Here is a quick quiz question: name the sport rivalling the Premier League and the Grand National for popularity in the UK this weekend? The answer is Premiership rugby union, with as many as 125,000 people set to attend games at Wembley and Twickenham. The “What time can you get here?” gags have gone the way of jockstraps, duckboards and half-time oranges.
These are not finals either, but regular league fixtures, albeit jazzed-up editions. While Bath and Saracens are hardly Manchester United and Arsenal, there is a hunger – or should that be a thirst? – for watching English club rugby union that did not exist 20 years ago. Premiership crowds have doubled since 2000 and live TV audiences are up 50% since 2010-11. As Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, says: “The appetite is definitely there. I can’t see why, even if we only get most decisions right, it won’t keep increasing. It feels like there’s another phase of growth coming.”
Maybe, although this weekend’s record aggregate involves an element of cock-up: scheduling two competing London rugby occasions up against the world’s greatest steeplechase with engineering works disrupting trains from Bath Spa takes some doing. Saracens’ likely 70,000 crowd against Harlequins at Wembley will be 10,000 fewer than last season’s equivalent audience, partly because of a clash with “The Clash” between Bath and Leicester at Twickenham where 55,000 are expected. Not all the extra bums on seats will be shiny new ones.
All of which reflects rugby’s current blurred vision. Does it aspire to be a sport for the masses or to retain a certain boutique-hotel charm? Should it fill every spare calendar space or pay more heed to player welfare? Even Premiership Rugby’s own research suggests casual fans find the season’s flow hard to follow and struggle with the laws. Professional rugby union turned 21 last year but, in some ways, it is barely out of nappies.
Listen, for example, to Mark Evans, who pioneered the “Big Game” concept as Harlequins’ chief executive. Evans is now a sought-after consultant – he helped with Newcastle’s successful bid to stage the 2019 European finals – and reckons parts of the club game are creaking: “I don’t think everything in the garden is rosy. There are some good things happening but I just worry you can get skewed by looking at parts of England and parts of France. It’s a very mixed picture. If you strip out owner support in the form of sponsorship, I think every single Premiership club will make a loss this year. People will say it’s still early days for professional rugby but it’s been over 20 years.”
It could be incredibly positive for the game or wreck the whole model. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out
McCafferty does not dispute these are crucial days but, unsurprisingly, his glasses have a rosier tint. Never mind that players and coaches are in open revolt over Premiership Rugby’s desire to extend the domestic campaign from early September to late June to reduce overlaps with Test weekends. Nor does he agree with those neighbouring unions refusing to condense the Six Nations to six weeks: “I struggle with the consistency of people saying: ‘We can’t take a week out of the Six Nations’ when they’re quite happy to drop in a fourth November international. I just feel people aren’t seeing beneath a few sensationalist headlines. At the moment we’ve got a season structure that is basically set up for the international players. But they’re only 5-10% of the playing base. I think the sport is moving towards a much greater degree of individual player management.”
No worries, then, if the off-season becomes slimmer than a wafer-thin mint. Or if the coming decade proves as commercially turbulent as Evans fears: “I have my concerns about international rugby. If you look at the South African economy, the Australian competitive landscape and the size of New Zealand, I don’t think you can be very sanguine. I also worry about the Pro12 and English rugby’s second tier is in complete and utter chaos. I think we should be grown up and recognise the game isn’t big enough to support a professional second tier. That’s really unpopular but they’re having the same debate in rugby league.”
A weekend of bumper holiday crowds, in short, is no instant panacea. “I think it can raise a sport’s profile but you’ve got to be careful about expecting thousands of people to undergo a Damascene conversion,” warns Evans, flagging up other issues ranging from Brexit uncertainty to the shortage of major matches in the north. “We have no marquee games in a region with 25% of the population. That doesn’t seem to make sense. The growth in women’s rugby is fantastic but I doubt very much if it will become a mass spectator sport. And what will happen with media rights? Where is all that going? It could be incredibly positive for the game or wreck the whole model. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out.”
It is Evans’s opinion, furthermore, that “some consolidation” of competitions is ultimately likely: “Whether that will be a British league if the Pro12 collapses in or whether it’s two European conferences, the economics will drive it in the long-term. The smaller markets globally will struggle.” McCafferty, though, still envisages 12 Premiership clubs a decade from now. “People forget that if you go up in number you end up putting more Premiership fixtures into international periods. You’re devaluing the product rather than improving it. Why would you do that?”
Of more relevance, he feels, is the need to balance the players’ long-term health with the sport’s growing intensity – “I accept those two things are very much linked” – and protect “at all costs” rugby’s culture of respect towards match officials: “We can’t just let it be words, it’s got to be actions. Sometimes those actions may need to be tough to make sure it doesn’t slip away from us.”
Tick those essential boxes and, in McCafferty’s view, the future is bright: “I think it’s quite possible we can get some daylight between us and Championship football over the next 10 years. It’s hard to see we’ll get to where Premier League football is but we are in the process of internationalising. Within a few years our regular TV audiences around the world will probably exceed our UK audiences.” Goodbye West Hartlepool, hello Miami Beach? McCafferty does not see why not: “It would be nice occasionally to get a bit of respect for what we have built and what we are capable of developing. There certainly feels like there’s still a long way to go.”