Reasons to expand the Premiership

Date published: October 20 2016

Having recently signed a bumper extension to its TV deal with BT Sport and just agreed the most lucrative club-country agreement in history with the RFU, the Premiership is in a good place.

The competition is competitive, there is a good balance between foreign imports and homegrown players and the clubs have become a force in Europe once again, after spending a number of years treading water whilst the French clubs and Irish provinces flourished.

The salary cap will rise again for next season, taking it to £7m, where it will then stay steady until at least the middle of 2020, giving teams time to consolidate and make sure they are sustainable at those levels.

Attendances are rising and stadia are being expanded, the competition is developing its brand around the world, most notably in North America, and many clubs that used to record annual losses are beginning to break even or even turn a profit.

With everything going well for the competition, many would advocate not attempting to fix something that isn’t currently broken, but to stand still and not explore possible ways of improving would be even more irresponsible.

That’s why Premier Rugby Limited, the parent company that runs the Premiership, needs to consider expanding the competition.

Expanding the competition to 14 – there are actually 14 clubs with stakes in PRL, the current 12 Premiership teams plus London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie – would have numerous benefits at both club and country levels.

The first is that it would expand an already impressive pool of English-qualified players. The successes of the England U18 and U20 sides in recent years have been well-documented. The age-grades have been churning out talented players who, at 20 years of age, are ready to positively impact the Premiership and a number of whom already have what it takes to be a difference-maker at European level.

Some of these players are able to breakthrough into their club sides, but many are left playing Aviva 'A' League or Championship rugby, with their path to the first team blocked by more experienced incumbents. Adding two more clubs to the elite level of English rugby would give more opportunities to young players around the country, who would have more options to leave and find playing time in the Premiership if they were frustrated with the status quo at their own club.

The productivity, in terms of both quantity and quality, of Premiership academies and English schools has shown no signs of abating over the past few years and finding playing time for talented youngsters is only going to become more of an issue over the coming years.

One concern with expansion is that the Premiership would go down the route of the Top 14, turning into an even longer, more attritional season in a rugby calendar that is already extremely congested. A way to avoid this would be to use a conference system.

If the 14 clubs were split into Southern and a Midlands & Northern conferences, with seven clubs in each conference, you would be able to shorten what is currently a taxing 22 game-plus-playoffs schedule. Each club would play the six other teams in their conference home and away, and the seven teams in the other conference once, alternating between home and away on a season-by-season basis, creating a 19-game regular season schedule.

Players would appreciate the shorter schedule, as would the RFU, with whom good relations are an important consideration. If broadcasters would see a competition that’s three weeks shorter as less appealing, those weeks could be filled with an expanded playoff system.

A wildcard round could be implemented, with the teams finishing second and third in the conferences doing battle to make it to the semi-finals. A two-legged relegation playoff could also be brought in for the two clubs finishing at the bottom of the two conferences.

Attendances as a total would drop for clubs, with each side playing nine or ten home games a season, rather than the current 11, but with clubs expanding their stadiums and attendances on the rise, the new format would, in theory, catch up in terms of total attendances over the medium-to-long-term.

The prominence of intra-conference match-ups would also appeal to fans, as they would face less travelling time to away games, something which should help increase sell-outs. The presence of two extra clubs, plus a new possible TV slot, e.g. Saturday evening, would make the competition appealing to broadcasters, whilst the expanded player pool and shorter regular season would appeal to the RFU.

The financial benefits that these two external sources offer would more than outweigh the cost of losing one or two home games a season and would allow clubs to invest in long-term plans to improve both their fan bases and stadiums to the point where they would be making more from nine or ten home games in the new format than they would be from 11 games in the current format.

With the TV deal with BT Sport lasting until 2021 and the current club-country agreement in place until 2024, expansion is not a possibility in the short-term, unless there were some very serious negotiations to take place with both bodies.

No Premiership club owner is going to be willing to split those current pots of funding with two extra teams and would require both BT and the RFU to up their financial investment if teams were to be added in the coming years.

A more sensible approach would be to explore these possibilities now, with the aim of expanding the competition at some point after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The biggest concern about expansion in any competition or sport is that the new clubs will not be competitive – as we have seen in Super Rugby this year – but the player pool in England is now approaching the point where it can sustain two more elite level teams.

If the new, record-breaking club-country agreement is the legacy of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, an expanded Premiership could be the legacy of Stuart Lancaster’s unsung tenure as Head of Elite Player Development with the RFU, something which English rugby is only now reaping the benefits of at both club and international level.

by Alex Shaw