Ancient gasworks, loss of face, TV executives, French rugby-club owners, mayors and presidents, committee members, corporate hospitality, local authorities, government grants, presidential elections, freezing temperatures, naked power, money and oh yes, we nearly forgot … rugby supporters.
Somewhere within the mix of all these factors lies the true story about why and how a rugby match in Paris came to be cancelled in the presence of 82,000 spectators awaiting the contest [including the French President Nicolas Sarkozy] in temperature below -7C and in front of a TV audience said to number more than 80m in 23 different countries across the world.
Now the Mole cannot claim to have the absolute scoop on this conspiracy/fiasco/story, but the researchers in Mole Towers have tried to piece together most of the rumours and facts to see what emerges. And it certainly is a picture of intrigue!
Let’s deal firstly with what is undisputed. The France v Ireland Six Nations fixture was agreed in October 2010 and formally announced on 26th January 2011. So there were 55 weeks available to plan for all eventualities.
When the dates were originally negotiated by the Six Nations Committee in October 2010, the major spotlight focussed on the fact that the two-year experiment of playing the opening game of the Championship on a Friday night had been dropped. It’s fair to say that initially there was no major focus on the France v Ireland kick-off time. However, one or two comments arose on various websites in the aftermath of Ireland’s worst winter weather in 60 years which spanned November 2010 to late January 2011.
Dropping the Friday night start to the Six Nations was a blow to the TV companies across Europe. The free to air broadcasters, TF1 in France, BBC in Britain, RTE in Ireland and RAI in Italy all consider the 6 Nations to be one of the jewels of their sports calendars and a number have used their coverage of the event to try to force free-to-air coverage of the Heineken Cup through the political eye of the needle. Here in Ireland, Mole followers will remember the efforts of Minister Ryan in this regard.
However, the Committee men had their way and out went Friday night coverage. However, the specific reasons why it disappeared were never publicly disclosed.
However, the factors behind this decision had more to do with corporate hospitality than public convenience. The reality is that for every Six Nations game, the host Union makes a good profit on the ticket sales alone, but makes a giant profit on the corporate hospitality. It is now estimated that the most successful host Unions [England, France and Ireland] would expect that up to 5-7% of the supporters at each international, pay a price between €350 and £500 to enjoy their food, wine and match ticket experience. Whilst match tickets for Joe or Pierre Punter range from about €45-120, the corporate liggers pay multiples of this figure, or rather some corporate marketing budget meets this charge.
Friday night proved a very hard sell to the corporate market. Work, uncertain international travel, commuting, weather and variable kick-off times all contributed to the mix, coupled with the fact that increasingly for the Anglo Saxon market, Six Nations Corporate Hospitality had become one of the few “mixed” events on the sporting circuit. Rugby had become sexy enough for wives or partners to want to attend Paris, London, Rome, Edinburgh or even Cardiff. The corporate market did not like Friday night hospitality and voted with their feet. So decision made, scrap Friday nights.
However, the cost was increased emphasis on Sunday games and a greater distribution of the fixtures throughout Saturday, including a TV scheduler’s desire for later kick-offs on Saturday night so as to spread the advertisers interest across as many hours of broadcasting as possible.
So Fact No1, the fixture list was confirmed 55 weeks ago.
Fact No2 is that the weather forecast for Paris for Saturday 10th February 2012 was unchanged in the previous 10 days. Paris was caught at the westerly edge of a major weather event which had been largely stationary over the continent of Europe for two weeks. Snow and frost had spread from Siberia to Biarritz with temperatures ranging from -35C to -7C in the French capital. Rome, which hosted a Six Nations game also on Saturday 10th February, had 10 cm of snow on the morning of the game and the pitch at Stade de France had been frozen for more than a week. Players and journalist alike confirmed this during the week preceding the match and the stadium officials announced on Wednesday that no “Captain’s run” would be possible on the day before the day.
Fact No3 was confirmed even longer ago. Almost 20 years ago in fact, when following the announcement that France would host the FIFA World Cup of 1998, the French Government took the decision to construct its first national stadium in almost 60 years. The decision to site the stadium was political and was intended to develop the working class suburbs in the Plaine Saint-Denis, which straddle the communes of Saint-Denis, Aubervilliers, and Saint-Ouen. The stated goal was “to renovate the area by building new residential and tertiary sites”.
Now, depending on your knowledge of French political life, you will/will not be surprised to learn that the key driver for the creation of this French architectural wonder and its location at Saint Denis was Jacques Chirac. Chirac was Mayor of Paris from 1977 until 1995 and thereafter President of France for 12 years until 2007. Six months after the 30 month construction project commenced under partners, Bouygues, Dumez, and SGE, it was acknowledged that no under-soil heated had been possible, because of the previous existence of gas-works on the chosen site and the possibility of explosion, if suspected pockets of methane gas were artificially heated.
At this point, the Mole will do no more than point out that on 15 December 2011, a Paris Court, after an investigation which spanned almost a decade, declared Chirac guilty over a period of 20 years of diverting public funds and abusing public confidence, and gave Chirac a two-year suspended prison sentence.
So, Stade de France cannot and does not have under-soil heating.
Stade de France is owned municipally i.e. by the Local Council, as is the way with most sports facilities in France. Most of the time, this is a good thing for French sports. They do not have to fund the construction of costly infrastructure. However for the Federation France de Rugby, this is a major drawback. Not only do they have to hire the Stade de France for major fixtures and carefully judge when it is available for hire, but they do not have control over the corporate hospitality within the Stadium.
Last Saturday night, it is estimated that the FFR contracted to cater for more than 4,500 corporate guests in massive marquees adjacent to Stade de France. They also contracted for normal fare of beverages and nosh for the other 75,000 spectators. To do so, it was estimated that they entered into food and drink contracts various valued at between €2m and €4m. Almost all of these materials were on site by close of business on Friday.
So Fact No4, canceling the game at any time after last Thursday afternoon, would have left the FFR with an unused stadium, which they had paid rented, and an awful lot of unconsumed food and drink.
The FFR has been lobbying Government for more than three years for its own Paris rugby stadium. The world renowned sports daily, L’Equipe, confirmed last Sunday than a design has been completed for the Stadium and three sites have been shortlisted for this venture. All that is now needed is Government approval and about €300m as a grant. What all sports administrators know is that the best time to get Government approval for such a project is before an election. Guess who was coming to dinner on Saturday night? You’ve got it in one. President Nicolas Sarkozy, the 23rd President of the French Republic.
And arrive he did, at about 8.30 pm local time, last Saturday night … just in time to meet the President and Comité of the FFR … and then be told that his journey from the Élysée Palace had been in vain. Now, is it any surprise that FFR President Pierre Camou threw a complete wobbly when he spoke at the after-no-match dinner? Apparently, Camou blamed everybody in the room, in the Six Nations, in the IRB, in the Referees Pavilion, everybody – except the FFR.
Camou was furious. With French football still suffering the ignominy of their disgrace and internal disputes at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, rugby is best in class among French national sports at the moment, following their heroic defeat in RWC 2011. Camou had been led to believe that Sarkozy would kick-off his Presidential re-election campaign by announcing the Government’s agreement to commence work on a new home for French Rugby – in fact he did so three nights later on French TV. Quel domage!
So although Mole cannot confirm this as Fact No5, it was a very strong rumour on Friday night in Paris and L’Equipe ran it as a page 2 story on Sunday morning.
And then we come to the long-standing battle war between the FFR and the LNR, the French League organisation of the rugby clubs, all but three of which are privately owned by wealthy individuals and each of which carry immense influence and huge support within French Rugby. The LNR run the Top 14 league, probably the strongest season-long league of rugby in the world and a generator of major moola – not least though its weekly TV coverage by Canal +, a very successful privately owned TV station in France. The broadcast fee for the Top 14 is reputed to be as large annually as the 6 Nations contract but the crucial difference is that this is shared between 14 clubs and not 6 international rugby federations.
However, the problem for the LNR is that, particularly in a World Cup year, there are not enough weekends to play their series of 26 regular season games and their three weekends of play-offs. In their view there are too many international games which both take their players and also their television audiences.
In addition, unless timing of fixtures is very carefully managed international rugby can also take their corporate hospitality market, which on any given weekend is estimated to add up to 12% to a Top 14 club’s revenues. So on Saturday 10th February, a full fixture list was possible and profitable for the Top 14 Clubs only if the scheduled international game proceeded at 9 pm local time.
With a mid-afternoon kick-off Canal+ could invoke their contractual broadcasting rights and cancel coverage of some games in face of competition from the International Fixture on TF1. Such a cancellation would cut into the income to Top 14 Clubs, who would also be hit by loss of corporate hospitality revenue at their own lucrative fixtures.
So Fact No6, the LNR members of the FFR Comité wanted to see France play and beat Ireland on Saturday, but only from 9 pm onwards and definitely not in mid-afternoon Saturday.