Premiership: All options on the table as RFU CEO Bill Sweeney believes ‘less is more’ for England’s top-tier

James While

With Premiership Rugby in turmoil, RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney held a press conference to explain exactly what is next in the saga of English domestic rugby, James While reports.

How would you describe the current situation and where you find yourself?

“I would say that all of the possibilities (including central or joint contracts) are on the table because of what’s happened. This has created an opportunity – using those words in the circumstances doesn’t feel appropriate – but it is an opportunity to look at everything that has been knocking around for quite some time. This is the time to address that,” Sweeney said.

“There are certain phrases which are like nuclear buttons and the phrase central contracts tends to have that nuclear effect. I take your point in terms of the higher salaries for the elite players, the time they spend playing for England and the time they spend playing for their club. Is there a different way we can work with Premiership Rugby and work with the clubs in order to mitigate the expense they are facing on that side of things and have a better structure in place so we achieve greater financial stability for the clubs?

“We have met with the Professional Game Board and in terms of the 2023 World Cup, all those eventualities have been built in. We have an agreement that all those players will be available for England selection for 2023.

“Post-2023 World Cup and everything is on the table to look at. At the moment, we have that clause about exceptional circumstances on that. I’ve heard of a number of players saying they have intentions or would look at going abroad after the World Cup so we’ll have to address that. But the focus at the moment has been on the immediate situation for the 2023 World Cup and making sure we have full availability of players to be part of the England squad.’

“I wouldn’t single out player wages and that’s a very difficult and sensitive conversations for all the reasons that we know. They put in an incredible service to the game, so talking about that is difficult. But I do think there has to be a conversation around what is an appropriate level of overall cost.

“You look around the world at various sporting body models and you have collective bargaining agreements whereby the costs are set based on what is being generated in revenue. That means you get the balance right between the two.

“It’s quite simple; we are a game that has been spending more than we’ve been earning, therefore we have to find a way to address that balance. That’s the only way we will attract new investment into the game and the only way we will keep the current investors who have been funding it for a very long time.”

Why does the French system work better than the English system?

“Going back to 1996, the (French) government mandated that a third of that money had to go down to the second tier. Their deal is £100m a year, so you’re getting something similar to the Premiership broadcast revenue in Pro D2. They benefit hugely from the sheer size and the two-tier distribution of that.

“I’ve mentioned about average attendances being 1,200 in the Championship. In Pro D2 I think the average is 5,500. In many areas those games are played, rugby is the number one sport so there is a very vibrant, strong, loyal, large fan base driving that ticketing and revenue, so that is beneficial to them.

“We also know that many of the local municipalities provide the stadiums free of charge and there are tax beneficial conditions in players’ salaries that are different in France. They incentivise and offer tax benefits to professional athletes and rugby players so it is very difficult to offer a direct comparison between ourselves and the French because there are certain conditions over there which are uniquely different.

“I’d love to have some of those frankly. It’d be great to wave a magic wand and have the same system as the French, but we’re going to have to develop our own system that works for the English game, which means a format for the competition that has more commercial interest, that can attract more business partners into it and has a clear linkage and interaction with tier one.

“It’s always very tempting to compare ourselves to the French model but there are some significant differences. From a financial perspective, they have a broadcast deal which is three times that of the current Premiership deal.

What does a 10-team league say about the desire to rebuild Worcester Warriors or Wasps?

“I don’t think it affects the desire to reset and restart. If you talk to Steve Diamond, he’s very clear about his ability to reset the club, take that breathing space in the Championship, reset it properly, get some fundamental structures in place and then compete to come back up.

“And if you’re capable of beating the bottom team in the Premiership, you’ll go up. So it’s no different to the football scenario. And it’s not it’s not a ring fenced league. I don’t think it should be massively demotivating to those fans. I think they should look at this as a difficult period where you’re having to take some pain and restructure and reset to be able to come back better and stronger.

“I think I mentioned earlier on some things we can take from the French model. If you look at that independent audit body they have there, which is not beholden to the FFR. They see themselves very proudly as acting in the interests of Pro D2 and also Top 14.

“They say that no club has gone bust in those French leagues since 2012. I think it is the date they give. So if you have an independent audit body that has the right to ask the right questions, and you’d have our support for that body, you’d have PRL support for that body and you have DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) support for that body, then I believe that’s the mechanism to do it. And you would ask those questions prior to the start of the season.”

How important to use success of the women’s game and academies to really create a full package marketing campaign into the communities?

“It’s really important. A lot of emails I’ve received from fans have talked about what are you going to do to protect the community game here and the impact that my club has on my local community.

“In Worcester’s case, in conversations with the administrator, we’re looking to transfer the academy over to RFU ownership. There’s some legal issues we need to get through on that. But we would hope to be able to conclude that by the end of the month and we’d have the same conversation around Wasps. So protecting those pathways, having direct control over them, making sure those academies remain open is critical, and making sure that the community programmes exist, are maintained.

“That is a critical component to make sure that rugby within those region is still important.”

You mentioned “Less is more” – will it be hard to convince clubs of that?

“No, because it hasn’t really settled down yet. When you look at centrally distributed revenues, when you look at costs aligned with revenue, and working how we improve the narrative, how do we make it more entertaining? How do we make sure it’s contemporary? I think the clubs did feel encouraged by that in the sense that we’re all working together to address the structure of the game, because one thing is for certain, the current structure isn’t working.”

“I wouldn’t see anything taking place until after the 2024/25 season. That’s probably the time we’d need to give ourselves to have the right mechanism in place to achieve the shape of the game we need to achieve. We are not going to please everybody in this process. You never do in rugby.

“If you’re pleasing 70 per cent you’re probably doing well. So we are going to have to be bold here, we are going to have to be decisive, we are going to have to say ‘right, if this is the best structure for the game, what’s the time period for us to be able to get there?’ I see our responsibility here to set the course, to lay the direction for the long term recovery and sustainability of the English game.”

Do you see your model for the future as it is now with all England players playing in the Premiership?

“The only way that would change is if you had those sorts of players in the second division. The challenge we faced up until now is the ability to sell a broadcast deal or generate centralised commercial sponsorships for the Championship. There just hasn’t been any interest. So that tells you the current format isn’t functioning. That’s why the Championship Strategic Review was set up, to look at various different models for the Championship to make it more attractive to outside commercial interest.

“If that’s the case you could have players selected from the Championship in the future. We’ve had all sorts of conversations and it’s interesting looking at the New Zealand model here. That cup competition that we introduce between the two leagues, that could be where we start rolling the dice on innovation and start doing things differently to refresh the game.”

Does this mean that we will see wealthier clubs surging ahead and a variable salary cap?

“It’s a really interesting question. I can understand that French model and they keep saying ‘we are there to protect the club from themselves’. I can understand them coming in and saying, ‘look, your financial projections are way off and your salary cap is too high and therefore we are going to mandate that comes down for you’.

“The problem is that if you let the salary cap double for the wealthier clubs, you undermine one of PRL’s core principles which is to have an extremely competitive league. And if you look at the matches, including this weekend, and the incredibly close scores, it’s key we don’t have a situation in PRL like you have in the Premier League in football where it’s all about who can generate the most revenue.

“The other thing I would say about salary caps is that they are not a minimum spend cap. You don’t have to spend to the salary cap. If you can build a squad and you cut your cloth accordingly and you’re confident you can be competitive, there’s nothing to stop you doing that. It is a great question because what degree of flexibility do you want to have in there?

“But I also understand PRL’s core principle that they want to have the most competitive and exciting matches they can possibly have. That’s entertainment and that’s part of driving commercial revenue. It is a tricky one to make sure you get right.”

What fear do you have that in 10 years’ time professional rugby might not exist beyond, for example, a European Super League?

“It might be hard to understand why I feel this way in the white heat of the current environment but I feel the prospects for rugby are very good. The international game is in good health, the Six Nations continues to be incredibly popular and there was a successful Rugby Championship last month. I think that is working very well.

“There is an opportunity here to address the structure of the English game, which we will take. I think player welfare is an absolute priority, which is another reason for being here at the moment. But the investments that we are making along with World Rugby, along with other unions in terms of making this game, which is a contact sport, as safe as it possibly can be going forward, then I think we will see real progress there.

“The DCMS have been heavily involved – they were a major creditor. It think it was £88m in the end, and that’s taxpayers’ money. They are interested to make sure we follow through on the changes we’re talking about in terms of regulation. With PRL, DCMS, with you guys (the media) on board and ourselves this is an opportunity to do all that.”

We thank Bill Sweeney for joining us from New Zealand.

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