World Rugby is considering a radical proposal to establish European sevens franchises based on the Indian Premier League Twenty20 model.
Under the plan, launched by leading sports marketing agency IMG, franchises would be set up in six major European cities, including two within the United Kingdom and one in Ireland, for a tournament that would take place in August. Players, including Team GB Olympic silver medal winners as well as select XVs stars, would be put forward in a draft that would mirror the IPL auction system.
IMG had hoped to get sign-off for the project from World Rugby three weeks ago, but in light of controversies surrounding extended seasons and player burnout, rugby’s governing body have deferred the decision until the next meeting of their executive committee. World Rugby has confirmed it is looking to shake-up the sevens calendar, which largely revolves around the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, and there are a number of different proposals on the table.
However, IMG’s plan is the most ambitious and intriguing, not least because the company was heavily involved in the establishment of the IPL which has grown from a far-fetched idea into a money-spinning behemoth that, for better or worse, has changed the face of cricket.
IMG view sevens as a similar untapped market and crucially have deep enough pockets to commit to the project in the long term. In 2014, the company was purchased by William Morris Endeavour for $2.4 billion (about £1.8 billion). It was also recently appointed by World Rugby to manage its global licensing and merchandising rights for tournaments such as the men’s and women’s World Cups until the end of 2023.
There is no doubt that it would be a game-changer for a sport that has struggled to build upon the success of being included in the Rio Olympics. IMG’s proposal would complement rather than rival the World Series, which is contested by 16 countries over ten legs and runs from December through to June.
Outside that window, many sevens players feel underemployed and a marquee event would not only increase their profile but for players from poorer nations, it could be a chance to double their earnings. The USA players, for example, are paid around £18,000 a year. The crossover of coaching and playing resources would also hugely benefit the less-established nations.
There are still considerable challenges to getting the idea off the ground, not least whether World Rugby can be persuaded to incorporate another tournament into an already crowded calendar. This leads into the issue of securing player release from unions and clubs. Premiership Rugby, which runs its own sevens tournament during the summer, are likely to be stubborn opponents.
Then there is the $64,000 question of whether IMG could attract the crowds necessary to make the concept financially viable. Although it can point to its success in running the IPL, cricket was already established as India’s national religion. Whether it can draw a similar number of converts in an already ferociously competitive European sporting marketplace is unclear.
Yet both the ambition and resources are there and according to Mike Friday, the former England and current USA sevens coach, it could be exactly what the sevens game needs right now. “It is massively viable,” Friday said. “It sounds really exciting. You would need money behind it and there are a few barriers you will have to overcome, but if you get it right there then other geographies will follow. From a players and coaches’ perspective, it would be happy days. The challenge would be getting the buy-in from the unions and clubs.
“We need something to change. At the moment, the sevens goldfish bowl could be a lot, lot bigger. They need to find ways to innovate to attract the commercial dollar. We have to create theatre. There needs to be a change of mentality. This could be the first step to doing that and potentially exporting that model to North America and Asia unlocking the huge markets there.”
IMG will get a further opportunity to present its vision to World Rugby at the next meeting of the executive committee. A World Rugby spokesman said: “World Rugby is committed to ensuring the growth and success of the sport in all its forms and continually explores opportunities that have the potential to further the growth, competitiveness, profile and commercial standing of rugby sevens for the betterment of the game.”