A little time has passed now since it was announced on the 11th of February 2020, that England Rugby controversially cut funds to the English Championship. The 40% reduction in funding has attracted vitriol from what appeared to be the entire rugby community – with the rugby Twitterati leading the charge. But with the professional game itself in financial peril around the world (not just domestically), was it ever realistic for the ruling body to sustain a league with a current average attendance of 1,604 per match?
A little over a week after the cuts were announced and ostensibly in response to media clamour surrounding the original announcement, England Rugby’s CEO, Bill Sweeney, announced a revised timeframe of 2 years to its Championship cuts. While this response was welcomed in some corners of the media, Sweeney’s move strikes me as a mere extension of notice period and a slightly better severance pay package; the outcome will be the same.
In a counter issued in The Rugby Paper, responding to an open letter shared by the Championship Clubs Committee expressing concerns at the cuts, Sweeney finally lifted the lid and shared his rationale behind the cuts. From which, a key point stood out in a piece otherwise devoid of empathy:
“I do need to go back to 2015 when the decision was taken to increase the funding by 100%. That was done basically against five principles that were put to our Board as to why we would increase it. The first element was to establish a financially sustainable second tier of the game. The average loss per club is £260k, so that one has not been achieved for whatever reason”.England Rugby CEO, Bill Sweeney.
Prior to this, it was also highlighted in England Rugby’s latest annual report that there had been a 7% reduction in investment across the professional game, and a 6% drop at community level, with accounts showing a decline to £100.5m and projected to fall to £95m in the next year.
Indeed, the situation could hardly be more dire and reached parody during the Rugby World Cup when it was revealed England winning the Webb Ellis trophy would have seen the ‘skint’ RFU pay players and management a £6m bonus, which in doing so could have quite easily brought the liquidators in.
Thus, and at the risk of sounding like a moronic, deliberately-contrarian Good Morning Britain presenter, could this in fact be the most modern thing the ‘Old Boys Club’ has done in recent years, a move to save the game from complete collapse?
In all seriousness, if the Premiership is ring-fenced and funding is redistributed upwards, that could be the catalyst and beginning of rugby and the Premiership being brought to the forefront of modern-day sport.
Increased salaries, improved facilities, and greater investor confidence with the threat of relegation removed. Such an injection of capital could boost professionalism, improve playing standards and eradicate the elements of amateurism that still exist at the top, charming as they might be. And, in essence, we could potentially see the dawn of a franchise league somewhat reminiscent of our North American sporting counterparts, who have seen excellent sporting and financial success through their system of involving both a national and develop league system (NBA & NBA G League, Major League Baseball & Minor League Baseball etc.).
Of course, the counter arguments are there: What about ambitious Championship clubs like the Cornish Pirates, Coventry and Ealing Trailfinders in this new ring-fenced league? What about the young players of competitive rugby who will miss out on a professional second tier league?
Yes, they are questions that need to be answered. Though, as a sport, rugby needs to move in a more sustainable direction because the trajectory that we were on was to oblivion. And while advocating for the cuts is certainly a painful position to adopt (especially as someone who valued their brief stint in the league during my former career), for a place that has proved itself highly successful in breeding stars of the future, to carry on as if nothing is wrong, would be fatal.
Just over 20 years after its move to professionalism, rugby is now a business at a crossroads, mismanage it and we could reverse some of the great strides that have already been made.
By Conor Dolan