New Zealand Rugby backed a "revolutionary" plan to sell a stake in the famed All Blacks to US investors on Thursday, despite opposition from top players.
The NZR's provincial unions unanimously backed the deal with California-based Silver Lake Partners at its annual general meeting in Wellington, with chief executive Mark Robinson describing it as a one-off chance to reset the cash-strapped body's finances.
"We believe it is an exciting and truly transformational opportunity that can benefit the entire game for generations to come," he said.
But the proposal faces a potential veto from the Rugby Players Association -- which represents the sport's elite talent -- some of whom believe the soul of rugby's most storied national team is being sold.
Concerns around the deal have intensified in the wake of the European Super League fiasco, when Europe's top football clubs shelved a US-backed breakaway competition within days, after an outcry from fans and officials.
Under the deal, Silver Lake will pay $280 million for a 12.5 percent stake in New Zealand Rugby's commercial rights, and the right to negotiate merchandise and broadcast deals worldwide.
The focus for the Americans is the All Blacks, the three-time world champions recognised globally as rugby's most potent brand.
Robinson said the coronavirus pandemic hit NZR's already strained finances so hard that at one point the governing body's survival was at stake.
He told delegates from provincial unions "the future of the game is in your hands".
NZR chairman Brent Impey described the deal as "compelling" and said it represented "a revolutionary turning point for rugby".
"(It's) a unique opportunity for New Zealand Rugby to drive commercial revenues to... enable investment into the areas of most need," he said.
- 'Very clear message' -
Impey said he was disappointed the players' association opposed the deal but said the vote showed the wider rugby community supported it.
"You have sent a very, very clear message," he said.
Impey said the money would be used to help struggling provincial unions, develop the women's game and increase youth participation.
He also said technology investments facilitated by the deal would give NZR the ability "to access millions of fans around the world".
The state of NZR's coffers was underlined when financial results released at the AGM showed the organisation lost more than US$25 million in 2020.
But critics point to the European Super League debacle as evidence that mega-rich foreign owners often chase cash and care little about a sport's tradition and culture.
Former NZR chief executive David Moffett has warned Silver Lake, which boasts assets under management of US$79 billion, will squeeze all it can from the All Blacks brand.
He said that may involve the team playing "meaningless" exhibition matches in the United States to generate income from large crowds without providing a genuine sporting contest.
All Blacks fans reacted angrily to a shirt sponsorship deal with US insurance giant AIG in 2012, flooding the team's Facebook page with comments accusing NZR of disrespecting a jersey that until then had been largely commercial-free.
But in contrast with the fury vented by football fans recently, Kiwi rugby supporters have been largely silent about the private equity proposal, seemingly content to let the players' union spearhead opposition to the move.
Silver Lake, which started out as a technology investment vehicle, has moved into sport recently, taking a 10 percent stake 18 months ago in City Football Group, owners of English Premier League giants Manchester City.
City were among those willing to participate in the short-lived move by 12 top clubs in Europe to form the rebel Super League.
Silver Lake did not respond to a request for comment on the NZR deal.