OPINION: WHAT’S STUNTING RUGBY’S GROWTH?

10 Dec 2018

By: Sport Industry Group

In this exclusive piece for Sport Industry Group, Esportif’s Hannah Bowe draws on the agency’s European Rugby by Numbers 2017-18 report to ask whether conflicting agendas are holding back the commercialisation of the sport.


Tight but revealing. Nervous yet exultant. A sport that is struggling lit up by an occasion few other sports could match.” (Tom Fordyce, BBC Chief Sports Writer - reporting on Ire v NZ on 17th Nov 2018)

A noteworthy perspective on the state of the game.

Dow Jones’ Sports Intelligence team helped us research some statistics on a few of those struggles at hand:

 *Based on bespoke Factiva string searches for mentions of each topic appearing within 5 words of ‘rugby’.
+Injury and +Skill searches provide a ‘control’ to review the results against.

It mimics the results of a survey we recently asked our clients to complete – outside of their next contract, their primary concerns are career-ending injury and welfare. They also identified the game’s stunted commercialisation compared to peer professional team sports.

The professional game needs coordinated thinking to evolve off the field like it is on it.

The calendar is allegedly in hand… how far it will go in resolving debates around club v country, southern hemisphere v northern hemisphere, player pay v player welfare remains an unknown. Similarly so how the outcome will present itself for broadcast and commercial entities to align.

While the structures and resulting points of contention vary for each nation or league, the issues at hand remain the same. In this article, we focus primarily on the position of the English Premiership.

Despite combined revenue growth across the Premiership of 47% from 2014 to 2017 (higher than that of the French Top 14) and the fact that this has exceeded player salary inflation (still over 40% in the same period), clubs’ finances are falling further into the red.

It is not new or unique for sports club finances to tend towards that (red) marker - the Premier League was no different until Financial Fair Play and lucrative broadcasting agreements kicked in.

However, with the match-day attendance of a number of Premiership clubs nearing capacity, the enhanced Professional Game Agreement fixed in place for another 5 seasons (to July 2024) and the primary broadcast deal in place until the end of the 2020-21 season, there is significant pressure on commercial teams to deliver any further revenue increases.

The salary cap has gone some way to stifling player salaries with increases in the last two seasons limited to single figure percentages. However, it is the salaries of domestic players (over those of other nationalities) that have generally seen slower growth. For example, whilst the salaries of Premiership clubs’ Starting XV players have grown 44% on average from 2014-15 to 2017-18; domestic players within those Starting XVs have only seen theirs grow by 27%. This directly contrasts the PRO14 Home Nations where Starting XV salary growth was 31% in the same period; heavily influenced by a 45% increase for domestic players in the Starting XV.

Sticking with Starting XVs as an illustration of the game’s best players, domestic internationals in the Premiership are generally playing more minutes than their foreign teammates, as well as more than their PRO14 Home Nations peers. The pressure for results in the Premiership (along with the private control) is driving teams to field their star players more frequently despite the additional demands of international rugby on many.

Taking last season’s top three Starting XV international players by test minutes played (for England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales), the Irish international trio played on average 1,240 minutes for their club. This compared to the equivalent England players who played 1,418 minutes on average. Those in Scotland played less than 1,000 minutes for their club and fewer international minutes; albeit their reduced exposure is also somewhat reflected in salaries.

All are products of their respective national systems, but if the club game is to grow commercially and interest an audience in the same way international fixtures do, the star cast needs to play.

Club rugby can breed habit through its regularity. That ought to serve to build an end-of-season finals crescendo whilst also accommodating other major club and international competitions.

However, as it stands, there is overlap between club and international (or a proposed longer season) which surely doesn’t appeal to most commercial partners, never mind tired players:

  • Overlap devalues the product (as well as costing the viewer when spread across multiple channels); and
  • Sheer volume of games at a higher atrocity than ever calls the long-term feasibility to have top talent fit and available into question.

The outcome won’t be positive for everyone (no competitive industry allows it to be) – but should competitions reduce the number of games? Perhaps via fewer clubs in a competition? Might it go one further and enforce a limitation on contact sessions or training in an effort to limit player injury and welfare issues?

Would fewer games but at a better level enhance the commercial value, providing a better product for the average viewer? Or in a live entertainment world where we expect on demand and on the go, is the issue actually that the game is too complex for a passing viewer… in which case, ought a platform consider providing a link for new or impartial rugby followers to connect to (on their second screen) explaining the intricacies of the rules?

Rugby is renowned as forward-thinking, an early-adopter – consider video-refereeing; consider concussion protocols. Now more than ever it needs to drive the solution that enables the best talent be available and thus enhance the product, and the game.

At Esportif, we don’t have the solution nor the ability to resolve it. But we do want to drive the conversation.

Our clients fear injuries first and foremost and are frustrated by a lack of commercial opportunity. They themselves will also need to contribute to improve these factors, once those employing them define the direction.

Esportif’s European Rugby by Numbers report for 2017-18 (statistics referred above) seeks to provide context on a number of aspects of the professional game, to help decision-makers make informed decisions. Contact us for an insight into the current state of play.