EPCR chief: Champions Cup still delivers – but we must ensure it is premium competition

Ollie Sleightholme of Northampton runs with the ball away from a diving tackle by Sebastian de Klerk of Bulls
Bulls were overrun by Northampton after leaving their star players at home for their Champions Cup quarter-final - Getty Images/Paul Harding

Jacques Raynaud is talking numbers. It is a good place to start for the affable Frenchman. Defending the reputation and credibility of the Champions Cup was probably not what he had in mind during what is his first season as chief executive of European Professional Club Rugby, but he is making a good fist of it.

“The round of 16 and the quarter-finals delivered a very strong set of numbers,” said Raynaud. “If you look at attendance, this weekend we hit 1.3 million attendances overall, and will beat last season’s record, which was 1.3 million.

“If you look at TV, we are up double digits overall but if you look at single markets, the French and Irish match had over 20 per cent market share, which is really good.

“Our digital engagement has also gone through a transformation, following investment to revamp our fan-facing element and we are now reaping the rewards as we have just crossed one million social media followers – which I still think is low but is a symbolic mark. According to our sponsors, they also have the highest social media engagement rates from their partners.

“We have also seen a spike in our ticket sales over the last two weeks for the finals at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and we are very close to a technical sell-out. So if I look at the competition from a CEO point of view, it delivers a strong set of numbers.”

And yet Raynaud, whose background is from a sports media rights background rather than rugby administration, says he is not deaf or blind to the flak generated by the controversial decision by the Bulls to leave behind 11 Springboks for their quarter-final defeat by Northampton Saints last Saturday.

Bulls could be fined

Teams have been guilty of sending under-strength sides to dead rubber pool matches before, but never the quarter-finals, which in the halcyon days of this competition used to light up cities across the continent with such vibrant tribalism and colour to rival the appeal of the Six Nations.

What should have been a gargantuan contest between the top-ranked sides in England and South Africa turned into little more than a training run for the Saints in the second half, turning viewers off a prime-time Saturday night broadcasting slot at a time when EPCR are in negotiations with English broadcasters over a new television deal.

It also brought the integration of the South African sides into the European competition under scrutiny, given the logistical challenges of flying 6,000-odd miles between fixtures just seven days apart, as well as a perception of their lack of commitment to it.

While Raynaud insists that perception (of  South African disinterest) is misplaced, he is undertaking a “fact-finding” mission to understand the Bulls’ decision to send a second-string side to Northampton, and a range of options may be available to him depending on the outcome, including a potential fine.

“It was one element out of a superb weekend,” insists Raynaud, “and we have addressed it with SA Rugby and Edgar Rathbone, the Bulls CEO.

“We also know that beyond looking at the specifics to work on including South Africa, which is only their second season, we need to conquer the hearts and minds of the fans.”

Jacques Raynaud
Jacques Raynaud moved into the rugby world after working in sports media rights - Getty Images/Richard Heathcote

Which brings the conversation around to the competition’s format. On the positive side, the Champions Cup has made significant strides in regaining the sheen that was lost through multiple changes, aggravated by the pandemic.

But what is clear is that the logistical challenge of playing the round of 16 and the quarter-finals in successive weekends with fixtures in two hemispheres sandwiched between domestic league schedules is not sustainable.

EPCR, since it replaced the former governing body ERC in 2014, has faced a Gordian knot challenge of running the elite European competitions while requiring agreement across three leagues (and unions and club owners) and at a time when global calendar negotiations were taking priority, as well as reducing the Champions Cup from nine to eight weekends in the season.

Short-term solutions are already being pored over. There will be an end-of-season review of the competitions and if agreement can be reached, it may be possible to build in more of a gap between the round of 16 and the quarter-finals, with some pushing for a return to the traditional October start. That would reduce the opportunity for teams to prepare with full-strength sides but would give the clubs more time to market the showpiece knockout rounds and sell more tickets and hospitality packages.

Perhaps more significantly, it is also understood that there is a rekindling of support from some stakeholders to transform the Champions Cup into a more elite tournament by reducing the number of participating clubs from 24 to 18.

With eight of the 10 Premiership clubs currently qualifying for the Champions Cup, it can hardly be described as ‘elite’ and the current format also removes a large element of qualifying jeopardy from the domestic leagues.

‘The return-to-pools format has worked’

An 18-club competition would involve three pools of six, with each club playing each other once except for those clubs who are from the same domestic league – with the three pool winners and the best-placed runner-up then automatically qualifying for the quarter-finals, with the next eight best-ranked clubs facing each other in a knock-out round to make the last eight.

The automatic qualifiers will have the advantage of earning a weekend off – with compensation for the clubs for missing out on a home match during the ‘barrage’ round – and would also earn more time to sell tickets and market their home quarter-final and ease the travel burden on the South African franchises, if they have qualified.

It was a plan that was mothballed last year because of a lack of agreement on the number of clubs each league would provide. Whether it can gain enough support to become a reality now is not yet clear and at present Raynaud insisted there is no proposal on the table.

“The return-to-pools format has worked this season. We have had increased sporting jeopardy, increased engagement and increased audiences. We are not looking to change this,” Raynaud said.

“Of course, there is a desire to ensure the Investec Champions Cup is ‘premiumised’ because the truth is that the more premium a competition becomes, the more attention it gets. We are taking a holistic view, and will continue discussing how the competition evolves – but we are not looking to change the format in the near future.”


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