Big Read: Murray Bolton back in the rugby business

Murray Bolton is back in the rugby business, but in a surprising location: New York.

And the rich lister – worth something north of half a billion dollars, based on his stake in a transaction payments company alone – has also revealed his contacts with US private equity giant Silver Lake Partners, and how he thinks it could benefit NZ Rugby if it does buy into the union in a mooted $465 million deal.

The 72-year-old Auckland entrepreneur – best known to the general public from his time as 40 per cent owner of the Auckland Blues – has taken full control of Rugby United New York (RUNY) after buying a 40 per cent stake early last year.

RUNY is one of 12 franchises in Major League Rugby, which was established as America’s first professional rugby competition in 2018. The league had its second season in 2019 before all matches were cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The New York franchise was founded by James Kennedy and John Layfield – “The former a fast-talking Irishman who made his money in construction, the latter a WWE champion turned Fox Business analyst and rugby union evangelist,” according to a Guardian profile.

In January this year, Bolton bought out both to take 100 per cent control of RUNY which, like the MLR as a whole, had been left reeling by the virus.

He also bolstered the team by signing ex-Crusader and former All Black halfback Andy Ellis – who joins a couple of other New Zealanders at RUNY: Dan Hollinshead (25), the Bay of Plenty fly-half who briefly made the Highlanders in 2019, and another new signing for 2021: loose-forward Kara Pryor (29), who played for the Blues between 2016 and 2018, and for the Sunwolves in 2019.

And Bolton drafted in Sports Cafe alumnus Ric Salizzo as a consultant. Bolton was already aware the broadcaster had moved from Auckland to Austin, Texas, where he was researching how American football clubs use apps to boost fan engagement, while coaching a local high school rugby team on the side.

Bolton won’t put a figure on the deal, but says base costs for setting up a new Major League Rugby franchise – including an MLR licence, team and stadium expenses and commitments to developing youth rugby in the area – run to about US$25 million ($33m).

That’s a fair stack of change by NZ sporting standards, but peanuts next to the US$1b or so David Beckham spent on new Major League Soccer franchise inter-Miami, which in turn is a drop in the bucket by baseball and American football standards. On March 18, the NFL (National Football League) signed a new broadcast deal with CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Amazon collectively worth about US$110b over 11 years, nearly doubling the value of its previous contracts. That stupendous sum reflects both the scale of the US market and the value of live sports as one of the few appointment-viewing events left in a broadcast world increasingly dominated by on-demand content.

Bolton is under no illusions that new RUNY signing Ellis will be a household name in the US, or that the club will be an immediate money-spinner.

“It will be 20 or 30 years before it reaches significant value, if it ever does,” he says.

Still, things are stirring in the US – where even back in 2014, the All Blacks managed to attract 62,000 fans when they played the USA Eagles at Soldier Field in Chicago, and the Las Vegas Sevens has attracted as many as 80,000 fans over three days.

While it’s off a low base, rugby is said to be the fastest-growing sport in the US, with the number of registered players jumping from 30,000 to 110,000 over the past decade.

And it was not remarkable that Salizzo’s local school in Austin had a rugby team, competing in a city-wide competition. Some 50,000 players are registered at high school level.

“There is a passionate American fanbase,” says Salizzo. “It’s not just expats. America has its own rugby culture and it’s really impressive. American fans are just as passionate as fans in any other country.” RUNY’s very first game featured an annual cops v firefighters rugby game as its curtain-raiser.

While Bolton found little or no interest in rugby during his first spell in the US – dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles between 1980 and 1988 – RUNY can draw on some 280 clubs in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut).

His son Guy Bolton played rugby for the nearby University of Scranton in the 1990s as the local scene started to develop – and is chairman of RUNY and an MLR board member today.

Major League Rugby has nationwide coverage deals with CBS, Fox and ESPN+ for certain games.

There are also various local TV deals. RUNY, for example, has games screened on MSG (Madison Square Gardens) Network – a sports specialist that’s a pay-TV minnow by US national standards but still boasts some 6 million subscribers in its home state, tuning in for games featuring the New York Knicks (basketball), the New York Rangers (ice hockey), the New York Giants (American football) and now Rugby United New York.

MSG is in turn owned by Madison Square Garden Sports – which also controls the iconic venue of the same name and the high-profile teams who play there. MSG Sports’ has two shareholders: cable TV magnate Charles Dolan and Silver Lake.

Read More

  • Silver Lake: Why a crew of tech geeks created a sports empire
  • NZ Rugby takes stake in new headphones sponsor Nura

And this week, Major League Rugby launched a new streaming service, The Rugby Network, in collaboration with global streaming player RugbyPass, owned by NZ’s Sky TV since 2019. The free-to-join service will feature every MLS game, as well as analysis, documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage. Salizzo says the new one-stop-shop streaming service will be appreciated by rugby fans in the US, where many games are broadcast or streamed, but via such a patchwork of broadcasters that locating coverage of any given game can be a brain-bender.

The Rugby Network says 1.3 million people participate in rugby at some level in the US, with 8.8 million fans.

The 2021 season kicks off this weekend, with 12 teams. Salizzo doesn’t want to take a punt on possible crowd numbers, but Bolton is blunt: “It will be hard to get bums on seats after Covid.”

The sorts of grounds involved reflect an emerging sport.

RUNY’s adopted stadium, MCU Park – a multipurpose venue also used for minor league baseball – can seat up to 7000.

The Seattle Seawolves won their second MLR title in 2019, beating the San Diego Legion  in front of a sold-out crowd of 6000 at San Diego’s Torero Stadium.

“There’s a growing audience,” Bolton says. “And a hell of a lot of foreigners live in New York, British, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders.”

And Salizzo detects a growing buzz. Kiwi basketballer Sean Marks has dropped by RUNY several times to encourage the team, he says. And when the Herald calls, the consultant has just been wrangling a New York Times photographer who is following the team for a season.

The MLR – like Major League Soccer in the US – is peppered with big-name imports, but also those at the tail-end of their careers. Ellis, who just turned 37, retired from the Crusaders in 2016 and comes to RUNY from Japan’s Kobelco Steelers. Many Kiwis would have last sighted RUNY fullback Ben Foden (35) during his 2011 World Cup appearances for England.

French international Mathieu Bastareaud was a relative spring chicken when he signed for RUNY last year, aged 30, on a loan deal from Toulon. The New York Times reported that Bastareaud’s agent initiated the deal for the player, who simply wanted to expand his horizons and “discover New York”.

Overall, RUNY’s 32-man squad includes 14 locals, with the balance made up of Argentinean, Irish, Pasifika and Australasian players. MLR teams are allowed to field up to 10 overseas players per match.

Not all the players are full-time professionals, and they don’t get paid Tom Brady-level wages – but nor is it a pittance. A New York Times report said the average RUNY player was paid between US$20,000 and US$35,000 ($26,000 to $46,000) for the four-and-a-half-month MLR season. Foreign players earn more. Ellis is expected to also have a role developing the club’s training programme.

Rugby has always loomed large in Bolton’s life.

In 1976, as Citibank executive, he was set to Mexico City.

He formed a rugby team based around his colleagues and joined a small league of expat teams, two of them made up of Argentinians, one French, one British and his.

“I loved working in Mexico. It was a very interesting time in the late 70s, with a lot going on with oil.” The country enjoyed an oil boom from 1977 until a crash in 1981.

After working for Citi in the US during the 1980s, Bolton briefly headed Brierley Investments’ NZ operation in the early 90s before leading a highly-leveraged buyout of Skellerup Group – formed in 1993 from some 20 subsidiaries – which would founder as three of its largest assets, DML Resources, Levene & Co and Palmers Gardenworld went into receivership in the late 1990s after $40m was injected into an ultimately unsuccessful restructure. A group of creditors, owed more than $6m, put the company into liquidation in June 2000.

A string of ventures followed as Bolton went out on his own, from buying Corporate Cabs (which he still owns today) to backing Transaction Services Group (TSG) – a low-profile but lucrative payment solutions provider.

Today, on the back of US private equity firm Advent International buying into TSG, which it is merging with US payments outfit Clearent, Bolton’s TSG stake is worth some $494m.

Advent is rebranding the merged company as Xplor Technologies. A Nasdaq or New York Stock Exchange listing would seem the natural next step as the private equity company looks to maximise its return. As the second-largest shareholder after Advent itself, is Bolton looking forward to that ride? All he’ll say is that for now, he’s concentrating on the mechanics of the merger.

Silver Lake skills needed

Bolton’s travels in the world of US private equity have seen him rub shoulders with many of Advent’s peers, from KKR to Silver Lake. The latter – which has some US$180b under management, including stakes in the UFC competition, English Premier League leaders Manchester City and, through its aforementioned stake in Madison Square Garden Sports,the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers.

“I know Silver Lake pretty well and I’ve been to meetings in their offices in Palo Alto a few times,” Bolton says, noting his drop-ins were not sports-related (although it has spent more than US$5b on sports franchises, Silver Lake, formed in 1999, is best known for its tech sector investments).

Silver Lake is now said to be angling for a 15 per cent stake in New Zealand Rugby, in a deal that values the NZ body at about US$3b, meaning it would have to stump up about $465m for its holding.

Bolton says he understands the deal has reached a due diligence phase, although he stresses he’s only going by “what I’ve heard around the traps”.

If the deal does come off, it will be a very good thing for the All Blacks – and for provincial rugby, if it gets a share of the spoils.

Bolton says he has a lot of respect for NZR chairman Brent Impey as a businessman but, when he looks at the rest of the union, “we’ve got a group of people running an asset of $3 billion who, bless their hearts, are mostly rugby administrators.”

He is hoping for a “corporatised” arrangement whereby Silver Lake – or a company like it – will take care of nurturing the All Blacks’ global brand, and negotiating broadcast rights deals, while NZR staff take care of the day-to-day running of the game.

If Silver Lake does come in, Bolton expects the US giant to exercise influence well beyond its 15 per cent ownership. “They’re not passive,” he says.

Silver Lake would be disruptive, but that’s very much in keeping with Bolton’s modus operandi. Last year, his investment vehicle, Bolton Equities, put A$33m into Verteva, an Australian startup – now known as Nano – that is about to launch a platform for quick, paperless mortgage applications. Nano plans to expand into New Zealand this year.

2020 also saw Bolton Equities pay $10m for a one-third stake in Izon Science, a Christchurch-based company regarded as a world leader in isolating particles in the nano size range, which are then studied for their role in a range of health conditions and major diseases. Izon has seen heightened interest in its services since Covid hit.

Then there’s the big money that Bolton Equities has spent on big cats.

Bolton was a fan of the hit reality show The Lion Man – a Kiwi precursor to Netflix’s hit Tiger King, which had the planet luridly enthralled during the first lockdown.

The series, which first aired in 2004, starred Craig Busch, the larger-than-life owner of Zion Wildlife Gardens who wasn’t shy of a bit of rough and tumble with his lions and tigers.

“My wife at the time [Robyn] was very much in love the animals,” Bolton says. “So we used to go and visit the place quite a lot that we got to know Craig. He’s … well let’s just say he’s a chip off the old block. Did you watch Tiger King? He’s exactly like the rest of them.”

As with Tiger King protagonist Joe Exotic, Busch’s fortunes unravelled. His partner Karen Greybrook — who also starred in The Lion Man — suffered a cut to her head, fractured vertebrae and bruising in an altercation after Busch found her in bed with another couple.

The incident and its aftermath unleashed a chain of events from which Busch and the big-cat park never publicly recovered. Craig Busch’s mother Patricia temporarily bailed out the park before falling into an acrimonious legal dispute with her son.

In 2009, Zion keeper Dalu Mncube was mauled to death while cleaning out a tiger enclosure.

The park limped on until 2014, when the Ministry for Primary Industries alleged animal abuse and demanded it be closed to tours. Bolton Equities bought Zion from Busch the same year and re-named it the Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary. Busch went into self-imposed exile in South Africa.

“We bailed Craig out to keep it running. We’ve spent millions, millions on that thing,” Bolton says.

“It’s been a long, tortuous journey. If I’d known what the journey would be, I would never have done it. And I could do that right now.”

Bolton says Kamo now has 20 big cats: 15 adult lions, one cheetah, 3 Bengal tigers and one leopard. Many are featured on its website, along with more than a dozen staff, and cages that have been fully rebuilt, along with new open-air areas for the animals.

People can now register interest for tickets to the park’s reopening, but Bolton can’t say when that will be. Kamo is still waiting for MPI to sign off on its upgraded facilities.

Bolton’s other purchases include Mollies, the upmarket boutique hotel in central Auckland, which he picked up for $10.9m in 2016 and turned into a private home. During its time as luxury lodgings, it housed everyone from U2 to Beyonce and Jay-Z to Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who needed somewhere to recuperate from surgery after falling out of a tree in Fiji in 2006.

Then there’s Corporate Cabs, the high-end taxi company that Bolton bought from Mark Hotchin in 2000 for an undisclosed price.

Bolton still owns Corporate Cabs, albeit in a very different landscape.

Asked about the impact of ride-sharing, he says “Covid has been the biggest issue for Corporate Cabs. Going in and out of levels really hurts.

“Uber is not really an issue as our customers go for comfort and security.”

The new ventures keep on coming. Last year Bolton was behind the creation of Black Spoke Pro Cycling, a professional cycling team and academy designed as a stepping stone for young cyclists looking to break into the European circuit.

But in 2021, the entrepreneur can also afford to be more big-picture, while a team at Bolton Equities, led by CEO Chris Dineen (an ex-Westpac Institutional Bank director) “take care of the legwork”.

He met the Herald in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet. “I don’t wear suits anymore,” he says.

Source: Read Full Article