ODD TO THINK THAT THE CLARION CALL OF THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO WOULD HAVE ANY RELEVANCE IN ENGLISH RUGBY IN 2017. BUT AS THE CAPITALIST CLUB MODEL CONTINUES TO BLEED ALL OVER THE BOARD ROOM CARPET, PERHAPS IT’S TIME – HIGH TIME – THE PROLETARIAT STEPPED IN.
Pushy is the word that most readily springs to mind. Brash, possibly. Bumptious? I’m not sure. I rang my mother, who does crosswords. ‘Uppity’, she said, which I rather like. But none of these quite captures either the querulousness or the petulance; the cocksure, overweening, high-handedness that’s become – frankly – almost a hallmark. Help me out here, will you? What is the best word to describe Premiership Rugby Limited?
Here is an outfit whose member clubs made a collective loss of twenty million quid last year – up from fifteen million quid the year before – who’re trying to tell the British and Irish Lions how long their tours should be. They’re the people who want the Six Nations tailored to suit their season – England and France to skip round one and, instead, jam their game into a fallow week somewhere in the middle – and who were instrumental in replacing the Heineken Cup with the Champions Cup, a modern-day miracle which has, effortlessly, turned wine into water.
And let’s not forget CEO Mark McCafferty’s wicked wheeze of swelling the season and running the calendar from September to June, a brainwave that’s got some of England’s leading players – Billy Vunipola, Joe Marler – muttering darkly about strike action. ‘Premiership Rugby came out with a press statement about their desire to expand the season without consulting us in any way,’ says PRPA Chairman, Christian Day. ’If clubs are voting for the salary cap to go up, I struggle to understand the logic of: ‘We need a longer season to earn more money’ … Premiership Rugby are very happy to sit there and say: ‘Our No1 concern is player welfare.’ Well, okay, show me why this is good for player welfare and how it will not adversely affect us?’
Is there any sporting organisation anywhere suffering from quite such a nasty dose of solipsism as PRL? There’s something almost Napoleonic about them, by which I mean small, overweight and suffering recurring delusions of grandeur. Granted, Philadelphia last week – Newcastle versus Saracens in front of 12,000 empty seats – wasn’t quite the same far-reaching, catastrophic cock-up as the retreat from Moscow in 1812 but hubris by any other name still smells of hubris. As Boney himself once put it: ‘From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.’
Money, you see. It is ever about the money and if you’re running a PRL club, the chances are you’re seriously short of it. In fact if you’re Worcester Warriors you’re so short of it that you’re out with your begging bowl, or, as the Chairman of Sixways Holdings Ltd, Bill Bolsover, put it, ‘seeking further funding to support our shareholders’. These, presumably, are the shareholders who’re a reported £16 million out of pocket over the past three years and reckoning to be another £4 million short in the financial year to come. Or in other words, clawing the wallpaper and begging for mercy.
And they’re very far from alone. Indeed the latest available figures show ten of the twelve Premiership clubs are – to mix metaphors – sailing below the breadline. So in the financial year 2015-2016, Wasps lost £3.8million (this despite a staggering 44% increase in turnover), Harlequins lost £2.2million (how do Harlequins lose that much money with a ground next-door to Twickenham), Newcastle £2.1million (£2.3 the year before), London Irish £1.9million (£1.8million in the previous year), Bath £1.2million (yet another million pound minus for the boys in blue), Sale Sharks £1.1million (see Bath), Gloucester £0.4million, Leicester Tigers, likewise, £0.4million and Worcester Warriors, you know about. For the record, only Exeter Chiefs (£0.9million) and Northampton Saints (£0.6million) were in the black.
Which just leaves Saracens, who, without question, merit a paragraph of their own given the European Champions made a pre-tax loss of £3.3million last year and £4million the year before, this – actually – being a quantum improvement on the previous five years in which they lost a hideous £5.168million, £5.930million, £5.827million, £5.552million and £6.413million respectively. The figures, frankly, are ‘drop-your-chips’ awful and if you run them through your abacus they add up to a £45.177million loss over the last ten years and a £17.831million deficit in the decade before that, a grand total of £63million in twenty years.
Pah, I hear you snort. 63million quid? Chelsea lost more than that last season alone. Yes, but hang on a minute. Chelsea’s £70.6million shortfall was on a turnover of a whopping £329million – £15.8million at Saracens – and included a one-off ‘go-away-please’ compensation payment to Adidas of £75.3 million. Otherwise they’d have been £4.7million in profit. Indeed, before the football analogy gets touted too far, 60% of Premier League clubs returned profits in 2016 compared with 17% of Premiership clubs.
Back to Saracens who, it’s said, are the most indebted club in rugby history. ‘The financial results, as you can see, are not good,’ says Saracens Chairman, Nigel Wray. No, they’re not. Indeed not since Watson and Crick announced the discovery of DNA back in the late fifties with the words; ‘This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest’, has anyone, anywhere trotted out quite so masterly an understatement.
‘The curiosity is,’ continues the effortlessly emollient Mr. Wray, ‘that the loss could be quite easily substantially reduced simply by having less players in the squad and finishing 11th. But that would send out a terrible message to the players that we weren’t ambitious; would hardly attract sponsors and would reduce the brand.’ By less, of course, he means fewer and by fewer he means cheaper. Cheaper like Exeter Chiefs, perhaps, whose wage bill is a mere fifty per cent of turnover and, by that measure, the lowest in the league.
Look, let’s be even handed here. Saracens are as professional, as well-grounded and as outstanding a group of people as you’ll find in sport; by that I mean the coaches, players, academy, crèche, the whole kit and caboodle. But none of that stops an uncharitable mind – or even a charitable one – listening to the words of Nigel Wray and asking; hang on a minute, are Saracens winning trophies here or are they buying them? And if their parent company, Premier Team Holdings Limited, were to fall under a Johannesburg bus or decide to move into pharmaceuticals, what exactly would stand between Saracens and the knacker’s yard?
Exeter Chiefs’ Chairman and CEO, Tony Rowe, was once prodded on this point and – typically – gave a blunt reply. ‘We run Sandy Park as a business, which means we run at a profit,’ he said. ‘And if we can’t run at a profit then we shouldn’t be in business. It does feel a bit unfair that other people can buy players and run sporting businesses as a tax loss.’ All of which, you might think, makes Exeter Chiefs’ title win last year (likewise Northampton’s win in 2014) all the more praiseworthy. In fact, let’s say ‘all the more miraculous’, shall we, since that’s rather closer to the truth.
Saracens, though, are no different to many other Aviva Premiership clubs; it’s just that the numbers are bigger. Sale Sharks, Harlequins, Newcastle Falcons and London Irish – as discussed – didn’t just lose money last year but lose it serially and by the bucket. Bath – bankrolled by the bullish Bruce Craig who has opinions as eye-watering as his riches – have dropped some £15million in the past seven years; Wasps, of course, were half an inch short of the precipice just the other day and who knows what the future holds for Worcester Warriors? Indeed, aside from Northampton and Exeter, only Leicester and Gloucester would have the first clue what a black balance sheet might look like.
The Premiership – self-evidently, preponderantly – is a den of deluded dragons living off a television deal above and beyond anyone else’s estimation of the broadcast value of club rugby. In short, much of the league is in thrall to the flimsiest of business models. And funded by these largesses, the salary cap inflates, the marquee players multiply and Leicester Tigers’ CEO, Simon Cohen, is left wailing in the wilderness. ‘The chairmen have made some appallingly bad decisions around the salary cap,’ he told ‘The Rugby Paper’ ‘and rather than encouraging sustainability … you could see club finances fall off a cliff.’ Indeed, in the year since he made that remark, Leicester went from profit to loss and a million smackers blew away on the wind.
All of which explains why the bourgeoisie of Premiership Rugby Limited are becoming increasing shrill and – seemingly – less and less interested in the difference between cost and value. They’re losing their shirts. And, of course, the only reason anyone bothers to listen is because the clubs hold the players’ contracts, the mystery being why the players continue to allow themselves to be pawns in rugby’s dismal, drawn-out, power game. It’s almost got to the stage where it’s becoming an irritation.
Presumably it’s historical; a throwback to the days of amateurs and alickadoos; blazers to whom you were obliged to defer and who’d charge you twenty shillings for your stockings if you were picked to play against Scotland. It’s not exactly slavery nowadays, I grant you, but the mentality still borders on the medieval; we’ve paid for you, we own you and we’ll use you as a bargaining chip to gain leverage whenever we see fit. It’s an attitude that’s about as sustainable long-term as Saracens’ business plan.
But of course – whisper it quietly – while the PRL hold all the players, it’s the players who hold all the cards. And given it’d be criminal to have an opportunity to make a lasting difference yet not take it, perhaps it’s about time those players – figuratively – stopped hiding downstairs in the dressing room and started flexing their muscles upstairs in the Board Room. Indeed, find me a club anywhere in England with a player who knows where to find the Board Room. No, I didn’t think so. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.
But for now – and for example – let’s take the British and Irish Lions, a shirt stretching back to 1888, richer in history than any other – to use Nigel Wray’s ghastly word – ‘brand’ in the rugby firmament and, as Jim Telfer once put it, ‘your Everest, boys.’ And here’s this venerable, elite institution – the pinnacle of the game for players and supporters, a cash cow that helps keep Southern Hemisphere in life-giving beans while, simultaneously, turning a healthy profit for the Home Unions; a one hundred and thirty-nine year old college of myth and legend that’s rarely in its long life looked in ruder health either on or off the field – here it is now being lectured on its very existence by a pip-squeak Premiership that’s twenty years old and can’t even wipe its own arse.
Fortunately, it’s an easy fix. Every international player at every club in England will, at some point in the next four years, be renegotiating his contract. So if each of those players – every man jack – refuses to sign on the dotted line unless there’s a release clause covering a ten-game Lions series in South Africa in 2021, what are the clubs going to do? Are Bath seriously going to show Anthony Watson the door? And if they do, how big a bun-fight would there be among England’s other clubs to secure his signature?
Guys, these are your careers and there’s only so much money you can spend and only so many memories you can buy. So are you going to stand by and let the Lions be reduced to a meandering muddle or are you going to link arms and play in a memorable, meaningful Series against the Springboks where you’ve actually got some chance of winning?
Likewise the proposal for a ten-month club season. Again, Christian Day and the entire PRPA membership collectively need to take a stand and say, fine, run the season from September to June. But I’m signing up only for a maximum of twenty-five/twenty-eight/thirty games – delete as appropriate – together with a four-week holiday and a ten-week window between the last game in one season and the first one in the next. Yes, the players’ll get less money but they’ll get it for longer because they won’t be retiring at the age of twenty-five. What’s more, in thirty years’ time they’ll not only be able to recognise their grandchildren, they’ll be able to bend down, pick them up and give them a cuddle.
Until then, or until someone stands up for the wider game, the tail will wag the dog and a league that’s, collectively, lived millions beyond its means its entire life will carry on trying to tell the rest of the sport what to do. Player power has been an ugly addition to many sports in recent years; rugby, though, has always seemed to have more brains and a better sense of perspective. Would you trust the players to wave their magic wands wisely? You would? Good. So would I.
22 SEPTEMBER 2017