RFU unveils plan for Premier 15s to turn professional with £220m investment

·4-min read
Marlie Packer of Saracens celebrates winning this year's Premier 15s final - GETTY IMAGES
Marlie Packer of Saracens celebrates winning this year's Premier 15s final - GETTY IMAGES

The Rugby Football Union has outlined ambitious plans to professionalise the Premier 15s within the next 10 years as part of a new strategy which will involve a formal “partnership” with Premiership Rugby clubs.

In the biggest shake-up of English rugby’s women’s top flight since it launched in 2017, £220 million will be invested into the Premier 15s over the next decade, with the aim of securing a free-to-air broadcast deal within that time frame.

A key element of the new strategy will see the Premier 15s to become a new limited company, owned by the RFU and participating clubs, and headed up by an independent chief executive to oversee the running of the league from the 2023-24 season.

At present, eight clubs in the Gallagher Premiership have representation in the Premier 15s, although that number is expected to increase under plans to expand the 10-team league “in a timely and sustainable way” by 2033. Leicester, London Irish and Bath are all preparing applications to enter the women’s premiership from the 2023-24 season.

A new salary cap, as well as a phased increase in player salaries and higher standards of officiating, along with a drive to increase the numbers of coaching staff and improve medical cover, are among a flurry of key changes designed to achieve an enhanced performance environment. All league fixtures will be played in stadiums and there will be an increased marketing activity to drive attendances and improve fans’ matchday experience.

The proposals have been devised by a Premier 15s working group which includes a number of key names within English club rugby, including Lucy Wray, the Saracens’ chief executive, Premiership Rugby chief executive Simon Massie-Taylor, and Sue Day, the RFU’s chief operating officer.

“This generation of players are all part of something very special, a massive turning point for the women’s game where people sit up and take notice,” said Wray. “Incredible role models for a future generation and they are paving the way for a seismic shift in the journey towards professionalism. The league being operated as an independent entity with dedicated resource is a massive step forward in giving the women’s club game the attention it deserves.”

Massie-Taylor described the 10-year vision as a “really important step for club rugby” and backed the plans to make the Premier 15s the most competitive and progressive women’s competition in the world. “We believe the best solution for women’s rugby is a partnership between the participating clubs and the RFU,” he said.

RFU serious about professionalisation but lack of detail is disconcerting

This is the first time that the RFU has publicly underlined its intention to professionalise the Premier 15s. To call it ambitious is an understatement. The lack of concrete detail about how such objectives will be achieved, however, feels vaguely familiar.

There are no hard and fast deadlines as to when fully fledged professionalism will happen, nor how the RFU intends to raise £174m in revenues over the next 10 years. What we do know is that the union will invest around £50m from its own pocket, while clubs stump up the rest of the £222m sum.

Clubs in the Gallagher Premiership will become more closely aligned with the Premier 15s - although Premiership Rugby won’t be directly investing in the league itself, nor will it act as a stakeholder. Details of what this special “partnership” will involve, in fact, remain quite grey. “I better explain why I’m here,” Massie-Taylor quipped with reporters at a briefing about the 10-year vision for the Premier 15s on Thursday.

There was one important detail that Massie-Taylor - who took a keen interest in the women’s game in his previous role as chief commercial and marketing officer at the RFU - did clarify, though. “This is not a copy and paste of the Premiership,” he said of the Premier 15s. “When you look at the numbers and you’re trying to grow something, less is more when it comes to growing leagues. Whether it’s eight [teams], or whether it’s ten - the optimum size is still being worked out. By definition, you’re going to have some Premiership clubs that aren’t going to have a women’s team competing in the Allianz Premier 15s.”

What is clear is that the RFU is serious about professionalising the league. They have been working with Portus Consulting, the strategic agency that football’s Women’s Super League also employed ahead of turning professional in 2018. Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the women’s professional game, also initially sat on the Premier 15s working group as an independent. It certainly underlines the RFU’s ambition to play catch-up with the explosion of women’s football, but whether it will achieve the same seismic growth over the next decade remains to be seen.

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