and obvious' (to use a refereeing term) examples that come to the fore in this article.

The one is a failed, now bankrupt, union and a successful outfit with a bright future.

The Eastern Province Kings have been declared bankrupt, after overspending for years without achieving any notable success - operating well beyond their means.

In contrast, there is the Pumas, who have become competitive despite working within a very limited budget.

Pieter Burger, a family man that loves life in the Lowveld and had his dreams of being a professional player shattered by an illegal tackle, is at the heart of the Pumas' drive to compete with the big chequebooks of cash-flush unions and teams abroad.

Burger, a well-travelled businessman with roots in the corporate world, said the financial climate since 2008 has taught him to be "very clever and creative" with his budget.

"We [the Pumas] are working on a sustainable financial model," he said of a union that has won the First Division (second tier provincial competition in South Africa) in 2005, 2009 and 2013, as well as the now defunct Vodacom Cup in 2015.

They did that despite having only a 10th of the budget of unions who have Super Rugby franchises.

Their 'winning formula' is simple.

"You simply must not spend more and write cheques that you can't cash," he told rugby365 in an in-depth interview about his life as a Chief Executive at a minor union.

Although Burger made no reference to the Eastern Province Kings, his remarks are the answer to anybody who wants to know why the Kings failed so miserably - both on and off the field.

"You must work with what [money] you have and be more astute with it [your budget]

"You can't work on a system where you just hand out [cash] and hope something comes off later," he added.

Burger described it as "incredibly tough" trying to be at a small union with limited funding - when compared to places like the Lions, Bulls, Sharks and Western Province.

"I run my professional team with only a 10th of the budget of what teams like Western Province and the Blues Bulls have," he told rugby365.

"With that budget, I have to compete with them on the field," he said, adding that he has to be "very creative" in the product that he presents.

Coming from the corporate world where he often ended up at companies that were 'charity' cases, he has learnt to be creative.

But most of all, he "loves the challenge" of battling the odds.

"The biggest commercial challenge [at the Pumas] is that I don't have an international stage or a franchise," he said, adding: "That limits your income streams.

"Your income comes from broadcast rights, your union's commercial rights - such as tickets sale, Test match hosting, advertising at the stadium and suit sales. Then, the third part of that is your sponsors.

"When the level of your competitions are restricted, it places a very low ceiling on the value of what you can ask and what you get in.

"I can't offer any Super Rugby, but I have [the occasional] Test and then Currie Cup matches."

He spoke of building the Pumas brand and establishing a culture.

"The Pumas are officially the youngest union in South Africa and we are relatively new in Nelspruit," he said of the union that made the crucial decision the move from Witbank to Nelspruit in 2012.

"We had to get the people and players to buy into the brand.

"Our value as a brand, when measured against the other South African unions, is the only one which increased with double figures over the last three years. The value of the brands of some of the big unions declined during the same period.

"We, the Pumas, must ensure that we - just like those who have a Super Rugby franchises - can also give good returns on the investment of a sponsor.

"Within the South African rugby context, we had to be competitive with the big unions and prove that it was not just a fluke and that we are growing.

"Also we have to show that if in the next cycle an opportunity arises to compete on an alternative [Super Rugby] stage - which we believe could happen - we will be ready, from day one, to run an effective and successful franchise both on and off the field."

He feels that what makes the Pumas so good is that they are clever with their finances and are boxing clever.

"Because we are in the entertainment industry, 80 percent of our costs are wages. We are good at identifying talent that was not good enough for the bigger unions and didn't get opportunities, can be employed here [in Nelspruit].

"We can unlock their potential and ensure they walk out here as better players and people.

"Hopefully they can achieve higher honours - such as Vincent Kock, Francois [Francois de Klerk, both who became Springboks], Giant [Lubabalo Mtyanda], Chris Cloete and Renaldo [Bothma, the Namibian captain].

"In a nutshell, that is what we do well and do different from other unions.

"We have to do it in a way that we can compete, on and off the field, with franchises that have much bigger resources than ourselves. If we do that and we eventually do get an opportunity in an alternative competition structure, it will significantly boost that [our income stream]."

Obviously being successful brings with it, its own problems.

At the Pumas there is a significant player turnover, because they can't compete with the big salaries on offer elsewhere.

"It is a double-edged sword. You become the victim of your own success.

"One of our goals is to develop players of an international standard, but once you invest in them over a few years the chance of losing them becomes so much greater - because you don't have that alternative platform [competition] to satisfy the player.

"Even a successful team like the Lions have that problem. Their top players now become the target of overseas teams. I lose my players to the Lions and they lose their players to the top European clubs.

"You simply can't compete with the [Rand-Euro] exchange rate. Some of the franchises do attempt to compete, but that is fatal. If you do that you can ruin yourself financially and it is simply not sustainable.

"The one way we counter that is by getting a group of players together who buy into the culture in what we want to achieve as a company and family. If a player buys into that dream, he doesn't just see the Pumas as a stepping stone for his career.

"Obviously you won't be successful with all the players, but the majority of our players have been signed up for the next two-and-a-half years. The fact that players want to be here is a contributing factor to our success.

"It [the high player turnover] is a problem at times, but by-and-large we succeed in retaining the core of the team, as well as the coaching staff - with selective editions of certain positions that will add value."

Burger said he always had a passion for rugby. He played at school and then studied sports management at the University of Pretoria.

"In a game [for Tukkies] there was a late and high tackle and I suffered a serious neck injury. The doctor told me that if I played one more game I must start looking for a fancy motorised wheelchair."

He remained an avid armchair specialist.

"I watched Test matches and supported my local team. I retained my passion for the game."

Burger, who was born in Van Der Bijl Park, matriculated at Nelspruit Hoërskool in 1996. He graduated from the University of Pretoria with a degree in Sports Management as well as an MBL degree through UNISA.

After his studies, he took a career move abroad and was a deputy head master in London (England) at a Parental Referral Unit for five years. He then moved back to Nelspruit to assist with a family business, but the big city lights called and he was head-hunted to be the training manager at the Reflective Learning College in Pretoria. During the Soccer World Cup of 2010, ProTours (Buscor) appointed him on a contract basis as Project Manager, where after he was given the permanent position as National Marketing and Sales manager of ProTours (Buscor).

"That is where I reconnected to rugby - we were doing the Pumas' transport.

"I was asked to serve on their council as an external director. I really enjoyed being involved in rugby again, even though it was in an administrative role. Over a period of three years, there were some major structural changes, which includes the move from Witbank to Nelspruit as the union and team's headquarters.

"I was asked if I would be interested [in becoming the CEO]. I was on a business trip in Singapore when the call came, asking me if I would accept the position of CEO of both the union [Mpumalanga Rugby Union] and the company [Mpumalanga Rugby (Pty) Ltd].

"It was a big decision to come back from my position abroad, and move to the Lowveld. I am not foreign to the Lowveld, as my parents have been living here for the last 30 years and I was at school here in Nelspruit. It was not about the [financial] reward, but more about the quality of life. I officially took up the position in January 2015."

As the CEO of a small union, he spends the proverbial 23-hour-per-day being involved in rugby. The other hour of the day he spends convincing his family he still loves them.

"Rugby doesn't keep hours," he said, adding: "But rugby is a passion for me and my family and they support me.

"That said, rugby is a very dynamic, fluid and difficult industry. You obviously don't work normal hours.

"When I am not involved in rugby, then my family is my passion. You have to have some balance in your personal life."

He is a big fan of the outdoor life - with fishing and hunting among his hobbies.

"I also exercise with the team at times and attempt to keep myself in shape. I certainly don't distance myself from the team.

"I am intimately involved in the team and put the interest of the players first."

By Jan de Koning