In this editorial we will discuss how the failure of the union to provide a coherent commercial structure at the top end of the sport is discouraging the investment we need in centres of excellence. We will look at the missed opportunities of recent years and how things seem to have gone full circle.
The top level of the sport is basically divided into two camps – those funded by individuals or groups of individuals, and those funded by the Union. Most clubs assets are their players – often subsidized by the Union. Every club in Wales is in a perilous financial state with players earning grossly inflated wages (and good luck to them) topped up by a Union insisting on the short termism of propping up a failing system by money they don’t have.
The Union is in deep financial crisis – and recently asked for more money to cope with the horrendous costs of building a new stadium. The top level of the sport remains sponsorless – individual clubs have nominal jersey sponsorship deals, but the leagues – both Welsh-Scottish and Celtic – are unsponsored. Even the domestic cup competition is unsponsored. Television deals exist with the provincial companies, but there is no access to Sky’s riches and no access to the higher viewing figures that British exposure guarantees.
There is a true spirit of jealousy and bitterness running throughout the sport – those without rich backers surviving thanks to Union investment, cry foul at the investors insisting on influence, whilst those with backers are frustrated by the wasted resources in the sport and the interference of the Union.
On the pitch, the national team is playing with a total lack of cohesion and confidence – mirroring the structure of the domestic sport. They are losing – and will continue to lose heavily in the next Six Nations. There is insufficient competition for places at the national level born out of a lack of competition for places at club level. Too many players are selected to play each week because their club sqaud is too small to force constant improvement in their performance.
Amateurism in Wales vs Professionalism in England
Inequalities in the professional sport of rugby union can be traced back to the RFU’s Sky deal – first signed over five years ago. It was the first sign for Welsh rugby of how far economically it was set to suffer at the hands of the (arrogant) administrators at the RFU – its wealthy neighbour.
The Sky deal set would pay the RFU £87.5m over five years for live coverage of all England home internationals. At the same time, Sky offered a package to the Celtic nations – reflecting the commercial worth of the sport in these countries.
|How much money do clubs get from their Unions?
|• Scotland – £1.8m
• Ireland – £1.8m
• England – £2.0m
• Wales – £0.5m
The Welsh were offered £40m – with clubs in Wales set to gain by £17m. The WRU declined the offer.
Two years later, the clubs in England (and a limited few in Wales) realised that to maximize revenue, they needed money fast to cope with huge wage bills which only a few years earlier didn’t exist. Repeated efforts were made by the RFU and the top echelons of the sport in England to produce a British League. Clubs in Wales were targeted to join this league based on commercial considerations such as the strength of their
|What is the WRU?
|Role: “Administers” 222 member clubs, its affiliated district clubs and schools and youth organizations.
|President: Tasker Watkins
|Chairman (and Treasurer): Glanmor Griffiths
|Secretary: Denis Gethin
|The Administrative Committee: made up of 32 elected members, five of whom form an executive committee
|The General Committee: made up of 28 members, 16 of whom are district representatives. Five are elected nationally, along with the treasurer, while there are six officials from affiliated organizations: Welsh Districts, Welsh Youth, Welsh Schools, Anglo-Welsh and the Welsh Society of Rugby Union Referees
|Recent election results …
… President Tasker Watkins was re-elected unopposed
… Glanmor Griffiths beat nearest rival by 177 votes to 33.
The national representatives’
… Alan Phillips, Howard Watkins, David Pickering, Les Williams and Sam Simon.
following, and the number of “named” players in their squads who could fill the empty stadia. This had nothing to do with the English wanting to play the best rugby playing team in Wales that season – it was purely a commercial decision.
A twenty team competition was to be organized – 14 English, 4 Welsh and 2 Scottish teams. Undoubtedly Cardiff and Swansea were to be two of the Welsh teams. A British League would have guaranteed Welsh rugby top class competition, full stadia, but most importantly access to the much larger (and richer) English market.
So how did the Union in Wales react to this offer? Well, first of all they dreamed up some spurious legal objection which had nothing to do with the proposal. Then they rejected the proposal outright – saying that eight “top” Welsh clubs (plus, by implication Cardiff and Swansea) should be allowed to join the British League. They also insisted on a long term agreement which did not take into account existing contracts. All impractical, and all rejected. Of course the Union knew that their requests would be rejected – they were out to defend the amateur administrators and their cushy benefits – they were not out to ensure a top class echelon for the game in Wales. A British League would undermine their authority and control over the game in Wales.
Let’s not forget the architect in chief of this missed opportunity and the resulting chaos that has ruined our sport in the subsequent three years – Vernon Pugh. He effectively vetoed any chance of a British League chosing to put the authority of petty officialdom ahead of the commercial future of the game in his own country. The hope remained that a British League could happen the following season – when Pugh was not around. Sadly Pugh is still around, and all prospect of a British League has almost totally disappeared.
During the 1998-99 season, Cardiff had one of their most successful seasons ever. The season started with the stuffing of the English champions, played out in front of a crowd greater that the combined attendance of all other first class games in Wales that weekend. Even more significantly, it was higher than any of the Premiership games in England. And so the season continued, with record attendances at home. And then Pugh stepped in. The “friendlies” took on less of an importance, and the English – frustrated and tired of Welsh arrogance – gave up. However, the effect at international level was certainly apparent that season. No longer in awe of their English opponents, Wales stormed to a a rebel-inspired victory over the English. How long will we have to wait to see another?
Looked at in the cold light of day, we can see that the authorities in Wales failed to take key opportunities offered to them during the last five years. Sheer conceit and a total over exaggeration of their own self worth by administrators has led to a string of missed opportunities. The Union and it’s leaders believed from day one that there should be parity in Wales with the English – that we are a strong enough rugby nation able to compete. Undoubtedly true in the amateur days, this belief is totally out of touch with professional sport. Rugby clubs are now business and their spectators are their customers – a simple and obvious fact ignored by the reactionaries in the Union. To compete in the market place, a strong commercial base is essential. Those clubs with successful businessmen at the helm soon realised this – Cardiff and Swansea in particular – but the union and the other amateurs who control the sport in Wales are still stuck with the old amateur way of thinking.
A couple of club sites had their own “official” data – Caerphilly, Cardiff and Newport being the most noticeable. Others, make no mention of attendances – notably, Bridgend, Llanelli and Swansea. But with the possible exception of Newport, the accuracy of the data is very suspect.
As for the Zurich Premiership sites, on the whole they are streets ahead in the quantity and accuracy of the data they present. Clubs seem to be much more dedicated to making their web sites work as a way of communicating with fans. Sadly, the level of professionalism in running clubs is mirrored by the professional approach to web sites.
Some in the press will have you believe they have accurate data on attendances – don’t be fooled!
Calculating crowd figures in Wales is a black art. Famously, one owner launched into a tirade against his spectators (customers) for not putting their hard earned money into his club’s coffers. A peculiar business practice that one – a bit like Richard Branson threatening to close his airline if more people didn’t use it!
Turning to allegations over artificially inflated attendances, things go from the bizarre to the ridiculous. The argument for inflation goes something along the lines of “we’re such a popular club we must be chosen to hold one of the franchises”. Although the Inland Revenue have conducted investigations into attendances in Wales, no one seems to know what their findings were. Saying you earned more (inflated figures) than you actually did, means you’d pay more tax than you really needed to. To reduce tax burden, if anything, you’d expect clubs to underestimate attendances!
Whatever the truth of the matter, the gap in the quality of data and reporting between Wales and England says much for the degree of professionalism in the way both structures are organized. Premier Rugby (the company formed by England’s top clubs) regularly publishes data on season ticket figures etc., designed to promote interest in the sport. In Wales, we’re in the dark ages – vested interest is more important than promoting the game.
Why reduce the number of professional clubs?
The sport in Wales is being bled dry by a drain of resources in brown envelopes to sub standard players in the lower leagues. This is not something new – it merely reflects the scandalous complacency of the administrators of our sport. Rewarding mediocrity at the lower levels has eroded the foundations of our sport and we are sliding down the international ratings.
The Union (and national coach) has long insisted on picking the national team from players based in Wales. Not long ago our national captain was refusing to play for Wales when at Richmond because he received less money from the Union than “locally” based players. Allan Phillips, has recently underlined this opinion by saying that Wales should refuse to pick players who chose to broaden their rugby playing experience by playing outside Wales. So who pays for keeping this talent in Wales?
Some would have you believe that the only reason for reducing the number of professional clubs at the top level in Wales is debt. Well, one way to reduce that debt would be to sell Scott Quinnell to Gloucester, Robert Howely to Leicester and good ol’ Iestyn back up north. Then we could get rid of Darren Morris to Bath, Dafydd James to Saracens …. the list goes on. A number of top names only returned to Wales thanks to the money in the sport being invested by the sugar daddies.
Those who complain about the debt in the game want to have their cake and eat it! They want top Welsh players playing in Wales every week, but – by implication – they want them to do it for wages less than they could earn in England! Players have limited careers and this naive assumption that they play in Wales because its so much better than fifty miles across the Severn is ridiculous. These are the same apologists with their prejudices firmly rooted in the amateur days – they don’t understand the professional sport.
The sport needs the sugar daddies to keep the top players in Wales and these individuals deserve a return on their investment – they deserve to have some influence.
Franchised Super-Clubs …. a new idea?
…. well, as a matter of fact, no. During the fledgling negotiations over a British League, the WRU set out its requirements.”Bidding clubs will be expected to be incorporated, to have an acceptable financial position, to have an existing reputation and profile as a quality club, and a professional, experienced accountable board of directors.” (But even then the Union gave further example of their incompetence by expecting bidders to put forward proposals for these franchises within 72 hours!)
Since the time of the rebel season, the game in Wales has staggered onwards with the club structure largely kept alive by the investment of sugar daddies. A poorly structured and deeply flawed Celtic League finally came into being, but club competitions are still unsponsored and the chaotic relationship between clubs and the Union regarding players contracts has led to divided loyalties and a disjointed international squad.
A working party was set up by the Union to look a the running of the game (one of the conditions laid down by the rebel clubs before they agreed to return to the domestic game) comprising of members of the committee and a number of leading ex-internationals. Committees seem to be the answer to all ills in Wales and when one fails, set up anther. Sure enough, stalemate in this committee led to the setting up of a subcommittee – this time shorn of the vested interests of Union members. Two of the WRU representatives on this committee resigned mysteriously on hearing the findings. That was six months ago.
What is the PRA?
• One piece of cross border cooperation has definitely come to fruition. The Professional Rugby Players Association (PRA) was established by Damien Hopley in England to look after players interests (a bit like soccer’s PFA). Players at Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Bridgend Llanelli and Pontypridd have been encouraged to sign up with this organisation.
• Significantly, a number of internationals have yet to renew their contracts with the union – which expired on 31st May this year.
Finally, in August this year, Tasker Watkins committed that the findings of the report would be submitted to the Special General Meeting (SGM) in January. But don’t hold your breathe – they would then need to be voted on by the members of the Union. Quite what incentive there would be for the “amateurs” to vote away their income stream is not clear. “Turkeys voting for Xmas”, as someone once put it! This is the fourth time in the last 12 years that a committee has tendered proposals for improving the structure of the game – the last three were not even put to the members!
Most of the previous reports into how the game should be structured have been buried, but this one finally looks like it will reach the public arena.
It seems that the committee have recommended to the Union that the money being poured into the empty hole that is rugby below the top level should be dramatically cut – and this is doing to hurt for those pigs with their noses in the trough of the game in Wales. All those free lunches could end up disappearing. Obviously the game below the top league should return to amateurism – could this really, finally happen?
What does the report propose?
• the creation of five ‘superclub’ franchises. Franchises to be awarded to clubs with the best facilities with some regional influence.
• that the General Committee of the WRU hands over the running of the game to a non-elected professional board.
There are too many professional players in Wales being paid sums of money the WRU and the clubs do not have. We need to get down to a maximum of 150 professional players competing at the highest level.
With delays on the findings of the committee being published, the premier clubs in Wales have been flexing their muscles. Ebbw Vale – who cannot claim to maintain professional rugby on the gates they claim to enjoy – are unsurprisingly opposed to any streamlining of the professional game, reliant as they are on other clubs’ supporters for their livelihood.
Although Premier Rugby Partnership of Wales (PRPW) has been established, infighting amongst clubs has further divided the sport in Wales. Woeful leadership from the Union has led to bitterness and division.
What is PREP?
• A legal partnership between the clubs and the players, and provides a hefty bargaining tool in negotiations with the WRU.
The sport has completely failed to come to terms with professionalism and the need to run a profitable business in order to maintain a professional arm to the game in Wales. Focussing on success or failure in any one season, relative success of youth teams and “poaching” from other clubs completely misses the point. Clubs are now businesses and a structure needs to be built which is based on sound business practices – not on who’s performing well that season. Stadium facilities, catchment area, sound financial plans, coherent business plans and a firm structure to the business are more important than whether this season’s outside half is a product of the youth team or was signed from Pontypridd. Too many of the vested interests in the game have failed to make the necessary adjustments to the professional game and as a result, the game itself is slipping towards bankruptcy, kept alive only by the investments of a handful of individuals.
Is this sounding all familiar? Have we really gone full circle? Four years ago the WRU were offered four clubs in a British League and they insisted on eight (plus two). How foolish is that decision now looking? The position of those at Cardiff and Swansea who led Welsh rugby to the realization that the present structure was unsustainable is now entirely vindicated. Their actions were sadly four years ahead of the rest of the game in Wales.
So how does the RFU do it?
Following the truce called between the RFU and England’s top premiership clubs, the game as a spectator sport is now booming across the border. Not only are meaningless internationals sell outs, the club game is also seeing a rapid increase in attendances and growing sponsorship deals. Television money is also being pumped into the game. The RFU turned in a record profit during the last year financial year and a new spirit of cooperation in the sport has produced winning results on the pitch. Fierce competition for places at the national level result from fierce competition for places at club level.
Present Sponsorship deals signed by Premier Rugby in England
Game Face Inc.
The running of the game in England is basically split into two – the amateur sport is run by the RFU with the professional arm of the sport being run by England Rugby. This organisation is a partnership between the Union and Premier Rugby – the Professional Clubs and the players. Should we be surprised that this unified front has produced a unified winning international team, whilst in Wales the antagonistic attitude between the reactionaries and visionaries has produced a disjointed and disorganised defeated international team?
So what does this mean for the clubs? Well, those at the top end of the game will receive approaching two million for the next eight-years …. a joint venture agreement was signed in July this year. The resulting stability and structure this agreement has afforded has increased the money flowing into the game – whether from spectators tickets or from sponsors – and increased the exposure positive press coverage. It has also provided Gunner Woodward with a stable platform on which to build international success.
There is also a new television deal in place – one that finally takes the sport to terrestrial television. Now just sit back and watch the crowds grow and the sponsors queue up!
Marcus Russel is right about one thing – top clubs need a degree of independence from the Union, just as happened in England. The latest leak to the press says that the Union will partly own the franchised clubs – what a horrendous mistake that would be! Putting aside the legalities of such a move – some clubs may claim that the Union is creating a closed shop at the top level – they’ve already proved incapable of running the game since the advent of professionalism. Do we really wan the committeemen of the Union to ruin any chance of creating a thriving top echelon of the game in Wales?
We need to attract top businessmen as investors in the sport in order to compete. We also need to attract top commercial people to market the sport and keep it afloat financially. These two issues are clumsily overlooked by the reactionaries who are still confusing tradition with the need to run a successful business.
There are many mysteries associated with the move towards professionalism in Wales. We’ve already discussed the confusion between creating viable commercial entities and temporary success on the pitch, another even more bewildering is the talk over how many clubs there should be without deciding on what the fixture list should be!
The “perfect structure for the season” could be a model of a Celtic League followed by European Cup followed by Six Nations. 3 Scottish, 5 Welsh and 4 Irish teams would produce 22 games Celtic League – more than the Irish want. Add a European Cup which should be four groups of six (which the English don’t want) and you have a minimum of 10 European games plus the fix Six Nations games (which the WRU don’t want). Our top professionals could be playing 37 games per season.
One thing is for sure, with the desperate lack of leadership and the “need” to compromise, the likelihood is that the muddle will continue and we still won’t get a decent fixture list. We’re living on borrowed time if we want to keep our best payers in Wales. Can the WRU deliver?