Memorandum submitted by Consett Rugby
The evidence and observations I shall present
are based on our 3 years of interaction with Newcastle Falcons
and some personal academic input drawn from my studies for a MSc
in Sports Management covering the same period. I am Chairman of
Consett & District RFC and a club member for over 25 years
including seven years as club secretary, three years as club captain
and three years as fixture secretary. I have a broad knowledge
of issues effecting Rugby Union in England as well as experience
of New Zealand and South Africa I have recently been used
as a point of reference in Robin McConnell's bestseller "Inside
The All Blacks".
2. WHY RUGBY
Paying people does not make them professional.
"Professional" not only involves payment but the attitude
to prepare efficiently and conduct oneself in a manner that the
population would accept as being appropriate for an elite athlete.
The attributes will include public speaking and inter personal
skills as well as time and lifestyle management. Rob Andrew says
it is "the will to plan to win". However the mistake
professional players have made is to believe that success on the
field is their total contribution. Newcastle Falcons won the Allied
Dunbar Premiership in their first season in 1998-1999 but the
club was technically "bankrupt" until another "sugar
daddy" secured their debts. A clear case that success on
the field is not enough. The players must play a vital part in
ensuring the club is a success off the field, Peter Deakin of
Saracens has stated the players and the stadium are rugby's strongest
marketing tools and both must be used effectively ("Raising
Rugby" 11 January 1999). Currently the Falcons players are
not used efficiently to raise the profile of the game and attract
income and spectators to the game. This causes dissatisfaction
from important current and future stakeholders and inhibits the
growth of revenue, an example being the failure of the majority
of Falcons players to present themselves successfully to sponsors
and at school functions-critical areas. The reasons lie partially
in the culture and ethos of the game.
3. THE PLAYING
In the new age of "professionalism"
the current players have been drawn largely from the "middle
classes" and there is a high percentage of ex-public schoolboys
reflecting the traditional class basis of Rugby Union. Prior to
the Paris Declaration in 1996 "legalising" professional
Rugby Union most of the top players had been "shamateurs"
for years with the RFU turning a "blind eye" to payments.
The Rugby Union payments had been a nice bonus to the players'
salaries as teachers, lawyers, students etc in addition to their
rugby prowess finding them jobs with "flexible hours"
to pursue their rugby career. Paris made the game "honest"
but it also increased the pressure on clubs and the RFU to fund
the players salaries on a "full time" basis.
Most players viewed the new arrangements as
a "bonanza", that is to say they now saw themselves
being paid 4-5 times as much salary for not doing much extra work.
The social and "brotherhood" culture that dominates
Rugby Union mitigated against new approaches to off the field
activity and as many of the "new" management of the
game were drawn from the same background as the players, this
incestuous relationship resulted in poor use of the players. The
law of "diminishing returns".
4. THE LACK
Surprisingly for a game drawn from the "management
classes", Rugby Union handled the impact of professionalism
disastrously and basically ignored all the tenets of both common
sense and business. Assets were "liquidised", financial
planning was ignored and money was committed that did not exist
or was unlikely to materialise. The result in the first 3 years
of professionalism is that the casualties are mounting:
The RFU are millions in debt (laying
off 40 per cent of staff).
The majority of the Premiership1
sides are technically "bust" with teams like Richmond,
Bedford, Sale, London Scottish and West Hartlepool on the brink
of extinction and others like Newcastle Falcons, Saracens, Wasps
and even Bath relying on the largesse of rich individual backers
but for how long?
This is not an encouraging precis of professional
rugby in England and the management when accepting payment for
their work must accept the consequences of their failure. But
5. THE NATURE
One clear reason for the failure of management
may be that the managers are hopeless! People with no experience
of running professional sport or any other businesses have been
placed in charge simply because they were a "name" in
rugby or were a "good player" or that they have been
on the club's committee for years and they are a "good bloke".
Saracens are one of the few to have brought Peter Deakin as an
"outsider" with professional sport experience and importantly
a track record of success in his profession to run the club. Literally
many rugby managers are learning the job as they go along and
the expensive mistakes they have made are a high price to pay
for effective management.
6. RUGBY UNION'S
The "brotherhood" culture has largely
mitigated against Rugby Union utilising outside experience especially
with regard to the acquisition and training of managers. Sport
management courses in American Universities have been running
since the 1950s, the UK starting to catch up in the 1980s. However
this wealth of knowledge and expertise is not being utilised at
Newcastle Falcons despite none of the managers having formal sports
management qualifications or relevant experience. Robin McConnell's
book "Inside The All Blacks" highlights a similar problem
in New Zealand. One would be aghast at being treated by an enthusiastic
but unqualified dentist yet it is deemed ok for the same situation
in rugby management.
Rugby Union has largely tried to follow the
model of UK soccer without really appreciating the evolution of
soccer and how it achieved its place in the public consciousness
and thus has largely copied the failures of soccer without picking
up soccer's successful profile.
7. THE LACK
Peter Deakin stated:
"The future will be all about stadia. If
you haven't got a good one, you can forget it"
and this opinion is backed up by the experience
of the ultra professionalism in US sport reflected in the excellent
work by Loftman and Spirou (1996) "Sports, Stadiums and Urban
Regeneration: The British and United States Experience".
After the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 the brand new Olympic Stadium
was knocked down enabling the Atlanta Braves baseball team to
build the "right" stadium for their sport. The Houston
Oilers moved State to Nashville, Tennessee to get the "right"
stadiumthey put the stadium before their existing supporter
base confident an even larger supporter base would be created
Currently Rugby Union teams like Wasps, Saracens
and West Hartlepool have moved into a shared arrangement with
soccer clubs to have the capacity for a larger number of spectators.
However the stadia concerned are old and need major investment
beginning with a bulldozer! Simply they do not match the expectations
of consumers used to the "shopping mall" experience
of the Metro Centre, The Trafford Centre or Brent Cross. Yet these
consumers are being asked to pay relatively high ticket prices
for inadequate facilities and not surprisingly they do not return
or come in the first place.
Lack of funding is blamed by the Falcons yet
the analogy is that in business firms like Marks & Spencer
will always invest heavily in new stores (and borrow to do so)
as they know their "shop window" is vital to attract
and retain customers or they go to their competitors. As Rugby
Union is new to professional sport it must seek to attract customers
away from other activities and the "other activities"
will always compete strongly as well as having the advantage of
customer inertia. Rugby has to be better and bolder and to date
it is not.
8. THE FUNDING
A lot of the issues and problems are ascribed
to a shortage of funds, but is that the case? Simply it is more
a question of priorities with more focus on what is happening
on the field than off it. The Falcons created the first £1
million rugby player in "Inga" Tuigamala and are paying
annual salaries of about £2 million yet the ground only holds
5,500 so how can the bills be met?
It would seem that partnerships to build "Municipal
Stadia" following the French example for the benefit of the
community and to be utilised at the correct level to justify the
expenditure must be considered. Most people, rugby or otherwise,
would be against public or Lottery money funding professional
sport when so much of the money would line the pockets of a privileged
few. However investment in a series of stadia across the country
for multi-use and community and business involvement would be
clever strategic planning. But will it happen?
Currently much of rugby's financial resources
are being "sucked in" by the top of the sport and this
has resulted in severe pressure on the majority of "grassroots"
clubs and a decline of 11.6 per cent in participation in the last
two years (RFU statistics). Professional rugby may be the "shop
window" but the "grassroots" is the factory that
manufactures the game. Without the clubs and schools available
to handle the interest created by TV coverage of pro rugby then
most of the marketing benefit for the sport as a whole is lost.
Rugby desperately needs more teachers and coaches to attract and
enthuse youngsters to play the game or participation levels will
continue to decline. Sport is a competitive business and rugby
must meet the challenges it faces"Recruit or Die!".
10. A POSSIBLE
Following the lead of professional Rugby League
in Australia, the pro rugby clubs should form meaningful partnerships
with a network of local "grassroots" rugby clubs, subject
to sensible development criteriaindependently audited and
approved. Lottery funding could be available for this partnership
with school development officers and admin support to increase
the participation base. This would also increase the spectator
base which would then utilise fully the "Municipal Stadium"
more revenue would be created together with community pride and
identitya virtuous circle!
So where does this happen? The model outlined
is exemplified by Brive, (France) European Club Champions with
a 30,000 town population and a Municipal Stadium. Quantity and
quality can go together but it is not always the case.
I am a passionate player, supporter and volunteer
manager of rugby giving up in excess of 25 hours per week to keep
the game "healthy" in our area including working with
the Newcastle Falcons. Our observations and criticisms are to
improve and sustain Rugby Union for the long term. We want professionalism
to work but we know it will only survive if it learns the lessons
of other sports quickly and adopts a pragmatic approach that overcomes
the current short term thinking. Rugby must actively seek "outside"
help and develop the networks suggested. If not?
"The Future of Professional Rugby"
will be bleak to non-existent and will revert to a hybrid form
akin to the old "shamateurism" days, in other words
it will complete a very, very expensive circle in under five years.