Friday, 11 October 2013

Levelling the Playing Field

Back in the summer of 1995 I remember being on the phone with Bill Bishop, the then President of the RFU. We were discussing the IRB announcement that the game will “go open” from the start of season 1995 and the RFU’s reaction to this announcement. Both Bill and I felt strongly the RFU needed to secure the services, under contract, of the leading players in the game. Where these guys played and how the domestic game would be structured was mostly irrelevant, simply secure the players and the rest would follow. We lost the argument and a yearlong moratorium was declared.

This was a hugely significant moment, one which has directed the game to this present point, it was a massive error of judgement on behalf of the RFU if they wished to maintain control. However it is where we are and now the game is faced with similar hugely significant decisions. The RFU power over the game since this time has been eroded year on year however even now they have the ability to make decisions which will shape the longer term future of the game.

So what are these challenges we face. Well the Champions Cup is one that is out there however this to some degree masks the underlying issues which affect the likes of Wasps and other clubs those without robust financial models. In 1995 the clubs were picked up by club owners who funded the move into professionalism. At that time the expectation was not to suddenly transform match attendances from the low thousands into tens of thousands and hence create effective income streams, that was never going to happen and will not happen now. No, the clubs possessed assets which in the early days could be sold off to recover the costs of assembling and maintaining the required playing squads in order to compete in the league. Many clubs got it wrong and went under some like Wasps got it right on the field and led the way however huge losses were incurred year on year. This over the longer term was and is simply unsustainable without a generous Club Owner. Wasps almost punch drunk from success on the field failed to focus on the longer term and are now paying the price. Quins for instance focussed on the longer term financial stability and although incurring relegation in the process of rebuilding were strong enough to bounce back up with a much more sustainable business model. Saracens despite Nigel Wray investing heavily into the club continued to fail on pitch and finally had to admit defeat and link with another business organisation to secure their future. This has worked well for Saracens and brings me to the key point. The Saracens business model is not available to all but it is a different model, shaped and moulded to fit into the English domestic game. Clubs such as Wasps need to look at different models too and more significantly the RFU needs to lead and encourage clubs to do so. Currently the equation is simple – those clubs with the greater resource will win the day, those without will lose. Tolerate this if you will, keep following the same model, but be prepared to lose unless the generous Club Owners keep coming along……I will not tolerate this position at least not without a fight. Clubs need to be able to stand on their own two feet and at the same time be competitive on the field.

Wasps dominated the English game on the field for many years, led the game. Many others followed Wasps and picked up on their best practice on the field. Many players from Wasps now occupy significant management and influential positions within the game. However now the heavily resourced clubs call the shots and quite understandably strive to increase their incomes and strengthen their longevity. What happened on the field many moons ago is of no significance now. There will be casualties, make no mistake, unless fairly radical action is taken which is led, sanctioned and championed by the RFU to level up the playing field that a Champions Cup will undoubtably disturb. If the RFU sit on their hands as they did in 1995 they themselves will continue to lose the power over players availability for the International Squads, their lifeblood. Imagine if 5 or 6 of the leading clubs became so financially powerful they could work independently from the RFU where that would leave the RFU.This is a scenario which could develop in time.

So it all boils down to the costs of running the squads. The more pressure on clubs to play more games to generate more revenue means greater costs. The current successful, and I use that word loosely, model demands a club owned stadium. That is the direction we are all being pushed and yes it works…just. Very similar to the Saracens model but on a smaller scale, that is fundamentally another business linked to and supporting the Rugby Club. It is reported that Exeter have something in the region of 2 million in the bank before the season kicks off. This is not from rugby attendance revenue but from corporate facility hire. Attendances do not dramatically increase overnight, the match day experience can always easily be improved when it is accepted most supporters do not come to just to watch the rugby they come for a day out, they want to be entertained. In Wasps case an owned stadium is on the agenda however this is some 3 years away, a long time. Equally as per Exeter, it will not be the match day attendance that solves the financial short falls. 

Where are the costs? Players salaries. An ever increasing need to play more games, simply increases squad size requirements so this in turn will continue to increase running costs. BT, the new boys on the block, are investing in the game and providing cash and a different approach. Apart from some cringe worthy bits here and there the overall philosophy to engage the fans more. This is a fundamental value of rugby and should be applauded. The RFU have the ability to guide the game along this same more inclusive path, currently we are heading for a complete separation with only 6 or 7 clubs likely to survive long term and flourish. That is be competitive. Already in the tournaments outside of Premiership matches clubs are simply turning up to fulfil the fixture with no intention to compete with a full squad.

Now I have absolutely no problem with looking over the garden fence and seeing that the grass is greener. I say well done and good luck to those clubs. However I do want to see Wasps remain at the top of the game and can only see this happening under the current model with the continued assistance of generous owners, from Chris Wright, Alan O’Connell, Steve Hayes to Derek Richardson the present day owner. We as a club are indebted to these individuals for the on the field achievements to date. However, we cannot expect an owner to come along to save the day at every crisis point The game has been professional for some 17 years now and stadiums take a long time to bring to fruition. Yes during those hugely successful playing years we too sat on our hands, we cannot continue with this King Canute strategy. By all means continue with plans for a new club owned stadium, but we must look and push at other options as well - another model.

So what is required? Well I have at various stages during my career at Wasps advocated creating formal links with another club, if you like a feeder club. This arrangement kind of exists now with Loan Clubs etc but nowhere near to the extent I am proposing. The RFU need to encourage and lead this. Formal links, an RFU approved contract needs to available whereby a Premiership or Championship Club (full time organisation) can link freely with Nat League Clubs to freely exchange players and resources. The complexities of the current registration system escalates costs to Clubs significantly. The rub would be the Nat League Partnership Club would need to forgo rights for promotion for the season the contract exists, many/most Nat League Clubs are already of this mind set and do not want to be promoted, simply because it will change the club and cannot be afforded. The option on offer would be to have the two clubs benefitting from total Dual Registration.

What difference would this make? Well from a playing perspective there would be no need for an A team structure, a second XV squad and indeed the Academy development pathways would be significantly improved. This would in turn reduce the requirement to maintain large squad numbers cutting costs dramatically. Remember currently with most Premiership Clubs some million pound plus is afforded to players who rarely play for the 1st teams in the Premiership. Championship and Nat League Clubs also struggle financially as they are faced with similar issues, their solution over the years has been to abandon 2ndXV’s. This should be redressed with development squads operating below the Nat League team, making a real connection between the full time and semi pro game sections.

Between the two clubs support resources outside of the playing squads could also be shared to any extent that was agreed. Coaching, Conditioning, Medical, Nutrition, Facility etc this would significantly reduce costs to both clubs. New Model RFC would not lose identity in fact any partnership would place them higher on the domestic scene and be likely to increase their profile, they would benefit with the inclusion of full time squad players. For the Premiership Club a large pool of players covering all playing positions would be available enabling them to compete with those that can afford to work and employ large squads of players full time. This partnership would not be compulsory, simply an option for Clubs (and Club Owners) in order to keep the playing field as level as possible and operate at lower cost. The playing field is currently becoming grossly uneven. Now as I say the RFU most likely could not care less about an uneven playing field as long as they get use of the leading players when they want them and that there are enough about. My point is without redressing the balance those leading players may sooner than expected not be available. As soon as clubs can operate without RFU financial support they will be off….make no mistake.

The side note to all this would be a stronger connection to the grassroots of the game which to me is a positive. Along the lines of the apparent BT strategy….get the fans involved, get inclusive, not too elite and separated. All the best practice aspects of the game would be easier transferred to the development groups. For a young player the development route would be simple and effective. You would end up with leaner and meaner Senior Squads with a slimmed down staffing support groups being supported by a limitless number of players who in turn would be supported by their own club staff and some full time professional staff.

I could go on and on regarding the details and potential benefits, however simply what is required is for the RFU to pick up the proposal, formalise the detail and implement with some haste. The reason this is not done now is simply the registrations restrictions which make it unrealistic. The Champions Cup will happen by some means or other the long term result of which will be to transfer more power to a few of the already financially stable and robust clubs. Professional Sport is business, Rugby is business and Professional Clubs will want, quite rightly, to grow their business. The ruling bodies will only have an effective part to play if real competition can be maintained within the sport. There is only so much money to go around, only so many stadiums that can be built hence real competition can only be maintained in the domestic game by looking at other options outside of the current seemingly successful models. I really do not mind some clubs having effective business models in place and a desire to drive forward. This can only be good. I just want an opportunity to compete on a level (ish) playing field in a truly sporting capacity based on the best team wins. To me simply having a bigger pot of money too buy the better players is not a sporting contest.

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