Premiership Rugby is once again considering the prospect of restructuring English rugby’s top tier into a 14-team championship (up from 12) and doing away with promotion and relegation.
Apparently, with one eye upon the stonking £5.1 billion television deal recently announced for football’s English Premier League, the club rugby power-that-be feel that by this route they too could not only radically increase their television revenue but (via the ditching of relegation) simultaneously rid themselves of financial uncertainty and allow them to plan and invest with a degree of security.
I don’t doubt that the commercial imperatives must seem attractive to the bulk of existing Premiership clubs, but those who regard themselves as traditionalists have severe misgivings at the prospect of those already at the top table effectively drawing the ladder up behind them in the quest to reach some sort of financial Promised Land.
Every time the proposal to do away with promotion and relegation in rugby’s Premiership has come up over the past fifteen years – as it does with depressing frequency – I have aligned myself with the traditionalist side of the argument, viz. that promotion and relegation is a fundamental part of British sporting life and would be dropped at huge peril.
I’m not sufficiently familiar with the innumerable hard-luck/heart-warming stories of football failure and success to quote any of them with confidence, but in English rugby you only have to look at the cases of Northampton Saints and Harlequins, who at different times were first relegated and then gained promotion before going on to win the Premiership title. Or indeed the Cinderella example of Exeter Chiefs, who (seemingly from nowhere) won promotion and are now vying for both Premiership play-off and European honours.
The other plank in the argument of those seeking to remove promotion and relegation from rugby’s Premiership is that – in the English/British context – rugby union, still less rugby league, is simply not popular enough to support more than one (okay, possibly two) professional leagues. By popular, of course, I actually mean ‘commercial’ in terms both of gate receipts and television money and/or sponsorship.
[My apologies in advance for not being more up to date with my figures, because those that follow are nearly four years old, albeit they are the most recent I can find after a brief online search.]
In the year to June 2011 only four Premiership rugby clubs posted operating profits (Northampton, Exeter, Gloucester and Leicester) and the league as a whole posted an operating loss of £16.2 million. Premiership finalists that season Saracens managed to accumulate a £5.6 million loss with their accounts revealing they spent a ridiculous 89.5% of their turnover on staff costs.
These results call to mind that famous occasion that Radio Five’s financial guru Bob Beckman told viewers to tune in on Monday next week because he was going to tell them how to make a small fortune in pig farming. The following week, when he reached that point, Beckham broadcast his golden rule on how to make a small fortune in pig farming “It’s simple, you start with a large fortune … and then you move into pig farming”.
Yes, the recurring clarion call for ring-fencing English rugby’s top tier is all to do with commercial self-interest and profit. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle. The clubs themselves might argue that – at its most fundamental, when all the high-minded rhetoric about competing with French clubs and ensuring a flow of English talent to the national squad is stripped away – it’s all about not going bust.
Or so they imply. But the sugar daddies who stick around and fund the Premiership clubs year after year are not going to walk away – well not whilst they sense there’s a decent chance of them winning a few arguments and thereby gaining themselves stella television money, which they’d regard as no more than their just reward after their often long-term and unfruitful support of their clubs up to this point.
Earlier in this piece I registered that I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the issue of promotion and relegation. In principle I still support the idea that some lowly team, given a large slice of good fortune on top of season after season of hard work, could one day reach the Premiership.
However, on this occasion I’m less strident and hard-line on the subject that I have been previously.
There just isn’t that much money sloshing around and/or readily available to English rugby union for the reasons already discussed. It seems to me that the absolutely key aspect in all of this is that of home grown (English) player development. Because of its physicality and the way things are going – players are getting bigger and fitter every season – rugby union is inevitably a short career, often curtailed by injury.
These days I’m more susceptible than I was to the thrust that – at the bottom line – the composition and structure of English rugby’s Premiership is less important that identifying and nurturing elite (not least international) talent.
It seems to me that, if this time the Premiership clubs do win the day and eventually discard promotion and relegation, the process of bringing kids with enough potential through to the full England will barely be affected. Why? Because the most talented kids will still gravitate to the Premiership clubs anyway – promotion and relegation or not.
Of course, I was and remain of the opinion that the English RFU missed a huge trick at the outset of official professional rugby in 1995 by not taking control of the players centrally and/or imposing a top flight franchise system (based upon geographical areas around the whole of England). By that failure – as happened in English football – the Premiership became virtually as powerful as the national governing body … and thereby always potentially out of its control. The trouble in 2015, two decades on, is that if you were re-building rugby as a professional game from scratch today, you wouldn’t start from here.
But that’s history. And another story altogether, of course …