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Premiership Rugby

Candid RFU’s reasons for relegation stance

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Baron's controversial decision comes after a protracted battle between Premiership rugby chiefs, who wanted a play-off system, and First Division bosses, who wanted automatic promotion to the English game's top-flight.

But in summing up his many reasons for voting to keep automatic promotion, Baron said: "It must be remembered that even at the professional level, rugby is a sport first and a business second.

"If we do not get the rugby decisions right there is no basis for sound businesses. The RFU has, I believe, a duty to make sure that the ethos and values of rugby union are maintained and that the right rugby decisions are indeed taken. By doing this the RFU can create the right environment for the business of professional rugby to grow and flourish.

"It is, however, not the role of the RFU to provide for 'investor protection' in the sport or provide a safety net for badly run clubs and businesses at any level of the game.

"The RFU wishes to encourage investment in the sport at all levels. As in any industry there has to be a mechanism to allow new entrants bringing new ideas, resources and talent. Equally as in any industry there will be failures and the system has to be able to provide the right exit route for non-performers."

This season saw the Zurich Premiership's bottom side Bristol relegated, while National Division One winners Rotherham were given promotion.

"It is pertinent to note that of the 12 clubs currently in the Premiership, seven have achieved that status through the process of promotion and relegation," said Baron in a lengthy and detailed statement, containing a vast number of reasons for his decision.

He however signalled that the 'one up, one down' system might not be in the best long-term interests of the game, saying: "Having said that, I do not believe that either of the two options available to the panel [play-offs or automatic relegation] provides the best way forward for either PRL or FDR.

"A draft 10-year Strategic Plan for England Rugby has recently been produced and this contains a full analysis from a playing and financial point of view of other options which could provide a better platform on which to develop PRL, FDR and the game in England generally. I believe both PRL and FDR are prepared to participate in such discussions."

Baron was unconvinced that the creation of a play-off system would be beneficial to anyone other than the Premiership clubs, Premier Rugby stating that this was not the case, while FDR argued that a 'losing doesn't matter' attitude may set in if a highly-competitive environment is not maintained.

On the implications for the England team, Baron said: "It is my assessment that the case that England teams would benefit from a play-off solution has not been proven.

"I do accept that an automatic promotion and relegation arrangement may require amendments to our academy policies, but this should be achievable as the academies are regionally allocated. We are currently considering this issue in any event following Bristol's relegation and Rotherham's promotion."

Premier Rugby argued that investment in top clubs would be affected if the threat of automatic relegation was maintained, while FDR pointed out that investment in ambitious clubs such as Worcester, Orrell, Exeter and Coventry needed to be nurtured.

Baron said on this: "My assessment is that investment is essential at all levels of the game if we are to achieve the RFU's objectives for the development of the sport. Investment requirements at PRL level are obviously more significant due to the need to increase stadia capacities and improve facilities, but investment also needs to be encouraged at levels below PRL.

"Over the last two to three years significant stadium development plans have been completed at Newcastle and Northampton. Sale has recently acquired Stockport County and Harlequins, Gloucester and Bath all have advanced development plans for their stadia. I am not aware of any of these plans being dependent on a change to a play-off solution and no evidence has been provided that the raising of finance would become 'virtually impossible'.

"In terms of financial stability of PRL clubs, a review recently completed by England Rugby of the financial accounts of PRL clubs shows a significant improvement in the financial position of PRL clubs collectively with a sharp reduction in the level of losses over the last three years. Moreover, four PRL clubs now expect to be in the black in this financial year."

A worry with automatic relegation is that a 'yo-yo effect' may be created where the team relegated from the Premiership is vastly superior to the rest of the First Division teams, an argument given some credence by Rotherham's dominance of the First Division over the last two years following their relegation in 2001.

Baron said on this possibility: "My assessment is that there is a material risk that a 'yo-yo' situation could develop which would not be beneficial to FDR clubs in the longer term. A more appropriate promotion mechanism may be for the promoted club to be given two seasons to find their feet in the Premiership – as happened with Leeds – before being subject to relegation but this was not part of the Panel's remit.

"FDR have said that they accept this risk and I do not see it as the RFU's role to gainsay that position. As far as PRL is concerned I have some difficulty in seeing how the Premiership would be materially affected by the 'yo-yo' effect themselves. Indeed some of the smaller Premiership clubs may see automatic promotion and relegation as being helpful to them in the event of their relegation as, with the support of the parachute and shareholder payments, they should be able to bounce back immediately.

"My overall view is, therefore, that the 'yo-yo' effect could well happen and this may well not be beneficial to FDR clubs. However, no evidence has been adduced that any material damage would be inflicted on PRL clubs or the game generally."

On the theme of general growth in the game, Baron added: "My assessment is that a move to a play-off solution of itself would not encourage growth in the game generally. I think the balance of probabilities lies with the maintenance of automatic promotion and relegation as more likely to generate interest, participation and growth in the game.

"It is a key objective of the RFU Strategic Plan to return the game to a growing sport in terms of the numbers of clubs, teams and participants. The market research data in the Strategic Plan also shows that participants in community rugby clubs are one of the main sources of spectators for PRL clubs. PRL clubs need a thriving and growing Community clubs base for its own commercial success."

Premier Rugby contended that moving to a play-off system would generate more TV revenue, while FDR disagreed, Baron stating: "My assessment is that a play-off under the current arrangements is unlikely to be competitive and, as a result, would be commercially less valuable than matches between clubs in the relegation zone.

"I have analysed the gates achieved for rounds 18-22 between clubs in the relegation zone at the end of the 2002/03 season and this analysis shows that gates at these matches were 20.7 percent greater than the gates that the relevant clubs achieved in rounds 1-17 of the Premiership.

"This seems to imply that spectators find the drama of relegation games more appealing. Moreover the TV interest in the end of the 2002/03 season was substantial and of significant value. Overall, therefore, I do not believe that a play-off solution would improve commercial values compared to the continuation of automatic promotion and relegation."

In summing up, Baron said: "My overall conclusion, therefore, is that whilst I can see that there would be benefits to PRL and its clubs from moving to a play-off solution, I believe these are offset by negative effects elsewhere.

"I believe it has to be a cardinal point in making a change from the established position on promotion and relegation that the game overall secures a net benefit. I do not believe that this case has been made out. It is therefore my view that the promotion and relegation arrangements between PRL and FDR should remain as one automatic promotion and relegation place."

By Mark Smith

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