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Special Report: Pitfalls and potential of professionalism in Premiership Women’s Rugby

Mia Venner and Maud Muir wiht the PWR trophy
Gloucester-Hartpury's Mia Venner and Maud Muir with the Premiership Women's Rugby trophy - Pat Elmont/Getty Images

The phone signal is patchy but Dave Ward’s pragmaticism cuts through almost perfectly. “We’d love to play all of our games at Ashton Gate,” says the Bristol Bears Women’s head coach, “but financially, it doesn’t make sense. We lost money on the games there this season.”

It might be a bleak outlook, but as the curtain draws on another Premiership Women’s Rugby season there is cause for optimism. Bristol lost to Gloucester-Hartpury in their first PWR final on Saturday at Sandy Park and while silverware is the ultimate marker of a successful season, the former Harlequins hooker is happy to point out the other small wins.

This season, Bristol have started turning a modest profit at their home ground, Shaftesbury Park. The club has been renting the 200-seater stadium in Frenchay, north of the city centre, from National League Two men’s side Dings Crusaders for the past five years. “It’s a small amount, but it’s a step in the direction,” says Ward. “It’s a real battle, but we’re up for the fight.”

Dave Ward oversees Bristol's warm-up
Dave Ward oversees Bristol's warm-up ahead of the PWR final - Harry Trump/Getty Images

If navigating the cash-strapped ecosystem of domestic women’s rugby is an unenviable task, balancing the books is nigh on impossible. This season kicked off with a welcome rebrand and a new broadcast deal with TNT Sports under chief executive Belinda Moore, who oversaw the league’s eye-catching “Powered Differently” campaign. While the mini makeover was well received, it has not masked the growing pains of professionalism that are being felt across the league.

‘It risks the rich getting richer’

On the pitch, the gulf between the best and the rest is widening. A club insider from one of the league’s so-called ‘Big Four’ of Gloucester-Hartpury, Saracens, Bristol and Exeter Chiefs, claimed a “bidding war” has opened up among England internationals.

Another well-placed club source told Telegraph Sport they had received requests from some Red Roses of up to £25,000 for a club contract (on top of their existing salaries with the Rugby Football Union, worth up to £47,250 this year). In a league where clubs are governed by a £190,000 salary cap (it will rise to £220,000 next season), there are many who question whether generously paying marquee players is sustainable.

“Some figures that I was privy to being offered certainly last season were significantly more than we’d even contemplate,” says one club coach. “You’re talking 15 to 20 per cent of your salary cap on one player. That’s not a great model for the development of the entire league, especially when there are players who are already supported by central contracts. It risks the rich getting richer.”

Most clubs no longer pay players match fees, the low value of which means they are no longer compatible with employment law. Telegraph Sport, however, has learnt of at least one PWR club that have been paying periphery squad members £50 a game this season. The same club offered an England player a £13,000 salary, £9,000 worth of university fees and free accommodation (the latter does not sit inside the salary cap).

“England players want more,” says another coach. “The gap between your everyday players and the top players is getting bigger and you get angst in your squad. I try to make my decisions based on their lives and what they earn and what their situation is, but it’s really stressful.”

Agents are reluctant to get involved in contract discussions at club level, preferring to take a lead on commercial deals and agreements. “The game just isn’t at a stage yet where we can have any direct influence,” says one. “The drop off from the girls who’ve signed new Red Roses contracts to what players are picking up domestically is chalk and cheese.”

Alex Austerberry, the Saracens director of rugby, believes more needs to be done to support semi-professional players hanging off the coattails of internationals who are being paid liveable salaries.

“The league has to grow organically so it doesn’t bankrupt itself,” says Austerberry. “It’s a tough time for rugby at the moment – we can’t live beyond our means. What does that look like for scholarships? What does that look like for accommodation that’s linked to academic choice?”

‘It’s finding things that move the needle’

If the professional salaries are not yet there, the infrastructure is. Most clubs have embraced the move to men’s Premiership stadia, with Loughborough Lightning’s partnership with Northampton Saints meaning they played all their home matches at Franklin’s Gardens this season. The alliance has sparked a groundswell of support for the women’s team: a few seasons ago they averaged meagre crowds of around 150 at their university campus. This term, they have averaged around 1,000.

Jenny Maxwell signs autographs
Loughborough Lightning's Jenny Maxwell signs autographs at Franklin's Gardens - Paul Harding/Getty Images

Mark Darbon, the Northampton Saints chief executive, hails the investment model a “match made in heaven” because of how the financial burden is spread. Saints provide Lightning with a cash offering and a match-day facility, while Lightning contract the players and staff. Darbon insists the club are not a million miles away from breaking even because of their relatively low operation costs (Saints, unlike some other clubs, own their stadium).

Foregoing the popular ‘one club’ mentality that clubs routinely preach, Lightning raised eyebrows earlier this season when they donned Saints’ black, green and gold strip but maintained their distinctively purple crest. A replica kit is not yet available to buy – partly because the two clubs have different kit manufacturers – but Saints are already reaping rewards from a merchandising standpoint.

“A lot of the stuff that we sell is co-branded,” says Darbon. “I’m not a big fan of these half-and-half scarves that you’ll see in football but we sell a lot of half-Loughborough, half-Saints scarves. We love that, because that’s the adoption of our joint women’s team from our existing fanbase. We’re trying to find the things that move the needle.”

What would he say to those who accuse men’s rugby clubs of haemorrhaging money to support the women’s game? “I’d say, come and watch,” says Darbon. “On the field in the elite women’s game we’re seeing some fantastic rugby. The feedback we get consistently from people who come is that they really enjoy it. They’re pleasantly surprised by the quality of the games.”

‘My remit is to grow sustainably’

Similar initiatives to engage rugby communities have been in full flow at Gloucester-Hartpury in a bid to drive up revenue streams to help offset costs. The club has sold more than 500 of their alternate ‘Pink Circus’ shirt this season, generating in the region of £30,000. Plans are already in motion for the team to launch their own clothing range next season.

Hannah Jones in action for Gloucester-Hartpury
Hannah Jones in the pink Gloucester-Hartpury kit that has proved popular with fans - Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images

“One of my remits is that we grow sustainably,” says James Forrester, the Gloucester-Hartpury chief executive who spent nine years as a back row for the Cherry and Whites. “Winning helps, but we’ve seen really big growth throughout the sponsorships and have seen some big local firms getting really excited about the team and wanting to support the team.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvements very quickly but we want to do it in a sustainable way. Some of these players have an amazing opportunity to compete in a home World Cup [next year] and be selected for the Lions tour a couple of years later, so it’s a really exciting time.”

The numbers are there to back it up. PWR’s YouTube channel has had 5.2 million impressions this season (up from 810,000 last year) while its number of ‘watch hours’ on the platform have skyrocketed from 2,000 last season to nearly 80,000 this year. The hope is that the BBC’s coverage of next year’s home World Cup can be the catalyst the sport needs to cross into the mainstream.

“Collectively, as a sport, we have to grow the audience for women’s rugby, otherwise none of this stuff matters,” says Darbon. “It doesn’t matter if our team is called Loughborough Lightning or Saints. It doesn’t matter how good a campaign we’ve got about the athletes is. We’ve got to grow the audience. That’s what drives everything.”