If you posed the question, 'What will European Rugby look like in 2014?' very few would be able to answer with any degree of informed judgement, for the simple reason that the current Shareholder Agreement governing the structure of the Heineken Cup (HEC) comes to an end at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season.
Premiership Rugby are keen for the qualification criteria to be changed as part of a wider re-vamp, and to demonstrate the financial value of English and French Clubs. Their announcement of an exclusive four-year £152m deal with BT, pursuant to the serving of the formal two-year notice period to ERC to leave the accord, comes as no shock to the rugby world, yet the news has rocked European Rugby to its core.
Premiership Rugby (PRL), who have been on a noticeable recruitment drive in recent months, are under no illusions as to the drawbacks of the current competition and seem determined to gear themselves up for a heavyweight fight. With greater playing numbers than any other home union, and with more professional top flight teams, it's long been a bone of contention for the English and French clubs that they effectively eliminate each other during qualification, whilst the elite of other home unions, by comparison, get an armchair ride into the HEC.
Nigel Wray, Saracens' long-serving Chairman, a barometer of Premiership mood and a man noted for his persuasive abilities, is particularly vocal on this matter: "The Heineken Cup was set up by the Unions and fair play that they created it," he commented.
"There is no doubt that the English and French clubs contribute by miles the biggest part of the revenue and we don't get our just reward. That must be put right.
"The structure is clearly wrong in that we have to knock each other out to get into the tournament and all the other guys stroll in. And that's not right - we have to fight to get in and we provide most of the revenue. The terms have to be changed.
"I don't blame anybody in particular. If I was Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy - which is the majority and therefore out vote England and France - then I'd want to keep the situation as it is. That's perfectly normal. But from the point of view of England and France that doesn't make financial or rugby sense."
Food for thought indeed, and already the Pro12 Clubs have been vocal in their condemnation of PRL's actions, whilst ERC, the tournament delivery company, have been firing off missives of equal disdain, discrediting PRL's actions and suggesting that they are both contractually wrong and morally reprehensible.
Nevertheless, PRL are adamant that the competition is in dire need of a re-structure, and in particular, are keen to see the inclusion of the best of the 'emerging nations' such as Russia, Spain and Georgia. Sources close to PRL told Planet Rugby that, "The BT deal will provide the finance to create a framework of the new competition; one that is fair for all and allows the emerging nations to both develop and compete." If they are taken at their word, then their actions are understandable; if there are hidden agendas then these actions will come under huge scrutiny over the next few months as both ERC and PRL fight to determine the structure of European Rugby from 2014.
In the current structure, the Premiership and Top 14 are each guaranteed six clubs in the HEC, while Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy are allowed all of their teams bar one in the premier tournament. This is clearly an inequitable situation and one that PRL are keen to address.
PRL's thought process is to be more competitive, rather than nation specific. As we understand it, their proposal is to reduce to 20 clubs, have six teams each from the Premiership, Pro12 and Top 14, with two teams from the emerging nations making up the last two places. Yes, within that structure there is plenty of food for thought for Irish, Welsh and Scottish rugby, and those unions will be rightly vocal in their condemnation of the proposal. But when examined properly, one is forced to conclude that the revenue, playing and viewing numbers are far greater in both France and England, and therefore an adjustment in the format is well overdue.
Yes, PRL have ridden rough-shod over ERC, who, rather like the man who sold London Bridge to the Americans, have nothing to sell but have still granted exclusive rights to Sky post 2014! The simple truism is that post 2014 nothing exists, so any attempt to sell TV rights has a huge degree of speculation. PRL will claim that all they have done is uphold their own financial value and interests, whilst ERC will adopt a more left-wing stance of all the contributors getting an equal share, and denuding the individual value each union brings.
And what of BT? They're not fully sure yet of the scope of their purchase, nor their route to market. However a BT spokesperson has confirmed exclusively to Planet Rugby that, whilst exclusivity on the rights was essential, they consider this a very strategic move, to place TV content into their 'triple package' or '3-Pack' of telephone, broadband and TV, thus allowing them to compete with the likes of Virgin and Sky. They also confirmed their model will be a paid subscription channel rather than a matchday 'pay to view' scheme and assured us that potentially they will be opening up the content to other partners, refusing to rule out the possibility of terrestrial channels in those partnerships. ITV, we are assured, will continue their evening highlights package.
One of the greatest ironies of this deal is BT have effectively done to Sky what Sky did to the BBC 20 years ago - a classic case of the biter bit!
Whether or not this is a good move for the game is difficult to say; it all depends on your personal allegiance and agenda. One thing is for sure though - change is something that is needed from time to time and should, in the right situation, be embraced. The European competitions have been running for 14 years now and an overhaul is long overdue. Criticise the structure and proposals itself by all means, but it would be wrong to oppose or criticise this development on the basis of change alone.
By James While
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