Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Consett Rugby Club


  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".


  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.


  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".


  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 do they?


  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.


  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.


  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" stadium—they put the stadium before their existing supporter base confident an even larger supporter base would be created in Nashville.

  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.


  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!".


  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 criteria—independently 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 identity—a 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.

June 1999

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Prepared 14 December 1999