Rob Vickerman – Debating the future of rugby union’s Championship

Gary Hetherington, right, watches on from an empty stand as Yorkshire Carnegie played Hartpury College in the Championship in April. (Picture: Tony Johnson)
Gary Hetherington, right, watches on from an empty stand as Yorkshire Carnegie played Hartpury College in the Championship in April. (Picture: Tony Johnson)
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WHILE the Champagne bottles are still being popped after the Premiership final, those emotions are the polar opposite at the other end of the table.

READ MORE - Yorkshire Carnegie in critical condition

Rob Vickerman

Rob Vickerman

Added to this for the relevance of the Yorkshire readership, Yorkshire Carnegie recently announced that they are going to be a part-time playing group as of next season, if indeed they continue to proceed as a club, as they cannot find sufficient funding.

This is very sad news for players, staff and supporters – as well as the whole (impressive) rugby county of Yorkshire.

It seems a painful thought to start debating another issue that divides the public, however, take solace as this time it is just aimed at the rugby public.

Amidst the recent political shenanigans, there is another debate that has been ongoing for some time, and being part of the noise myself as a broadcaster I wanted to delve into the professional and personal aspects surrounding my thoughts and analysis of promotion and relegation; to ring-fence or not.

From a Championship stance, it is very difficult to acquire sponsorship without the results, but the results won’t happen, or be sustained, without investment. It is a worrying time for the Championship; its teams, players and supporters.

Rob Vickerman

The debate is as timely as ever, as never before has the Premiership been so competitive. It is also slightly soured by seeing one of my former clubs Newcastle be relegated, meaning the rugby fans of Yorkshire will have to travel to Sale or Leicester to watch Premiership rugby with absolutely no representation in the rugby stronghold of the North-East.

So let the debate commence.

Anti ring-fencing

Many often cite an argument of the romance, gripping conflict and fight for every game which having relegation brings.

Saracens' George Kruis (left) and Maro Itoje celebrate with the trophy after winning the Gallagher Premiership Final at Twickenham. Picture: Darren Staples/PA

Saracens' George Kruis (left) and Maro Itoje celebrate with the trophy after winning the Gallagher Premiership Final at Twickenham. Picture: Darren Staples/PA

There is some wonderful drama, column inches and pundit debates that always spark an interest – and I absolutely understand that.

However, when Newcastle’s fate was confirmed, the attention moved very quickly to the European qualification route (top six) and how any one of the middle five teams could push for a play-off spot (top four).

Cue the romance, gripping conflict and drama; without the feeling of desperation, having to move families and in rugby terms, a general drop off of a willingness to play with any type of risk, flair or endeavor.

Pro ring-fencing

Bucking the trend: They may have lost to Saracens in the Premiership final but Exeter Chiefs fans, greeting the coach at Twickenham, have seen their club rise from obscurity to challenge the best.

Bucking the trend: They may have lost to Saracens in the Premiership final but Exeter Chiefs fans, greeting the coach at Twickenham, have seen their club rise from obscurity to challenge the best.

Don’t take the P – that’s P for Premiership shares. On promotion to the league a club is given B shares and then five A shares for every year they are in the league, up to a maximum of 40.

A team receives all 40 A shares when they have been in the league for six successive seasons. However, each season a side is out of the Premiership they lose five A shares.

This in itself suggests that there isn’t an even playing field beyond the 13 teams –as Championship clubs receive £550,000 in RFU central funding per season, ring-fenced until the summer of 2020.

This does not include the parachute payment for the relegated team, last year said to be £2m. The irony is that London Irish, as full P share holders, actually received more money than any other Premiership club, with both the P/B share money AND the £550,000 from the Championship.

Staggering.

As an example of buying-in quality, Yorkshire Carnegie won just one out of nine games at the beginning of the season before recruiting five players to boost the squad and they subsequently turned their season around.

How this may continue is one to discuss as players will rightly be seeking clarity on their future.

Rags to riches

“But we will never have another Exeter”. This is a common argument, and rightly praises the incredible effort of Exeter Chiefs going from promotion in 2009 to being the Premiership champions in 2016/17.

However, from 2009 through to 2012 the salary cap was £4m compared to it now being £7m, excluding two nominated players (so add roughly another £800,000).

Exeter had a wonderful academy that has come to fruition, along with some frugal signings and excellent coaching/development – their model was remarkable, but cannot be replicated as the barriers of entry into the Premiership are substantially different to what they were a decade ago.

Championship instability

London Welsh, one of the oldest clubs in the country, infamously folded citing financial issues of a £1.7m playing budget and crowds as low as 400.

Nigel Melville, now interim chief executive of the RFU, claimed in 2017 that: “Nobody has quite worked out what the purpose of the Championship is,” which I have to agree with, and that is still the case.

The Championship is a mix of a semi-professional league, a stepping-stone for upcoming players, for those unwanted by Premiership clubs and those wanting to transition to working life as well as still holding onto a playing career.

The four examples of commercially viable sporting competitions that Premiership Rugby cite as models for the salary cap are NHL, NFL, NRL and ARL, none of which have a relegation – and none of which suffer from the perception of “meaningless games,” as they continue to draw in some of the highest average attendances.

For those that cite football’s relegation system, the Premier League is one of the leagues that does not have a salary cap – hence the disparity from top-placed Manchester City’s playing squad (estimated £1bn) to bottom Huddersfield Town (estimated £62m).

And since Bedford in 2000, the only club to be relegated from the Premiership and not return was London Welsh, who went bust a year after demotion in 2015.

Ten of the last 13 relegated clubs have bounced back at the first attempt, and that was in an overall weaker Premiership.

So put simply, what is the point of a one-season punishment?

In summary

The aforementioned drama is palpable, but would that be the overriding argument for NOT ring-fencing given the above arguments?

The stories of success at the top of the table will get the headlines, and would let teams beneath that plan rejig and build toward the next campaign. The lure of qualification for Europe as well as top-four play-offs would motivate the majority of teams and supporters. From a Championship stance, it is very difficult to acquire sponsorship without the results, but the results won’t happen, or be sustained, without investment.

It is a worrying time for the Championship; its teams, players and supporters.

Leeds is a city that has a strong financial district. Yorkshire, as a wider rugby county, is one of the hotbeds of the game.

So if Yorkshire Carnegie cannot sustain professional life in the Championship, what hope is there for the league?