Sharks boss Marco Masotti wants to turn the outfit into the “Liverpool of the rugby world”, alter its name to “Durban Sharks” and branch out into an American scene that seems ripe for growth.
But he acknowledges that there are obstacles, not the least the salary cap that exists in the popular South African game.
Masotti, head of the American-based MVM holdings that bought a controlling 51% share in the Sharks last year, spoke about his “cherished” attachment to the Sharks during a podcast with ringer.com, part of the SB Nation media group, at his base in New York, U.S., this week.
“One of the reasons I came to the Sharks is because Siya [Kolisi] loves the Liverpool soccer team.
“I think about when I was in Buenos Aires … watch Boca Juniors or River Plate play, and the talented kids now go and play in Europe. The Sharks, or the Stormers, can be a River Plate, a great, locally-supported franchise, a feeder of talent for the broader European market and then support the national team.
“Or, can we create a Liverpool in South Africa, now that we are playing in a European competition, and that’s the goal.
“And that’s what I was speaking to Siya about. And that’s going to take making some real investments, big players, big branding opportunities, getting lots of business people involved to do it.”
The 53-year-old financial lawyer has been living and working in America for three decades after growing up and studying in Durban, to which his Italian father had emigrated.
He clarified for the ringer.com’s Jim Hamilton:
It’s not Natal Sharks, it’s The Sharks … maybe the Durban Sharks one day. I think most sports teams identify with the town.
“You know, there’s the New York Giants … you know, part of your responsibility as a sports team is to be connected to a place, with a fan base, branding it with the place that it’s from. But right now it’s The Sharks.”
Adding “Durban” to the team’s name would also help to differentiate them from the Sale Sharks side in England, considering that global expansion is the way forward and branding will be even more important than ever in Masotti’s eyes.
He acknowledged that Covid-19 helped him grab a slice of the Sharks pie last year due to rugby franchises being very desperate for funding during the pandemic.
That followed an initial interest in the Stormers, but now he’s focusing on growth with the Sharks.
Rugby is a massive business, with a massive following. It has got something like 500 million fans in 88 countries and is the fastest growing sport in the United States.
“It is a great time to get in. If you are investing in a South African rugby franchise that is about to play in Europe (as he has done with the Sharks), you are effectively in a different type of labour market, with a massive talent pool, and it comes with European exposure. Well, that’s a great deal to me.
“I think the platform of rugby, the platform of the Sharks, where they are playing in Europe, the residual business around a sport, around rugby, around media, I think I will make a return on my investment and, hopefully, ride the wave of what I think is coming next for rugby.”
He said it would be a visionary move to get involved in American rugby because the staging of the World Cup there in 2031 will likely fast-track the growth of the sport there, similar to what the 1994 Fifa World Cup did for soccer in that rich land.
“Travelling with the Sharks, I have heard people say we need to get more business people involved in rugby, we need to change the global calendar, we need to grow the sport in places like America,” he said.
Change is hard. Rugby has old and traditional ways. That is great, but it does not mean we can’t build on that and create a product that is more engaging, especially for young people looking for new sports around the world.
But he admitted that the fact that the Stormers won the United Rugby Championship this year with known financial problems will likely affect his bid to get SA Rugby to increase the salary cap and assemble an even more talented squad than currently exists in Durban.
However, he does not appear the type to stop looking for ways to clear any obstacles to success.